Last Updated: February 10, 2017
Railings can be beautiful, stylish, and convenient, but don’t forget that the railing’s primary function is far more important: safety. Just imagine all of the accidents that would occur if it weren’t for stable, secure, strong, and carefully-measured railings – I would elaborate here, but I think your imagination can produce plenty of horrific images. To ensure that none of those accidents occur, railings must adhere to a railing safety code prepared by experts. If you’re curious about the specifics of the residential railing safety code, scroll down to learn a little more about this protective protocol.
Railing Safety Code
Most people don’t give a lot of thought to the specifics of railings: the height, the space between balusters, the size of openings, etc. Luckily, there are building organizations dedicated to ensuring that all architectural and construction details are safe and secure. Knowing that these professionals have dedicated their time, resources, and knowledge to the construction of building safety codes, you can feel confident in their dependability.
Railings for homes typically must adhere to the standards published in the International Residential Code (IRC), developed by the International Code Council, which applies to all one- and two-family homes of three stories or less. It addresses a variety of aspects of home construction, including the building itself, plumbing, mechanical, energy conservation, fuel gas provisions, and electrical provisions. The standalone document, which establishes minimum regulations, is updated periodically. The current code is the 2015 IRC, and you can expect to see a new-and-improved IRC in 2018.
Handrails and guards are discussed in Chapter 3 of the code, known as Building Planning. Although we won’t list every detail of these sections, we will state the more pertinent requirements:
- Handrails must be provided on at least one side of each continuous run of treads or flight (stairs) with four or more risers.
- Handrails must be continuous for the full length of the stairs, from a point directly above the top riser of the flight to a point directly below the bottom riser. The ends must be returned or end in newel posts or safety terminals.
- With handrails adjacent to a wall, there should be a space of no less than 1 1/2 inches between the wall and the handrail. There are two exceptions to this rule. First, a newel post at the turn is permitted. Second, over the lowest tread, a volute, turnout, starting easing, or starting newel is allowed.
- Handrails must be 34 to 38 inches high. There are two exceptions to this rule listed in IRC R3184.108.40.206. The first involves the use of a volute, turnout, or starting easing, and the second involves handrail fittings or bendings. If you plan to use any of these features, read the exceptions for more details.
- For safety’s sake, all handrails should be easy to grip. To achieve the necessary standard, they must be one of two types (described in IRC R3220.127.116.11) or meet an equivalent level of graspability. Decorative handrails are allowed so long as their design includes a finger recess to allow for secure grasping.
- All open-sided walking surfaces higher than 30 inches must have a guardrail. This includes decks, patios, landings, stairs, and ramps. The height is measured vertically, extending to the floor or the grade below (at any point within 36 inches, measured horizontally, of the edge of the open side).
- Guardrails on open-sided surfaces (like stairs, balconies, decks, porches, etc.) must be at least 36 inches in height measured from the top of the rail to (1) the walking surface, (2) fixed seating, or (3) the line connecting the leading edges of the treads. There are two exceptions to this rule. The first applies to guards on the open sides of stairs, and the second applies to guardrails in which the top also serves as a handrail on the open side of a flight of stairs.
- Interior sections of required guardrails cannot possess any openings large enough to pass through a 4-inch diameter sphere. There are two exceptions to this regulation. The first refers to triangular openings at the bottom of stairs, and the second refers to guards on the open side of stairs.
- Guard in-fill components, balusters, and panel fillers must withstand a normal load of 50 pounds (applied horizontally) on an area equal to one square foot.
What About Commercial Railings?
Please note that commercial railings are regulated under another railing safety code, the International Building Code (IBC). Originally developed by the International Code Council in 1997 (and updated every three years since then), it is used throughout most of the U.S. Although the IBC’s rules for handrails and guardrails are quite similar to those of the IRC, you must abide by the regulations of the code that applies to your project.
Is the IRC the Only Code I Need to Worry About?
Maybe not. Be sure to check your local building codes to ensure that your planned handrail or guardrail is lawful. Many cities and localities have adopted the International Building Code as their set of standards. For example, the city of Springfield, Missouri, has adopted the IBC 2012 (source). In addition, you may wish to view the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), checking out its regulations regarding handrails and guards. This will ensure that your home is more user-friendly for people who are handicapped.
Be sure to check the regulations of any applicable railing safety code before you purchase and install your fence to save yourself time, money, and grief.
Finally, if you’re shopping for a new railing, check out MMC Fencing & Railing. In our online store, you’ll find everything you need to create a variety of different railing systems. We offer stylish and durable aluminum, classic and maintenance-free vinyl, and even the ultra-convenient ScreenRail, which keeps bugs at bay with a breezy screen. To learn more about our aluminum and vinyl railing systems, please give us a call at 1-866-931-5002 or click here to request a quote. We look forward to hearing from you!