Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene No Hands on Deck

No flashing can lead to serious trouble

By Walter Jowers

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Last Sunday, in Lyons, Ore., a wood deck packed with wedding guests collapsed, killing one woman, leaving another in critical condition, and injuring 23 other people. The unfortunate folks fell about 40 feet, to the bottom of a bluff near the Little North Santiam River.

Within the last few years, I remember two other collapsing decks in the news: One loaded with charity workers in Atlanta, another loaded with Deadheads at a Grateful Dead concert. Of course, the investigation into the Oregon deck failure is just beginning, and I never saw any final reports on why the other two decks fell. But I can tell you this: When I hear about a deck falling off a house, the first thing I think about is the flashing.

I think about the flashing because I hardly ever see a properly flashed deck, even at a spanking-new house. I ought to be seeing deck flashing at new houses, because flashing has been required by local (CABO) building codes since at least 1995. Even so, most builders aren't installing it, and most local codes inspectors aren't enforcing this part of the code.

I know, some of y'all are wondering, "What's flashing?" Well, it's the sheet metal that's supposed to be put in places where water can get into a house.

Most of the time, decks are attached to houses by way of a ledger, which is a big, 2-inch-thick board that's bolted to the house. If there's proper sheet-metal flashing between the ledger and the house, rainwater can't get into the house wall, so water can't rot the house framing, which supports the deck. The concept is simple and goes back to the pre-sheet-metal days, when workers hammered lead into sheets and stuck it between chimneys and roof tiles to keep roofs from leaking.

I can think of three reasons why so many local builders don't flash decks: 1. It costs a little something. 2. The codes inspectors aren't making them do it. 3. You hardly ever see a legitimate sheet-metal smith on a residential building job these days. Sheet-metal workers (a.k.a. tin knockers) have been replaced by Caulk Boy, the guy at the absolute bottom of the laborer pecking order--the poor soul whose job it is to shoot goo around all the windows, doors, and sloppy wood joints and keep the trash fire stoked. Understand, caulk is a good and useful thing. But don't believe for a minute that it works as well as flashing, and don't believe that it lasts more than a few years.

You new-house buyers, listen to me: Make sure your builder flashes your deck, and make sure he does it right. It's a code requirement, so don't put up with any excuses. Flashing the joint where the deck joins the house is an easy job if it's done before the deck is built. Once the deck is built, there's no good or easy way to do the flashing right. If the builder squawks, tell him I said to go back and read the 1995 CABO, section 703.8.

Leaving out the deck flashing is not just some little harmless oversight. Over time, water will most likely seep into the wall framing, and rot will ensue. Even if the deck doesn't fall off the house, the wall framing could sag, doors and windows could get all crooked and start binding, cracks could start to appear. It could get ugly.

In the recent Oregon case, the deck failure was extremely ugly. "By the time I turned back around, the deck was gone," said Julia Hansen, daughter of the bride. "I saw some legs flying, but the rest of the people were already down." Hansen told the Associated Press that her mother had the deck built about five years ago, and that it had passed a recent inspection.

Assuming that the person who did the inspection knew what he was doing, he might've been able to see whether the deck was nailed or bolted to the house (should've been bolted), he might've been able to see whether or not the floor joists were properly attached to the ledger, and he should've been able to see whether or not there was any flashing. But he wouldn't have been able to see any rot in the wall framing. That rot would've been all covered up. That's how these deck-collapses sneak up on people.

In our part of the world, builders seem to think that simply bolting the deck to the house is good enough. My Atlanta buddy and home-inspection colleague Charlie Wood disagrees. "You can bolt a deck with 1-inch through-bolts on 3-inch centers if you want," he says. "But if you don't flash [the deck], when it fails, you'll get a band--kind of like a spiked collar--with all the bolts, complete with nuts and washers, on one side, and a bunch of rotted splinters on the other."

Now, who would want something like that to happen? Y'all make sure your decks get flashed, OK? Especially the tall ones. I just hate these stories where people get hurt because some buckethead skimped on a hundred-dollar flashing job.

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