If you’re installing a raised deck or outdoor stairway, this post on stair railings and hand rails is essential reading.
The International Residential Code (IRC) and the International Building Code (IBC) say you should install a handrail on any stairs used to get in or out of your house. A railing is required for four or more risers. A handrail is for your hands to hold, while stair rails prevent you falling sideways.
There are quite a few very necessary safety regulations that govern this subject, so let’s have a look at the need for stair rails and hand rails in more detail.
What is The Building Code For Handrails On Outside Steps?
The International Residential Code (IRC) and the International Building Code (IBC) say you should install a handrail on any stairs that you have to use to get inside or outside of your house. The railing is required for four or more risers. A riser is the vertical portion of a stair, while a tread is the horizontal part you step on.
Online, there are many conflicting opinions about handrail codes – most likely because codes vary from region to region. Be sure to check with your local city or county ordinances.
Another set of codes comes from the American With Disabilities Act, or ADA. The ADA rules apply to places of public accommodation and commercial facilities. Their rules recommend a handrail for stairs with over two risers. Your backyard stairs probably don’t need to follow ADA rules, unless you have a family member with a disability.
Building codes are designed for new construction or significant renovations – the kind you must get inspections for. When inspectors come to your home, they check that minimum safety standards are going to be met.
If you are thinking of selling your home, then passing code requirements may be important. If you are simply upgrading your backyard and don’t need to pass an inspection, then technically you don’t have to meet any safety requirements. The question is – should you anyway?
Consider looking over the IRC and ADA recommendations – even if you don’t have to pass an inspection.
Safety codes are excellent guides for us all. Codes may seem like a pain, but behind the code are some clever engineers who are just trying to keep folks safe. Consider the concept of “graspability”.
Graspability guidelines make sure that human hands can grab the handrail easily and securely. Engineers have determined that round handrails should be between 1.25 inches and 2 inches in diameter.
For a handrail that’s not round, the best circumference measurement is between 4 and 6.5 inches, with no single side measuring more than 2.25 inches.
Those engineers have also determined that the rail needs to be 1.5 inches away from the wall. The handrail should be between 34 and 38 inches in a vertical line from the stair. They recommend that a railing start about a foot from the stairs and extend a foot past the bottom stair.
Here’s a good video showing the measurements on an interior stairway. And, here’s a full listing of IRC, IBC, ADA and OSHA guidelines.
The fact is that outdoor stairs are more hazardous than indoor ones. Hopefully, you’ve never had ice on the stairs inside your house, but in many places, ice is common on outdoor stairs.
Ice, snow, rain, and algae can all make outdoor stairs slipperier than indoor ones. Weathering makes stairs uneven and creates tripping hazards.
Statistics say that over one million injuries a year are the result of tripping downstairs. Regardless of building codes, if you have an older person, a person with disabilities or a younger (shorter) person living or visiting your home – install the handrail.
Then install some stair lights. You’ll be glad you did.
Do Deck Stairs Need Railings? (Is it Illegal Not To Have Them?)
If your deck is over 30 inches from the ground, then by law you need railings for the deck stairs. Low rise (aka floating) decks are less than 30 inches from grade and are exempt.
Let’s clarify here. There are safety recommendations for handrails and then some for guardrails (aka guards or guarding). The two serve different purposes. A handrail is for your hands to grip for balance going up and down.
A guardrail is a barrier that keeps toddlers, pets and sometimes you from falling off a drop. Guardrails must be installed on a high deck or a balcony.
Stair rails are a type of guardrail. They guard you from falling sideways off the stairs. Many times, stair rails are simply called railings.
Sometimes a handrail and a stair rail are separate, but sometimes they are constructed as one piece.
Do I Need Handrails On Both Sides of Deck Stairs?
Nope. You don’t need a handrail on both sides, but you may need a railing if your deck is higher than 30″.
Many contractors construct a combo handrail and stair rail system, installed on both sides, to cover all safety requirements.
How Many Exterior Steps Require a Handrail? (2, 3, 4 or More?)
The current code from the IRC (Section R311.5.6 2003 IRC), states that handrails shall be provided on at least one side of each continuous run of stairs with four or more risers.
What is The Difference Between a Handrail and a Stair Rail?
A handrail is for your hands to grab onto. It’s designed for maximum graspability. Stair rails are designed to prevent you – but most likely your toddler or puppy – from falling off the open sides of the stairs.
How Do You Install a Stair Handrail?
We decided to add a vinyl (vinyl on the outside, thick aluminum on the inside) stair handrail kit onto a concrete stair and patio. The stairs had four risers.
- Read the instructions top to bottom. If the company has a video, watch it at least once.
- Get out all the pieces and organize them on a tarp.
- Do a test run with all the posts. Make sure that it will all fit well on the stairs.
- Set a post at the corner of the stair, then drop a base cap onto it. Position the post so the base cap will fit nicely onto the cement stair too, about 1.5 inches away from the edge of the concrete.
- Using a marker, mark dots onto the cement through the screw holes at the base of the aluminum post.
- After marking the 4 holes on every post, use a center punch to make a pilot hole in the concrete.
- Then use a 1/4 inch x 6 inch masonry bit on a hammer drill to drill 5 inch holes.
- Use a vacuum or some compressed air to clear the holes of cement.
- Put the posts in place over the drilled holes. Add a washer and use a drill to screw in all the anchor bolts. Driving in the anchor bolts will be slow and make sure you don’t tighten all the way so you can plumb in the posts.
- Use a level and the kit shims to make sure the posts are straight up and down, then tighten the bolts down. You can cut off the shims with an Exacto knife at the edge of the aluminum posts to hide them.
- Install the upper and lower rail stabilizer blocks.
- Cut the outer vinyl post sleeves to size. Code says they should be between 34 inches and 38 inches.
- Slide the post sleeves onto the stabilizer blocks.
- Slide the base cap and the post cap into place.
- Now it’s time for the railing. On this kit, the railing has slots for the balusters. Measure between the uprights, making sure to have symmetrical balusters. The top railing measure and the bottom railing measurement should be identical.
- Use a miter saw or a miter box to cut the correct angle for your stairs.
- Finally, put the railing together with the balusters with stair brackets. Be sure to drill pilot holes to get the stair bracket screws started.
- Use some vinyl adhesive for the post caps if needed.
Here’s a video.
So there we have it – if you’re installing a stairway with four or more risers – the planning regulations say that ideally you need a railing and hand rail.
There are many instances these days where health and safety rules seem to have gone mad – but this isn’t one of them.
It’s great peace of mind to know that for your own safety – and that of your friends and family – when it comes to stair railings you’re doing all this by the book. 🙂
Homeowner and property investor Larry James founded Take a Yard in 2020 to bring you the very best outdoor living content, based on his years of experience managing outside spaces. Read more >