Pull-down stairs for attic access are a common addition in many homes and they are, in fact, becoming more common as they are being placed in many new homes as well. When improperly installed, however, they present a high level of risk for the homeowner and others who use the stairs.
Location: The first consideration when installing a set of these stairs is location. The installer must determine a convenient location and consider which framing considerations might make the installation more difficult, if not impossible. A common deficiency found with attic pull-down stairs is that the lower chords of trusses (and often the web members) may be cut to allow installation. Trusses cannot be modified without doing an engineering analysis, however. Another defect is improperly installed headers between ceiling joists if the installation required that they be cut.
Best practice is to install the ladder assembly parallel to the ceiling framing whenever possible. Keep in mind, due to modern energy efficiency codes, pull-down ladders in newer homes need to be sealed (usually weather-stripped) and sometimes insulated to meet these requirements. Home inspectors can recommend adding insulation and weather-stripping for older homes to improve the weather envelope.
Fasteners: A common deficiency in installation is the use of drywall or other screws in situations for which the installation instructions specifically call for 16d nails or lag screws. Often, you’ll find clearly visible stickers on the ladder frame detailing fastener requirements. Understand that most screws have much less shear strength than nails; they break instead of bending when stressed. This is certainly the case with drywall screws, which are hardened and brittle. As we know, lag screws are “beefier” than drywall or deck screws.
Measurements: Pull-down stairs need to be measured so that the stair section matches the height requirements at a proper angle for safe use. Often, the stair section is too short to properly reach the floor below or the bottoms of the stringers are not cut at the proper angle to meet the floor flush. Point-loading the corner of the stringer causes stress that might result in splitting. These are all reportable safety hazards.
Using Caution with Pull-down Stairs
Before traversing the ladder, carefully check the hardware and the stairs, stringers and treads. Often, components are bent, broken or otherwise damaged, and these components should be repaired or replaced prior to use. Be sure to check that the steel rod is in place under the treads (some have this feature).
Home inspectors often are tempted to use a damaged stairway. Resist this temptation! We are aware of several home inspectors who have been injured—some permanently disabled—when using damaged ladders. We’re also aware of lawsuits against homeowners after service personnel were injured when the stairs failed.
Some older attic ladders use counterweights to make the stair assembly easier to use; however, these old-style ladders can be clumsy to use and often the counterweight system is damaged. For example, the ladder may slide quickly in an uncontrolled manner, so use extra caution when opening one of these ladders.
Pull-down Ladders in Garages and Fire Safety
We frequently see attic pull-down ladders installed in garages. Aside from the defects already noted, the most common problem with pull-down ladders in garages is that these ladders may breach the fire envelope separation between the garage and the house attic.
The inspector should first determine where the envelope exists; often a drywall separation is installed from the floor to the roofline between the house and garage, including any attic space. In this case, a standard non-rated pull-down ladder can be installed in the garage because the garage and attic are separated from the house. In many regions of the United States, there is no requirement for fire separation between a garage and attic, aside from ½ inch drywall (or equivalent), unless there is living space above the garage.
Many times, attic pull-down doors are added in garages when the garage drywall ceiling is part of the separation envelope from the dwelling. In this type of case, the inspector typically can see the house attic when entering the garage attic via the pull-down ladder. There are two choices for this type of case: Install vertical drywall to the underside of the roof at the house juncture or install a rated pull-down ladder assembly. Simply laminating drywall to a standard pull-down ladder is inadequate, as it makes the unit heavier so the springs may sag and it is not a rated assembly.
Important note of caution: Your local Authority Having Jurisdiction may interpret this requirement differently. Some may allow laminating drywall to the underside of a standard pull-down; others may simply allow a standard pull-down to be installed in the ceiling of a garage. Best practice is to obtain the interpretation from your local building department so that you are not reporting a defect (or a non-defect) when the local building department representative would disagree.
Most rated pull-down ladders in garages come in 20- or 30-minute models. Generally, a 20-minute model would be the minimum, per the International Residential Code (IRC). These ladders are clearly labeled as rated for the appropriate type of use.
Certainly, we could go on to describe many more potential defects. We hope this article has provided some insight regarding pull-down attic stairs. Stay safe!