If you’re not in the business of home inspections, construction or a related field, you likely are unfamiliar with the difference between "guard railings" and "hand railings.” However, it’s important to understand their distinct purposes and safety standards to protect you and your loved ones at home.

So, what is the difference between guard railings and hand railings?

Guard Railings

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Guard railings are typically installed along the outer perimeter of structures like decks, balconies, porches, or any area where there's a significant change in elevation. Their primary function is to prevent people from accidentally falling off these heightened surfaces. For homes, modern standards require that guard railings should be at least 36 inches in height, with openings no wider than 4 inches between balusters or at the bottom of the railing.

The 36-inch height requirement extends horizontally for 36 inches from the edge of the deck or porch. Recent changes in building standards have made guard railings necessary in scenarios where there is a drop of at least 30 inches to another horizontal surface, even if the slope is steep immediately beyond this drop. While home inspectors aren't code compliance inspectors, they are knowledgeable about building codes.

Hand Railings

Hand Railings

Hand railings are specifically installed on staircases or ramps to provide an easily grabbable surface for people while navigating up or down an elevated area. Hand railings offer support and stability, enhancing safety on staircases. For stair railings, which are required when there are four or more steps, the height of the top railing should be between 34 and 38 inches above the nosing of the steps. The nosing of a step refers to the portion that protrudes slightly over the step below it. Grabbable hand railings should be designed to allow an average person's hand to easily grip them.

It's not uncommon to encounter older homes with horizontal members below the top railing on porches or decks, which often have openings wider than 4 inches. These openings can pose safety risks, especially for small children who might climb them like a ladder. Rigid balusters can be added to enhance safety.

Additionally, guard railings should be installed on the open side of staircases to prevent falling into the room below. Staircase guard railings should meet the same 36-inch minimum height requirement as other guard railings, but there is a slight variation in the allowed height (between 34 to 38 inches) for the top of the railing near the steps.

Inspecting Guard Railings and Hand Railings

During a comprehensive home inspection, both guard railings and hand railings are inspected to ensure they provide the necessary support and protection. Home inspectors will first and foremost assess their presence, ensuring that guard railings are installed, and hand railings are present when there are four or more steps. Additionally, inspectors test the sturdiness of hand railings to ensure they provide a secure grip for individuals using the stairs.

Inspectors will also examine the structural integrity of both guard and hand railings, looking for signs of damage, looseness, or deterioration that could compromise their effectiveness. Any identified issues or safety concerns are documented in the inspection report, and recommendations for repairs or replacements are provided to ensure the safety and compliance of these essential components of a home's interior and exterior.

In summary, while they are different, both hand railings and guard railings play crucial roles in enhancing safety around the home. Regular inspections and maintenance of these railings are essential to ensure their strength and reliability when needed most. Damaged or loose railings should be promptly repaired or replaced to maintain a safe living environment.