Do I Need a Handrail?
I’m building a set of stairs on a new deck and wondering if the building code requires a handrail?
There will be two 11 in. wide treads and three 7 1/2 in. risers.
The 2015 IRC requires a handrail on at least one side of stairs with four or more risers. Since your stairs will only have three risers you don’t need to install a handrail.
It’s important to accurately count the number of risers. Some people equate the number of treads with the number of risers and don’t count the last riser from the top tread onto the deck surface as a riser – it indeed is and must be counted in the total. The first riser will be between the bottom landing at the grade to the first tread and the last riser will be between the last tread and the deck surface. Generally the number of risers is one more than the number of stair treads.
And while you may not need a handrail according to code, you may have to install a guard (aka: guardrail). Some people confuse the terms handrail and guardrail. A handrail is the rail you grab onto to steady yourself when climbing or descending stairs. A guardrail is the structural rail, posts and infill (often balusters) that prevents you from falling off the side of a deck or stairway.
In most cases when you aren’t required to install a handrail you won’t need a guard. But depending on the surrounding grade, you may need a guard. Whenever the grade is greater than 30 inches above a walking surface (think ‘stair treads’) when measured below any point within 36 inches horizontally then you need to install a guard.
This sketch shows a case where there are only 3 risers so a handrail is not required. On the right side there is a retaining wall and the grade drops more than 30 inches below the top stair tread. Because of the drop in the grade the right side of the stairs a guard needs to be installed (and the deck surface will also need a guard on that side). The left side of the stairs does not need a guard.
The interesting thing is that if you did have deck that is say, 29 inches off grade, you won’t need guards along the deck or stairway.
But since there will be four risers at 7 1/4 inches each to get from grade to the top of the deck, a handrail will have to be installed as shown in the sketch above.
You would not have to install infill between the posts or the top of the rail and the treads since a guard isn’t required. All you’d need is a post at the bottom, a post at the top and a graspable handrail between them.
Finally, when a handrail is needed it is installed at a plumb height of 34 in. to 38 in. off the plane of the stair tread nosings. Many years ago the handrail height was lower and many people don’t realize it has increased.
Anything wrong with this picture? Do the stairs require a handrail? Or not?
Less than 4 risers and the stairs don't require a handrail. But because of the drop in grade on the right side, a guardrail is required.
These stairs have 4 risers do a handrail is required. However, since the top of the deck is less than 30 inches guards are not reqired.