Research in Progress – Building Safer Balconies

The scene is iconic, Juliet on her balcony calling out into the night, “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”, and Romeo calling up from the garden below to his star-crossed love, desperation in his heart. It is a scene that is known nearly all around the world. To many, it is what gives balconies their romantic appeal.

Construction in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Home Innovation Research Labs)

What a different scene it would have been if Shakespeare was not only a writer but an engineer who understood the difficulties of balcony architecture and construction. Balconies would be viewed with less rosy lenses if Shakespeare, instead of giving Romeo “love’s light wings,” gave him a balcony with moisture-driven rot and the moment he began to climb towards Juliet, the structure unmoored and flattened him under piles of destabilized building materials.

Although it may be lighthearted to imagine Romeo in a different balcony scenario, between 2001 and 2016 there have been approximately 239 balcony and deck collapses in the United States alone. In just two high-profile balcony collapses in Berkeley, CA and Chicago, IL, a total of nineteen fatalities resulted. As buildings age, construction defects become fatal defects.

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Fastener Follies: Avoiding the Complications of Corrosion

A creak here, a groan there—the familiar orchestra of an aging deck. Though in most cases these noises are innocent, some may betray a deeper problem. Beneath your feet could be impending disaster, a backyard platform poised to plummet to the ground below—even if the wood comprising it is completely sound.

Corroded metal fasteners have been responsible for several deck collapses across the country, and tragically, decks seldom fail when they are unoccupied. Researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL), in cooperation with the United States Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, have been investigating metal fasteners, and their corrosion problems, for years. They found that although wood is generally not corrosive, copper-based wood preservatives can react with the metal components of the deck, and lead to compromised structural integrity.

Corrosion of a galvanized joist hanger and nails supporting a wood deck treated with a copper-containing wood preservative. This deterioration would be easily spotted during a visual inspection.

In 2004, changes in regulations saw an influx of wood treatments with increased copper content. Although effective at preserving the wooden components of external structures, they increase the incidence of corrosion.

When two dissimilar metals (for example, the nails in a deck and the wood’s copper coating) come into contact with one another, the electron exchange between the two materials begins the corrosion process. In addition to producing unsightly rust, this significantly weakens the metal.

Fortunately, there are several steps you can take to mitigate these hazards. Because dry materials do not react with one another, FPL stresses that, “proper moisture management is the most important thing one can do to reduce corrosion of metals in treated wood.” This includes preventing moisture from seeping in through the ends of wooden components (where it moves into the timber up to 10 times faster than from other directions) and designing roofs and overhangs so that they do not drain onto lower structures. Researchers maintain that, “if the wood is kept dry, both the wood and fasteners can last for centuries.”

Illustration of the importance of roof overhangs for protecting wood from biodeterioration and corrosion. The right side of the beam is protected by the large roof overhang, whereas the left side is exposed to rain.

Illustration of the importance of roof overhangs for protecting wood from biodeterioration and corrosion. The right side of the beam is protected by the large roof overhang, whereas the left side is exposed to rain.

Isolating the metals from one another is another step one can take. The most common way of doing this is through non-metallic coatings, such as those found on some screws or bolts designed for exterior use. Extreme care must be taken however when using coated metals in construction, as the coatings can be easily damaged during the installation process.

Finally, avoiding metal-on-metal contact altogether is a surefire method to prevent corrosion, but the hardest to implement. Although copper preservatives and metal nails are sometimes unavoidable neighbors in deck construction, being aware of metallic washers used on dissimilar metal bolts, or metal signs hung by metallic screws, can help put a damper on the corrosion process. Using non-conductive washers with metal signs or joist hangers, for example, can significantly decrease the speed of the corrosion and extend the life of the metal by decades.

Preventing corrosion is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, with over $100 billion spent in protective coatings alone. It is a problem as old as the material itself and wherever moisture and metal are found, corrosion is sure to follow. By utilizing proper construction techniques, moisture management, and, of course, regular inspections of your deck or home, your fasteners can last a lifetime—and your deck and family can be spared the tragic results of corroded metal fasteners.

For more information, please see the FPL’s Guide for Materials Selection and Design for Metals Used in Contact with Copper-Treated Wood.

Decking Dilemma: Simple Solutions for Problems Underfoot

This summer, as you fire up the grill, you may notice that your deck lacks the luster it may have had when it was new. Before you run to the store and stock up on wood cleaner, take some tips from researchers at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL).

wash-deckThe popularity of wood decks (and the desire to keep them looking bright and new) has led to a proliferation of commercial cleaners and brighteners. The active ingredient in many of these products is sodium percarbonate, which although a bleach, is an oxygen bleach rather than a chlorine bleach (like the one found in your laundry room).

Oxygen bleaches can remove growths such as mildew, and have been reported to be less likely to damage wood surfaces than a chlorine bleach, particularly with low-density woods like western redwood and Alaska yellow-cedar.

It is difficult to compare the advantages and disadvantages of oxygen and chlorine bleach, however, due to the wide range of ingredient concentrations, additives, and differences in wood substrates that have been used to evaluate the cleaners. If you look closely though, the active ingredient in some cleaners may actually just be household bleach—though some may have a special detergent to enhance the product’s cleansing properties.

At the extreme end of cleaner spectrum are products which use sodium hydroxide. Sodium hydroxide is a strongly alkaline chemical that pulps wood and is used in some paint strippers. These cleaners may be used, but only as a last resort, for example when mildew is embedded in a surface finish.

Some manufacturers advertise that their cleaners or brighteners restore color to wood, but cleaning wood does not add color. Removing mildew reveals the original color and brightening the wood may make it appear as if it has more color. If you want to restore color, stain the wood.

Some commercial “cleaners” simply pulp the wood surface and then require power washing to remove the product (and the wood). In this case, the color is “restored” because the surface of the wood is removed. Sanding will give the same result over these high-priced alternatives.

There are a lot of choices for wood cleaners and brighteners out there, but before you make any decisions, consider your needs and the product’s ingredients. Being an informed consumer will ensure that your deck looks its best this summer, and that you’ll have some extra change left over for another round of brats for the grill.

The information in this blog post was adapted from the Forest Product Laboratory’s (FPL) Wood Handbook: Wood as an Engineering Material