What is the difference between a handrail and a guardrail?

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Although the two words are sometimes used interchangeably, they are actually different things in the building code. A guardrail is the top part of a total assembly referred to as a “guard,” which is located near the open sides of elevated walking surfaces to minimize the possiblility of falling to a lower level, such as on a balcony or stairs. A guardrail can be constructed to meet the grippable requirements of a handrail, but it is not necessary.

   A handrail is defined by the International Residential Code (IRC) and the Residential Edition of the Florida Building Code (FBC) as “a horizontal or sloping rail intended for grasping by the hand for guidance or support." It must be easy to grab and hold onto to prevent a fall, particularly on stairs. Here’s some examples of both acceptable and rejected handrail profiles from the folks at Code Check®. As you can see, there must be a surface for your hand to grip around, not simply flat sides, and a space between the handrail and any adjacent wall.

    Shown below are three examples of a guard/guardrail at stairs: a solid low wall, sheets of safety glass, and wood pickets with a top rail. All of them have a top surface that is not securely grippable and an attached handrail.

To learn about the specific requirements for a safe handrail, see our blog post What are the building code requirements for a handrail?

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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about STAIRS:

What is the minimum headroom clearance for stairs?

Is a landing always required at the top and bottom of stairs? 

When is a railing required at stairs?

What is the building code for the minimum height of stair steps (risers)? 

When is a nosing required on a stair tread?

What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?  

Are open stair risers acceptable?

What is the steepest residential stair allowed?

Why is a single step dangerous in a house?

 Do I need stairs at all exit doors from a mobile home? 

The stairs feel too steep. What's the building code? 

• What do home inspectors check when inspecting stairs?

• What is the longest stair run allowed? 

• What is the lighting requirement for stairs?

• A light is required over a stair after how many steps/risers? 

• When is safety glass required for windows at stairs and stair landings?

    Visit our STAIRS page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.

Illustration by Code Check.

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