How To Look At A House

McGarry and Madsen's home inspection blog for buyers of  

site-built, mobile/manfuactured and modular homes

What are the warning signs of a dangerous attic pull-down ladder?

Monday, August 20, 2018

Attic pull-down ladders, also called folding stairs, come with installation instructions stamped on the frame or inside of the cover panel, which specify exactly what size fasteners are required to secure the ladder frame to the well opening, how many, and where they should be placed. Unfortunately, they are usually ignored.

   Also, other faulty installation methods and the normal deterioration of the ladder as it ages will cause safety issues. Here’s our “Top 10” list of common defects we find which can make an attic ladder hazardous:

1) Incorrect fasteners at frame - Most manufacturers specify 16d (sixteen penny) nails or lag screws. Because extra drywall screws are easy to find around a jobsite, they are sometimes used instead to secure the frame at the well opening, but they have a poor shear rating and are not acceptable. 

2) Not enough fasteners - Fasteners should be placed at all indicated locations. 

3) Loose or missing nuts - Ladder rods (the metal rods that run between the side stiles under the treads) are threaded at the ends and and secured to the stiles with a nut at each end. With time and repeated use, some of them will work loose. The nuts at the section hinges loosen over time also. We recommend checking them—and tightening as necessary—regularly.

4) Cracked lumber at stile or tread - Any small crack will enlarge with use of the ladder and eventually fail. Temporary repairs, like the one shown below, will void warranty.

5) Damaged hinges - Bent or twisted hinges will eventually fail and should be replaced.

6) Bottom stiles not trimmed to fit at floor - The bottom stiles of the ladder must be cut back at the correct angle when installed, so that the stiles have full bearing on the floor. In the photo below the  stiles are not trimmed and one leg lands on top of a parking roll-stop.

7) Ladder too long or too short - Attic ladders are not engineered to hang free at the bottom, and should not be used if the bottom stiles are not angle-cut to securely bear on the floor.

    All sections of the ladder should align when open. If the last section is too long, it will sit at a shallower angle and put too much stress on the first hinge set. Also, ladders should not be trimmed back at the hinge connection (like in the photo below), which creates an uneven space between steps and is a fall hazard.

8) Failed spring - Beware of opening an attic ladder that has been latched in place at the opening side. It is likely that the springs are damaged or missing and the whole assembly will fall open when the latch is released.

9) Inadequate access/clearance into attic - A minimum of eighteen inches of head clearance above the ladder opening is necessary to safely enter the attic. It is best if the entry point faces toward the ridge of the roof. The ladder in the photo below is in a brain-dead location: there is no landing at the top of the ladder, and you must enter the attic sideways, with low clearance. Coming out of the attic is even more difficult and dangerous.

10)  Unsafe location - If the base of the attic ladder lands onto stairs or the edge of a stair landing, it is not acceptable. Here’s one that was installed in the opening path of a garage door and, of course, the top panel of the garage door was damaged from opening it while the ladder was down.

   Even if an attic ladder is correctly installed and maintained it can be dangerous if used improperly. Manufacturers always specify that you face the ladder when on it, which is the way most people go up the stairs. But trying to descend the stairs facing away from it—perhaps because you are carrying a large object—is unsafe and the cause of numerous falls. Have a second person at the base of the ladder to hand larger items down to. 

   Also, most ladders are rated for a 250-pound load (total weight of you and anything you are holding). Exceeding the rated load can cause failure, typically of the treads.

    One more issue to consider is that, although many attic ladders are installed in a garage ceiling, the standard attic ladder with a thin plywood cover panel is not rated by the building code to be installed there. For more on this, see our blog post Why are most pull-down attic ladders not approved by building code for installation in a garage? 

    If the ceiling is higher than available ladder lengths, one option is to box down the well, like in the photo below.

    When it is time to replace your attic ladder we suggest getting a new aluminum model. They are lightweight, sturdy, and not prone to some of the problems that wood ladders develop after years of use.

    And a final note: an attic access opening without a pull-down ladder can still be dangerous if installed incorrectly. The photo below shows a well opening that is secured at two sides to the bottom chords of roof trusses, but the other two sides (noted with arrows) have trim that is only attached to the edge of drywall. If someone coming into the attic steps on either side at the arrows, the trim will break away and the ceiling collapse under them. Those two sides need to be framed with 2x4 lumber secured to the side of the bottom chord of each truss.

      Parts Diagram - Memphis Folding Stairs

    Also, see our blog posts What is the building code requirement for an attic access hatch, scuttle, or door? and What are the mistakes to avoid when doing attic improvements? and Why is there no attic access hatch in the house?

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

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