Porch and Deck Railing Height Codes (7 Things You Should Know)

People fall off raised unguarded platforms all the time; children, the old, people afraid of heights, and even those not paying attention to their surroundings. It could be a minor or a significant fall, but a fall. That’s why people need a handrail to hold onto.

Any porch or deck 30 inches above grade should have a railing guard at least 36 inches high from the platform surface. Hand railings protect people against accidental falls. Even if your porch is less than 30 inches above grade, installing a railing for additional safety may be worthwhile.

The average height of a person is 5½ feet, which is 66 inches, which means that the handrail falls around the abdomen of the average person allowing them to lean on the rail and not topple over.

Do I Need Railings on My Porch?

Porch railings are mainly installed to give your porch a fine finish in terms of design and glamour, but above all else, porch railings are needed for safety purposes.

Do you need to have railings on your porch?

Does the landing of your porch stand 30 inches above grade? The grade is the construction term that means ground. The height of your porch or deck determines whether you need railings or not.

In many instances, platforms that exceed 16 to 24 inches tall should have a railing, although local building codes don’t require one.

In general, and at the end of the day, the safety of every individual in your household takes precedence. The following questions will help you determine how many inches above grade needs a railing against accidental fall:

  • Do you have young children in your family who are overly playful and curious?
  • What about older people whose sight and grace have become falter?
  • Is anyone in your household living with a disability?
  • Is anyone an immense fear of heights? 

Deck railings are about the height of the railing, the spacing posts, and the vertical or horizontal space of the balusters. 

The spacing on the balusters has a recommendation of 4 inches in width, which is enough to limit objects or bodies bigger than that to pass through it. The 4-inch spacing is enough to deter young children and pets from going through it in the practical world.

The standard 36-inch height (minimum 34-inches height requirement) is recommended in residential homes and 42 inches on commercial buildings, which is comfortable for most people to use without toppling over.

What is the Code for Deck Railing Posts?

Two organizations regulate and decide on the regulations and designs for buildings and their accessories, whether commercial or residential. These are the International Residential and Building Codes.

The railing posts are the most critical parts of the entire railing system. That is because the posts translate to the strength of the railing system.

There are two primary specifications for deck railing posts:

  1. Height
  2. Spacing

Railing Height

No construction stands firm without pillars. The posts are the pillars that shoot straight from below grade to 66 inches above.

The building code dictates the recommended height of all raised platforms, including decks and porches. In their recommendations, any platform that stands 30 inches above grade should have a railing.  

They further recommend that from the base of the landing, the minimum height should not drop below the size of 34 inches, but 36 inches would be more suitable.

That makes the posts that shoot below more than 66 inches in height which translates to 5½ feet tall.

Post Spacing

The strength and stability of the deck and railing depend on the posts. Posts should be no more than 6 or 8 feet apart.

There are two sizes of railing posts commonly used: 4×4 and 6×6.

Now, if you are using the 4×4 posts that are smaller in size, the spacing between rails should be a maximum of 6 feet, and for those that use 6×6 posts, spacing should be 8 feet apart.

This calculated measurement will help the railing be strong as it distributes weight across the divide.

How to Calculate Railing Post Spacing

The first step to installing a railing on your deck or porch is determining the space between the posts. The spaces between the railing will dictate the spacing of the pickets or balusters you will install.

In other words, it ensures the structural integrity of the railing.

If you want to void costly reinstallations later in your remodeling project, it’s ideal for calculating the post spacing before installing your railing.

Here are the steps to calculating your post spacing.

Step 1

The first step is to measure the distance between the corner posts of your deck with a measuring tape. If you plan on installing railing on both sides of the decks, don’t forget to measure the length of each section.

Step 2

Split the length of the railing to come up with sections of equal lengths between five and seven feet.

Sometimes it can be challenging to divide the length of your deck. An online spacing calculator can be helpful in this venture. It allows you to calculate the spacing of your posts using the width of the posts, the length of the area to rail, and the size of the balustrades.

Step 3

Mark the placement of the posts on the deck. Center a post on each of these marks, and mark the deck on each side of the post.

Step 4

Drill two 1/4inch holes through the base of each of your posts using a drill, then attach the posts to the deck with bolts or screws using a screwdriver.

Do Outside Steps Need a Handrail?

Outside steps need a handrail if the people climbing those steps are vulnerable to accidents such as falling off.

Climbing up the stairs is an activity on its own, just like jogging is, and it is easier and fun for those who are young and physically fit. But, what about:

  • the disabled
  • the sick
  • children
  • the old
  • people who have arthritis

Some homeowners go the extra mile in incorporating flair and beautiful designs into the details of the porch and its railings. This makes passers-by and guests of the homestand stop for a minute to admire.

But aesthetics are just the tip of the iceberg because the most important reason for stair railing is to provide something to hold on to and balance your weight.

Two essential aspects determine whether the outside stairway needs a handrail or not:

  1. Height of the stairs
  2. How wide is the stair

Platform Height

It is almost automatic that an elevated platform needs a railing guard to protect people from falling over.

As common sense prevails for most homeowners, others have to contend with the rules laid out by the housing code to mitigate such catastrophes.

While the International Housing Code plus the International Building Code recommend railings as long as the landing of the stairs is 30 inches or more, cautious people will install one from as little as a foot off the ground.

The Wideness of the Stairs

Some stairs are wide, while some are narrow depending on space availability and their usefulness.

Narrow stairs may need a handrail while wider ones may not and vice versa. It all boils down to the people who frequently use it and their activities.

If heavy luggage lifting is involved, then installing rails might be practical.

Essential Tips to Consider When Installing a Handrail 

Handrails can be life-saving devices. They can prevent dangerous falls down the stairs. And since correct handrails installation is critical for safety purposes, it can be challenging, mainly if you’re not used to DIYs projects at home.

Here are some tips to consider when thinking of installing handrails.

  1. The strength of the handrail should withstand a forceful weight of around 200 pounds that is placed on it or pushed against it.
  1. Any landing that stands 30 inches above ground should be fitted with a guard that allows people to hold while walking or standing, acting as a guide and a guard against accidental falls.
  1. The recommended height of 30 inches and 36 inches should not hinder one from installing railing guards if and when they are concerned about their or their family’s safety.
  1. Balusters, the many decorated short vertical pillars forming the basis of the handrail and the supporting cast, should have a strict spacing of 4 inches apart. To measure this, get a spherical object 4 inches in diameter and try to pass it through the baluster. It is for security reasons as far as children and pets are concerned.
  1. Balusters are not recommended to be installed horizontally. They will invite children to step and stand on, which might eventually break, or a child might climb up the balusters and fall over.
  1. The importance of the 36 inches height from the base of the raised platform is to ensure that people of minimum height and even taller are thought of. If an average size person is 5.5 feet tall (which is around 66 inches), then the handrail height will fall around the mid-waist.

If you think of porch rails, it’s essential to check with municipal authorities about the residential building codes. Instead of restoring an older home, you might want to consider replacing the railing to avoid an unbalanced look. Safety should be your primary concern.

Furthermore, most local communities call for inspection of new balconies. The inspectors will review the type of material used, fasteners, and the patio construction.

However, it’s wise for homeowners to consider inspecting their balconies. Some of the suggestions from IRC include watching for loose railings, rotting or split wood, loose or missing fasteners, and damaged or loose support beams.

Advantages of Porch Railings

A porch railing has several advantages for the household, which will help you decide if your porch needs it or not:

  1. Curb appeal
  2. Support
  3. Safety

1. Curb Appeal

It is no secret that the porch welcomes people into your home. Today, many homes do not concentrate so much on the front and the back. The backyard runs the show as far as entertainment and comfort are concerned.

But the front porch has never lost its taste and glory. It’s the difference that a warm, inviting home holds over the rest.

It gives your home the illusion of hugeness, just like wall mirrors do to a room while giving it the embodiment of trust and safety.

Will potential buyers be attracted to a home with a front porch guarded with rails? Most definitely, yes.

2. Better Support

Most homes whose porches have a handrail have their stairs guarded as well. The availability of something to hold onto as you climb up or down the stairs at home is very comforting and assuring.

Imagine coming home from work tired and feeling frail, and you have to climb stairs that do not have support.

Handrails provide support and guidance when feeling tired, sickly, and your sight is wanting. It’s like an old friend whose hand you can always trust to hold in times of turbulence and uncertainty.

3. Overall Improved Safety

Safety is the main reason that porch railings are required in the first place. People fall off platforms all the time; bruises and injuries from falls differ, but why risk them when you can prevent them?

The front porch is a place to breathe in the fresh air and bask in the sun while relaxing alone or with family. You can predict where accidental falls are likely to happen, and handrails are there to provide safety for when:

  • Nosy, hyper, and curious children are playing on the porch. Children will always want to access places and spaces that they are restricted from. They will want to climb over or squeeze through spaces. And they topple over so often. One is that railings protect them from falling over as children are primarily unaware when they are in danger of falling over a steep edge.
  • Older people are part of many households. Older people, and children alike, are fragile and can quickly lose their footing because of instability. For this reason, you would not want them standing close to an edge without a railing.
  • The tiled floor is wet and slippery. Some cases report people slipping and falling after mopping or when it is raining. It is dangerous for everyone in the house, and a handrail will help people balance as they walk carefully.
  • Family members with disabilities and those afraid of heights benefit from handrails to alleviate the fear and risks of unprecedented falls. These scenarios are just a few of the many that homes without rails on their porches and other raised platforms or outdoor spaces endure. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Maximum Height of a Deck Without a Railing?

The residential building code requires a railing for steps over 30 inches above grade (or 2.5 feet). Therefore the maximum height you can build a deck and not have a railing is 29 inches or less. Local codes may vary, so check with your city or county building department to confirm.

Why Install a 42 inch Deck Railing Height?

Deck railing height codes vary by location. A 42-inch railing is needed on a commercial building, most second-floor balconies, or if your deck has built-in bench seating. For a deck with bench seating that is 16 inches above the deck surface, the deck railing has to be 36 inches or 42 inches above the bench seat.

Final Thoughts

Any platform 30 inches above grade should have a railing guard at least 36 inches above the deck surface.

The organizations that regulate and dictate the residential building code requirements might have universal rules that run across the country and beyond the borders. Still, every state has slight variations of the same.

If you happen to shift residence from one state to another, you might want to check with the area codes on what is expected of you before embarking on a building project. 

This is to avoid getting into unnecessary trouble with authorities when the time for home inspection arrives. You run into the unfortunate troublesome possibility of demolishing what you have to replace with railings bearing required heights and measurements.

Photo of author

Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.
DISCLAIMER: The content published on HomeInspectionInsider.com is not professional advice. You should consult with a licensed professional and check local permit requirements before starting any project.
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