Throughout Illinois, homeowners are required to get a permit before building a deck, balcony or porch. Municipalities maintain safety standards for what is required in building these structures. For example, in the City of Chicago, a deck, porch or balcony floor must be designed to support a minimum of 100 pounds per square foot. There are requirements for how they can be attached to buildings, how the footings are set and what materials are acceptable for construction. The guidelines are intended to protect homeowners and visitors from the danger of a collapse. Unfortunately, many decks and porches are not built to code and are not maintained properly. The result of substandard construction and maintenance can be a fatal accident.
Illinois winters take a toll on our homes. Heavy snows and massive temperature swings will eventually make even a perfectly designed deck unsafe. It is important to regularly inspect your porch, deck or balcony to identify signs of degradation. Older decks may also have been built when safety standards were less robust. A deck built to code in 2000 could easily represent a safety hazard today, particularly if it has not been carefully maintained.
Two important topics to consider in addressing deck and balcony safety are capacity and the way the structure is attached to your home. Decks are popular spots for entertaining, but overcrowding can lead to a dangerous collapse. You should know how much weight your deck can support and take steps to ensure that the limit is not exceeded.
Decks are attached to houses using ledger boards. These boards should be lag bolted to homes, with flashing behind them to prevent water damage. If the flashing is missing or improperly installed, the wall can rot, allowing the deck to pull away from the house and collapse. If the ledger boards are attached to the home using nails, instead of bolts, it is only a matter of time before the board separates from the house.
If possible, it is best to have your deck, porch or balcony checked by a professional. If you have concerns about the safety of the structure, you cannot afford to ignore them. Loose boards, splinters, popped or missing nails and rotting or discolored wood are all signs of deterioration. Cosmetic problems are a sign that structural decay may be occurring.
A new coat of paint will not prevent a decayed deck from collapsing. Decks are not intended to last the life of the home. Even properly maintained wood will eventually rot. By conducting an annual inspection, you can identify warning signs before they lead to a potentially deadly collapse.
Source: North American Deck and Railing Association, "May is Deck Safety Month," 1 May 2015