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Balconies and Decks Safety Guidelines

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It has become very popular in Queensland because of our temperate climate to incorporate outdoor entertainment areas/outdoor living areas. These renovations in older homes generally will incorporate deck or veranda, or in the case of new homes, the designs include alfresco dining areas as well as decks and balconies.

There have been serious injuries and deaths in Queensland from deck collapse and failure. This article may assist with safety inspections of decks and other external structures that in the event of a collapse are of sufficient height to put family members and friends at risk.

Owners are obligated to ensure their decks and balconies are safe always. All balconies will fail at some stage either because of poor design for construction or simply badly maintained.

The impact emotionally, legally and financially can be enormous for homeowners.

What makes balconies and decks unsafe?

Badly designed and poorly maintained balconies and decks are a danger and will cause possible serious injury or death to loved ones, colleagues or friends.

Different things may affect the safety of a balcony or deck over its lifetime.

Termite and Borers

Attack by insects such as termites and borers will affect the strength and condition of timbers.

Wet Rot

Timber that is constantly moist, weather by constant or continuous contact with the ground or another timber member with moisture present.

The result of sea spray

The corrosive effects of being near the coastline can affect unprotected structures and building elements including reinforced steel and fixings such as bolts and fixing plates.

Loadings

Decks are not designed to hold large water features, spas, large heavy barbecue equipment and exercise equipment.

Is my structure safe and will I need to……

  • Check to see if your balcony and deck has been designed and erected correctly.
  • It is possible to get the building approvals and plans from your local council and maybe compare them to the actual structure. Inspection by an engineer (structural) or a suitably qualified builder.
  • Materials that can deteriorate should be inspected yearly to identify any potential problems. Bolts and screws can loosen and corrode over time.

If not protected, timber can be susceptible to insect attack and decay. However treated timbers do provide resistance for an extended period they still will require maintenance and regular inspection. Rot and decay is a particular danger and correctly applied stain, or paint finish will restrict moisture or water entry through the faces of timber, but gaps and joins and end grain that are exposed provide access for moisture to penetrate.

These are some of the risk factors and what to look out for:

  • Water pooling on the deck or balcony surface.
  • Balustrading that is not directly fixed to the main support structure-fixed to the balcony or deck surface.
  • Loose or inadequately fixed solid balustrades and balustrades fixings at wall junctions.
  • Exterior cladding that terminates against a balcony deck may contribute to decay or rot.
  • Support members and connections that are covered by cladding or lining boards that are fixed to the balcony or deck.
  • Excessive bearer lengths without support posts or columns.

Timber balconies and decks

  • 20 years or more would be a reasonable life expectation of a timber balcony or deck that is well maintained.
  • Look for changes in the structural members. Has the timber moved from its intended position either by warping or bending or cupping?
  • Moisture causes discolouration in timbers this moisture will lead to decayed timbers these should be probed using a sharp knife or screwdriver. The feel of decayed timbers is soft and spongy.
  • Handrails and balustrades need to be checked to ensure that the fittings aren’t corroded, loose or badly installed. Physically pushing and pulling balustrades and handrails to ensure they are secure.
  • If possible physically pushing the main supporting beams or joists to detect any movement is one means of properly ensuring the deck is fixed to the building.
  • If possible, check under the deck look at the base of timber posts and the connections to beams for rot. Again, check all fixings, brackets and bolts for signs of rust and that they are firmly attached. Ensure that water cannot pool at the base of any support structure or wall. Floor joists that are fixed between beams require careful visual inspection and possibly maintenance. Where this occurs look for steel plates or manufactured hanger brackets again check fixings that they have rusted and become loose.
  • While underneath probe timbers with a sharp object screwdriver or knife for deterioration especially at joins.
  • In older constructions, Oregon or untreated pine may have been used and are not suitable for construction of balconies and decks these timbers are very susceptible to termite attack and decay. If these timbers have been used a regular and thorough maintenance schedule must be employed or consider replacing the timbers with products that are more resistant or sustainable.
  • Timber support posts are attached using proprietary metal brackets (galvanised) or stirrups with adequate clearance from the concrete footing to protect against insect attack and rot/decay. Whether it’s timber (with steel stirrup) or steel posts they must be embedded in concrete and securely anchored to the foundation.

Concrete balconies

  • The expected life of a concrete balcony is between 40 and 50 years. The deterioration in concrete balconies is not as obvious as those in timber. Corrosion in the reinforcement (steel cancer) occurs when small cracks in the concrete surface allow moisture to penetrate, these cracks may look harmless.
  • Look for signs of movement or leaning this may indicate a problem.
  • Under the balcony look for rust stains or steel that is exposed.
  • Physically push and pull handrails and balustrades to ensure they have not become loose or corroded or simply unstable.
  • Where there is flaking concrete or cracking concrete, this may indicate a serious problem and needs to be examined by a structural engineer or licensed builder.

 


Disclaimer:

The material in this article provides general advice, guidance and information. About any particular concern, you must seek appropriate professional advice from an engineer or registered builder the writer of this article expressly disclaim liability, negligence or otherwise, for any omission or act as a result of reliance on this article or any consequence. All decks and balustrade must have regular, thorough inspections. Neglect to do so may result in death or injury and financial loss.