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Attic Ladders – Choosing a Stairway for Attic Access

One of the small jobs I did last year was to install a folding attic ladder for an old customer. He just wanted a simple means by which to gain access to his attic. The intent was to store Christmas decorations and other lightweight articles that were taking up space in his first floor area. He asked me to keep the cost of the project to a minimum. I, in turn, asked him how often he thought he would use the ladder. He stated that six times a year would be the average usage. Based upon this number, I chose to use an inexpensive attic ladder system. I told him that I would install a very basic system. He understood and looked at the assembly before I cut the rough opening. It turns out that everyone was satisfied. He feels the ladder is adequate and I feel comfortable that the ladder will serve him well for the next 10 to 15 years.

Wide Variety of Systems

There is a big difference in types of attic access systems. Many people are familiar with the type I put in for my friend. They allow you to get up and down, but that is about it. Did you know that you can purchase aluminum folding ladders? Did you know that you can get a true disappearing stairway? One that has a singular one-piece stairway that glides into position with the pull of a chord? These disappearing stairways are very similar to the regular stairs you use in your house now. Most people have never seen these beauties!

The Angle of Inclination

The inexpensive attic folding ladders are tough to navigate. Why? Because they are designed to operate at an angle similar to a ladder you would put up to paint. The angle of inclination of most folding attic ladders is 64 degrees. This may not seem like much to you. Trust me, it is steep. A regular staircase is usually between 40 and 45 degrees. The true disappearing stairways split the difference. They have an angle of inclination that can range between 53 and 57 degrees.

Self-Regulated Industry

For many years the attic access ladder and stairway companies operated with no regulations whatsoever. As you can imagine this makes for a wide variety of quality and safety standards.

Recently the industry has agreed to author a set of minimum standards. These standards are currently awaiting approval by one of the major standards institutes. When these standards become effective, it will help to provide the consumer with a set of rules by which to judge the winners from the losers. I don't expect these standards to be ready until late in 1997.

The standards will probably be somewhat confusing for the average homeowner. However, I'm convinced that the net result will be stairways that support a minimum load, quite possibly 300 lbs. The treads and stringers of the stairways will have to be a minimum size and specific grade of lumber.

There will always be stair companies that build below and above the standards. Building above the standards always means higher cost. If you want a really good set of attic steps before the standards go into effect, use price as a guideline. I'm confident that you will get a great stairway or folding ladder if you spend in excess of $200.

The Fine Points

When shopping for an attic stairway or folding ladder look at the fine points. Look for thick treads and stringers. A thickness in excess of 3/4 inch is preferred. Look for metal rods beneath the treads. These rods stiffen each tread. Pay attention to the thickness of the hardware, hinges, springs, etc. Heavier hardware will perform for longer periods of time. Read the warranties. You might find that one is much stronger than another.

Measurements are Critical

When shopping for attic stair systems, pay attention to the dimensions. Some models want the dimension from the floor to the ceiling. Others want the measurement from the attic floor to the floor below. Be sure you check to see if the floor below is level! Anticipate where the folding ladder will hit in relationship to the ceiling or attic above. This is the measurement you are looking for.

If you do this job yourself, be sure to sit down and read the instructions twice before opening your toolbox. If you do not understand a step, call the manufacturer or ask for help.

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