Shortly after everyone had lined up on the deck for their post-prom moment, the structure gave way. The one-story fall didn’t result in any injuries, but that’s not always the case when a deck collapses. A study by Morse Technologies reported 179 deck collapses nationally, killing 33 people and injuring 1,122 between 2000 and 2007.

Decks fail for various reasons, notes construction engineer Frank Woeste, who helped develop deck code standards through testing at Virginia Tech. What most often happens, he says, is that the ledger board connecting the deck structure to the house band detaches. That, Woeste says, can happen either because the connection isn’t properly flashed, because fasteners aren’t long enough, or because fasteners aren’t correctly sized and yank out when, over time, they’re subjected to continual gravitational force.

Code Change

After 2000, code prohibited use of nails in joining deck ledgers to the house band. But there are, Woeste points out, still plenty of decks out there that are attached by nail. Compromised railings or stairs are another issue. “Those are the two critical elements,” Woeste says. “The ledger connection and the guard rail posts.”

Dennis Schaefer, a one-time deck company owner and now marketing and business consultant in Michigan, remembers being called out to do a deck inspection where the structure was so obviously compromised that he refused to set foot on it. “I told the homeowner, ‘It’s going to come down one way or another. I suggest you lock the doors and don’t let anyone on it until you decide what to do.’”

The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) says that 40 million residential decks in the U.S. are 20 to 30 years old, as are another 10 million commercial decks. Since experts suggest that the life of a deck is typically 10 to 15 years, any deck older than 10 years should be inspected. The suggestion, though, is relative. “It’s so much about where the deck is geographically,” says NADRA executive Mike Beaudry. “If you’re on the coast and there’s salt and wind, or up in the mountains with snow loads, the life span of a deck can be far shorter.”

Erik Kent, owner of Archadeck of Charlotte, in North Carolina, says he advises homeowners that a well-constructed deck should last 25 years, and backs up the product his company builds with a five-year warranty.

Who Inspects?

The question for homeowners is: Who inspects that deck to determine stability and safety? NADRA offers homeowners a downloadable checklist to help determine deck safety. Some deck companies offer a deck inspection service.

At Archadeck of Charlotte, such inspections cost $100 to $200. The company has offered the service for 20 years, but only during the last three has Archadeck of Charlotte — and now the 58-member deck-building franchise as a whole — begun to market it.

Homeowners call his company, Kent says, because they feel the deck bounce when they walk on it or because it looks old. Archadeck of Charlotte’s technician inspects the deck using a 24-item checklist. Kent estimates deck inspections last year added 25 repair or deck replacement projects to the year’s total.

Schaeffer suggests that deck builders offer deck inspections prominently on their websites. “A lot of people looking for a deck builder are there because their deck is unsafe,” he points out. “Let them know you do deck inspections and what it costs.”

Woeste feels not all contractors are qualified to inspect decks and that most homeowners would have little idea of how to look or where. His suggestion: Homeowners who are seriously concerned should hire a registered professional engineer. “Have him determine what the deficiencies are,” Woeste says. “Then your professional remodeler goes in there and does the work, based on what the engineer said.” —Jim Cory