In the past decade, a wide variety of residential deck railing systems have entered the market, replacing site-made wood components with PVC, polyurethane, stainless steel, aluminum, cable, and glass. Nearly all of the makers of composite decking, including CertainTeed, CorrectDeck, Louisiana-Pacific, NexWood, TimberTech, Trex, and Universal Forest Products, have introduced some type of plastic rail system to complement their decking lines. These typically include all the brackets and fasteners to assemble maintenance-free, profiled handrail, balusters, posts, and caps that imitate the look of traditional wood railings. More elaborate profiles that match historic porch and balcony railings are possible with Fypon, a polyurethane material molded around aluminum or high-density PVC. Modern-design alternatives include Deckorator's aluminum baluster system, Feeney's Cable Rail stainless steel cable system, and Advanced Aluminum Railing's DekRail frames filled with tempered glass. Some systems rely on premium woods, such as LWO Woodway's series of pre-assembled wood railings in mahogany and red cedar.
All of these railing systems are trading on two primary advantages: labor savings and foolproof safety. “The labor savings are tremendous,” says Melanie Scott, a project manager with Nova Exteriors of Vienna, Va., speaking about the Trex railing system. “Most of the time our crews can assemble a handrail with the Trex templates without pulling out a tape measure, and the spacing is perfect.”
Eric Borden, a remodeling contractor in Toms River, N.J., who specializes in high-end second homes, agrees the primary advantage is labor savings, not only in the assembly of the rail but in finishing and maintaining it. At the request of some customers, Borden has installed several vinyl railing systems including Endurance, Fairway, and Vinylast, and he is certified as an installer of Timber Tech railings. Borden has also specified Cable Rail and LWO Woodway railings on some of the more modern beachfront homes he's renovated.
Regardless of the system specified, Borden and Scott caution that any railing system must meet code, both for baluster spacing as well as post and railing attachments. The strength of deck railings, in particular, has come under renewed scrutiny following widespread press attention to deck failures such as one last summer in Chicago that killed 13 partygoers. According to engineering professor Joe Loferski, who recently co-hosted a seminar at Virginia Tech titled “Liability Issues, Design Data, and Inspection Techniques for Wood Decks, Balconies, and Porches,” most building codes require deck rails to resist a design load of 200 pounds applied in any direction to the top of the rail. If the posts are spaced 10 feet apart, the railing must be able to resist an additional 50 pounds per linear foot of railing. Balusters must be spaced at least 4 inches, sometimes less depending on the jurisdiction, to prevent a child's head from slipping between them.
Loferski recommends requesting a copy of the National Evaluation Report from a manufacturer of any railing system and steering clear of any system that cannot produce one. In addition, he recommends reading the directions carefully. These materials do not behave exactly like wood, cautions Loferski. Most railing systems have very specific post spacing requirements, fastener requirements, and limitations on notching and drilling.