The Deck Handbook: Part 9 Railings, Lighting, Pergolas & Seating
The feature that brings the most character to a deck is its railing. But, decorative though they may be, their primary purpose is safety. Deck railings are required in most localities on any deck higher than 36" (24" in some places) from the ground. Most building codes specify criteria for deck railings by characteristic and performance rather than material.
This gives deck railing designers a lot of flexibility. Railings must be a minimum of 36" high (measured from the deck boards) — 42" if the deck is higher than 5'-10" from the ground, depending on your local building code.
A deck rail should be strong enough not to be pushed over by people leaning against it — even a lot of people. In technical terms, it must stand a horizontal force of 200 lbs. per square foot. The balusters should be close enough so that a 5" (4" in some localities) diameter ball cannot be pushed through the railing at any point. This keeps kids from getting their heads caught in the railing. (It used to be a 6" ball — apparently a child with a head smaller than 6" has been discovered somewhere. Lord knows where — but better safe than sorry).
By far the most common material for home decks is wood, and the most common railing pattern is the vertical baluster. In many localities, horizontal rails are discouraged, even prohibited, because of the "ladder" effect that tempts small children to climb the rail.
However, railings can be found made of metal, composite materials, various plastics, fiberglass, and even tempered glass. Composite and plastic decks usually feature matching composite or plastic railings. All of these must be tested to comply with national building codes and the test results must usually be submitted to the local building code authority in order to get a permit.
Metal railing, however, is usually assumed to be strong enough without special testing. Inexpensive coated aluminum balusters are now on the market. Available in an increasing range of colors and shapes (black and round being the most popular), these are installed in guide strips available from the manufacturer or into holes drilled on site using templates. These balusters are a striking improvement on the standard 2-inch square wood baluster and only slightly more costly.
The Most Common Wood Railing Styles
From top to bottom: vertical balusters, lattice, horizontal rails. (Horizontal rails are illegal in many jurisdictions because of the "ladder" effect that tempts small children to climb the railing.)
More stringent building code requirements have definitely made deck, stair and porch railings safer in recent years. Originally vertical balusters could be spaced 8" apart, then 6" and now 5" (down to 4" in some places). The consequence, however, has been to increasingly hide the view through the railing as more balusters are added for increased safety.
One effect has been to force designers to come up with materials you can see through
The cable rail is one such product. It is a series of wires strung close together under high tension. The wires, nearly invisible, provide protection without hiding the view but, because they are strung under high tension, very strong, usually metal, deck posts are required.
More recently low-cost tempered glass balusters have been offered to the market. Glass is, of course, the ultimate see-through material. Tempered glass panels are attached to top and bottom rails using special hardware. Strong but still somewhat fragile, glass is probably not the material of choice for homes with small children or very active deck usage.
We like stock panels for railing. Galvanized or stainless steel wire mesh stock panels were developed for livestock confinement, which is still their primary use, but they make an excellent deck railing material in mesh sizes of 4" or smaller. They are almost invisible, barely obstruct the view and are very, very strong. No kid is going to work his (or her) way through a stock panel unless familiar with the use of bolt cutters.
Pergolas, Roofs, and Other Overheads
Deck overheads offer shelter, add an interesting architecturally feature and can help re-define the space of all or a part of a deck. Roof beams and rafters can be ornately carved or painted to offer a little extra design excitement.
Deck overheads can be partially or fully covered. Wood is a common material used both in the structure and in the features of many overheads.
Many choose to hang flowers or wind chimes from them or grow climbing vines on the sides. Deck overheads can cover just a part of a deck such as a sitting area or a hot tub. Some choose to cover their deck entirely. Partially covered decks are offered in many styles. Some have small gaps between the boards similar to those found on the deck flooring. These gaps will let water pass through.
Some overheads, called "pergolas", feature large openings that add some protection from the sun but none from the rain. The can be, however, striking design elements that greatly change the feel of the deck. They also provide support for climbing vines that shade the deck in the heat of summer but allow ample sun during the other three seasons where more warmth is appreciated.
Some pergolas have rafters that are tilted on their side to better stop the sun from getting in. Some have actual shutters, and others roller shades.
These types of overheads shelter but also make one feel like they are still in nature.
Fully covered deck roofs are common over hot tubs. Fully covered enclosures provide constant shade and shelter from inclement weather. Deck roofs that are fully covered often have gutters installed to drain the water off — just like a regular roof. Fully covered roofs often are built with a slight pitch to ensure the water flows off readily.
Benches, Tables, and Storage
Benches can be either built into a deck or unattached to allow for easy furniture rearrangement. Benches add a comforting and inviting look to a deck.
Benches are best situated around the perimeter of your deck so that they are out of the way from general traffic. Bench styles range from the simple to the ornate. A built-in L shaped bench along two sides is even more elegant with cushioned seating. Portable benches also offer extra convenience and give a deck a distinct look. Benches can also be painted or feature carved designs for extra panache.
Benches require proper framing support. Built-in benches should be part of the initial deck design to ensure that they are properly secured to the joists and are adequately supported. Additional framing is often needed under a bench.
New building codes also require that bench seats be treated as if they are a deck floor so that the back of the bench or the handrail behind the bench must be treated like a handrail, including being just as high as a handrail when measured from the bench seat.
This makes sense as a safety measure since children can stand on the bench seat to more easily climb over a lower railing but it does make perimeter benches much less practical.
As a consequence perimeter seating has fallen out of favor. In its place are an increasing variety of deck chairs, recliners and loungers that are not fixed to the deck.
Storage can include chests, boxes and even cupboards. Frequently these are made off-site and attached to the deck when it is completed. One caution. A flat topped storage box or chest install next to a railing is going to be treated as a bench by a building inspector, and the bench rules will apply.
Electricity and Lighting
To make the most use of your deck, you will need at least one electrical outlet and some sort of lighting. Without lighting, your deck is largely unusable at night when, especially in the summer, it is the most enjoyable.
Deck lighting is a subject for an entire book. In short, though, you will see three general types of lighting on decks:
Area or Ambient Lighting: Some form of general overall lighting commonly in the form or overhead lights or carriage lights attached to the wall of the house. This lighting is usually fairly bright and intended to illuminate the entire deck.
Perimeter Lighting: Lighting that defines the edge of the deck and any stairways should be installed. Usually low-voltage, these unobtrusive lamps provide dim lighting that makes it safe and convenient to use the deck at night with the overhead lights turned off.
Accent lighting: Lighting, commonly spotlighting, that illuminates or highlights a special deck feature.
For general lighting, we like lamps at the top of newel posts, carriage lamps attached to the house and, if the deck has an overhead structure, overhead lamps often integrated into exterior fans. These arrangements seem to provide the most uniform and effective lighting with the fewest lamps.
Dimmer switches make it possible to have as much or as little general light as you want for any particular activity. We frequently also install motion sensors that turn on at least one lamp when movement on the deck is detected.
For perimeter lighting, we generally install small, low-voltage exterior lamps at the base of each newel post, at the top of the stairs, and on each stair tread. These are the spots you want to mark so guests and family do not fall off the edge or down the steps. They make it possible to use the deck at night without the glare of the main lights.
Other interesting lighting effects can be incorporated using rope lights and spotlights aimed at the deck from the yard.
Installation used to require an electrician to run wire from a service panel. Since it is exterior wiring that has to be protected from the elements, conduit is usually required which dramatically raises the price of the work. Today with effective solar-powered lighting the process is a lot simpler and does not require an electrician in most localities.
Before LED lights, solar-powering deck lighting was complicated because the incandescent and fluorescent lamps that — the only two choices at the time — used more power than an affordable solar panel could produce. This often meant one or two hours of solar-powered lighting each night was about the maximum available. With the advent of inexpensive LED lamps that use very little electricity, solar lighting persists much longer and can easily outlast the night.
Some solar lamps are self-contained. They have a solar panel built right into the lamp. Others require a separate solar panel to power multiple lamps with wire running to each lamp. The multi-lamp systems are more complicated to install. Self-contained lamps, however, are often difficult to orient so that the solar panel receives the strongest sunlight. We have found that self-contained lamps post cap lamps are a good choice with all other solar lighting drawing power from a single well-placed solar panel through wires.
Solar powered deck lights are good for the environment — clean and green, without harmful emissions. Solar energy is a renewable resource that will never run out, provided that the sun is shining. Fortunately, in most areas, solar energy is abundant in summer when decks are most likely to be in use. Employing solar powered energy means less use of grid electricity, which can result in a lower electric bill and fewer emissions into the atmosphere.