By Susan K. O’Brien
Have you looked at your deck lately? Summer is the season of heavy deck use, and all condo owners should be aware of hazards.
Often we take for granted that our decks are safe. But continual assessment is the key to avoiding injury and serious problems, according to Jason Poremba, a firefighter who writes for FireRescue1.com. He points out that sometimes decks are constructed without the owner realizing the need for a permit; some decks are otherwise constructed illegally, without regard to safety regulations.
“In an effort to save money, some builders are pushing the limits of spans on deck joists. Often architects will specify specific framing anchors in drawings, but builders or clients will make their own judgment on site. This is not to say some architects are under-sizing framing members and anchors as well,” he asserted in a Sept. 29, 2009 article on the web site. “The problem with poorly built decks is that they often are overlooked and not so obvious to find. Most often they are failing before they are determined to be unsafe.”
Problems of collapsing decks for firefighters seem obvious, but dangers to residents are less so. A recent HGTV “Holmes on Homes” documented the case of a Canadian woman who fell through her deck during the structural collapse. Many months later, she was still recovering from her injuries. This might have been prevented had she taken some simple steps to evaluate her aged deck.
You don’t have to be an architect or a Holmes to note basic problems. Think about the maximum number of people you’re going to have on your deck this summer. That clarifies the need to answer the following questions:
Is the deck sagging at any point? Does it bounce when you walk on it? Look around your deck by standing on it, and by walking around it and inspecting it underneath.
Have you replaced old deck boards with new ones? This can lead to problems, particularly if it was a do-it-yourself project. If you notice boards that don’t meet properly, are rising, or are old rotting boards next to new, obtain the services of a qualified deck builder to check for safety and revise any issues.
How old is your deck? Are the legs spindly and thus possibly too thin to carry the load? It may be time to revamp, or to tear down the old deck and build a new one.
How wide are the spaces between the deck posts? Could a child fall through or otherwise be injured? This is particularly important with high-rising decks.
If the deck is new, did the builder use enough nails to secure the boards? According to Poremba, some builders skimp and use only half the number of nails they should.
The safety of materials used to maintain a deck also raises issues. I wondered about this when my condo association annually brought a worker in to “treat” the deck. First, the decks were power-washed, and then a thick sealant was rolled on. For days afterward a heavy chemical smell lingered in the air.
Although the deck treatment itself apparently didn’t cause harm, I was right to be concerned, particularly about the power washing. Decks built before 2005 may contain arsenic (chromated copper arsenate, CCA), according to Dr. Gary Ginsberg, book author of “What’s Toxic, What’s Not.” Arsenic has contributed to serious health problems, since it can be easily absorbed into the skin of anyone touching it, particularly children playing on decks. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, dizziness, burning eyes and throat, and even speech impairments; victims may also develop a rash, and/or sensations of numbness in hands and feet.
A case study in the March, 2007 Good Housekeeping magazine reported one family’s nightmare with arsenic poisoning from their deck. The young daughter even developed a “series of frightening seizures.” Worse yet, because the skin of a child is thinner than an adult’s and absorbs higher levels, chronic exposure to arsenic—even in low doses—can significantly increase a child’s risk for bladder, lung, or skin cancer, the article reported.
On his web site, “Greener Living with Dr. G,” Ginsberg advises these steps for pre-2005 decks:
1. Coat pressure-treated wood structures every year in the spring with sealant. It appears that oil-based deck stains work as well as any in keeping the arsenic in check.
2. Do not sand, power wash, or cut pre-2005 pressure-treated wood in your yard. This may release arsenic and spread it around your yard.
3. Assume the soil under the deck or playscape is contaminated too. So do not let children or pets get into this area. For playscapes, cover the contaminated soil with a layer of sand or wood mulch/chips to prevent contact with arsenic in the soil.
4. Consider replacing an aging deck or playscape with one using modern wood products. They will be free from arsenic. Bring the old pressure-treated wood boards to your town’s landfill. Do not burn them yourself.
Every condominium association treating decks should inform owners what is in deck treatment and the date it will be applied, so that adults, children and pets can avoid exposure to potential toxics. You may also wish to ask your association to place deck dangers on the agenda for the next meeting, to review and discuss the age, condition, and appropriate remedies for all the decks in your complex.
If you’re buying a condo with a deck, make sure the inspector looks not only at your deck, but also at others. If he finds issues, determine ahead of time what the association will do about it, how much it will cost, and whether or not a special assessment will be needed to pay for repairs or new construction.
For more articles, go to epa.gov and type in “Deck Dangers.”
Susan O’Brien has owned four condominiums, currently two in Canada. Write to her at email@example.com. All communication is confidential.