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Deck Maintenance

Article written by Jack Carr, P.E., LEED AP, CRITERIUM ENGINEERS

It’s the season to invite the neighbors over to show off your new stainless steel barbecue grill. As you prepare for the party you begin to notice the grill’s weight is making your second floor deck lean more that it did before and the floor boards seem to have a bit more spring to them.

You begin to remember that at the last Board meeting someone suggested the association should not put off the deck replacement project for another year. And then you remember your neighbors have fallen off their diet and perhaps a lawn party might be a better idea. Maybe it is time for you to join the maintenance committee.

When the maintenance committee reviews planned repairs of exterior elements of the building(s) the focus is normally concerned with water intrusion through the roof, siding, or windows. But with elevated wood decks the issue should be safety. Significant changes are occurring in the nation’s building codes, written by the International Code Council (ICC), with regard to elevated decks. This is being driven by the well publicized deck failures in Chicago and Virginia Beach.

Wood decks built twenty years ago can have some significant deficiencies by today’s standards. Most deck collapses are the direct result of inadequate attachment to the building, that is, the connection between the deck ledger and house band joist. The U.S. Forest Products Laboratory recent completed a study of five years of newspaper articles from around the country reporting collapsed decks and showed “nearly every collapsed deck had been attached with nails, rather than bolts, and investigators had pinpointed nails as the cause of the collapse.”

Twenty years ago many decks were attached to buildings using nails that rust away or simply do not have the lateral holding power of bolts. To make matters worse, developing problems are often not noticed in a casual visual inspection because the ledger board is hidden behind the siding. This problem is compounded by past deck building practices not protecting the ledger due to a lack of adequate flashing. On the coast the salty air can create some very corrosive chemistry on deck components.

So what is the maintenance committee to do? First, organize an inspection program for your older decks, porches, or balconies either with internal voluntary help, your property manager, or a competent outside company. ICC recommends condominiums inspect decks twice a year. Look for split or rotting wood; loose or missing nails, screws, or anchors where the structure is attached to the building; missing, damaged, or loose support beams and planking; and wobbly handrails or guardrails. This may require removing siding, but it is necessary.

The next step of course is to develop a plan to repair or replace the deficiencies found. There are a variety of resources available to do independent research but often bringing a professional in at this time can save both time and money. Not only do the codes keep changing, many local code enforcement officers have their own preferred ways of correct deck building and it would be very wise to find out what those ways are.

However, for those adventurous committee members who want to find their own answers the American Forest & Paper Association (AF&PA) has recently published the Prescriptive Residential Deck Construction Guide which is available as a free download from its Web site, Though this is not a building code it helps to explain the nature of safe deck building and can serve as an invaluable supplement. As deck inspection is so complicated, researchers at Virginia Tech produced the Manual for the Inspection of Residential Wood Decks and Balconies. This manual was published by the Forest Products Society in cooperation with the ICC.

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of deck repair or design is that once you resolve the structural issues you are still faced with the ever-increasing selection of deck materials and products. Twenty years ago selecting pressure treated timber was the standard for both the framing and deck boards for many common decks. This became less desirable with the concern about the arsenic-laced treatment chemicals and the danger to young children and the environment in general. Today’s less toxic pressure treated lumber has its own challenges due to its corrosive effects on galvanized fasteners and copper flashing.

Though most wood decks use pressure treated frames, today’s trends use deck boards of other types of wood or wood substitutes. These woods range from the high-end Ipé through mahogany-like species and the various cedars. The new synthetic woods are often made with wood powder mixed with plastic resins and though they portray themselves maintenance free a little research may determine which maintain their color, strength, and fastener holding ability.

So the simple deck is not so simple after all, however, maintaining a safe deck may be the simplest and best decision an association can make.