By: Rebecca Reilly
Balcony railings can be seen all over New York City. Typically found on residential buildings, railings are almost always exposed to heavy winds and freeze-thaw cycles. Building owners should ensure that their balcony railings are regularly monitored and maintained to ensure that they remain safe.
The Department of Buildings’ minimum code required height for balcony railings is 42” (2), with an allowance of 1”. Balcony railings below 42” are also considered a SWARMP (Safe With a Repair and Maintenance Program) condition in FISP (formerly Local Law 11/98) reports. Building management should be aware of residents applying flooring treatments to their balconies, since this typically decreases the railing heights.
There are several ways of testing balcony railings. Pull tests can be performed at the railing anchors. Additionally, a testing apparatus can be used to apply specified loads along the railing. According to the NYC Building Code, a railing must withstand a 200-point load (1) in any direction. This means that if a localized or concentrated load of 200 lbs was applied on any location on the railing, little to no deflection would result. The code also requires that a railing withstand a 50 lbs per foot uniform load; this means that if a load of 50 lbs was applied along the entire length of the balcony, there would be little to no deflection in the railing.
There are also requirements regarding the openings between the balusters. These vertical or horizontal openings should not exceed 4” to prevent small children or animals from falling through the railing system. Typically, the width of openings in a rigid post railing system does not change. However, the cables in the recently popular cable railing systems tend to loosen over time, resulting in greater than 4” openings. Building management should regularly monitor the condition of the cables in these types of railing systems.
Balcony railings should also be regularly inspected for loose fasteners, peeling paint, and corrosion. Minor maintenance to address these issues can deter more costly future repairs, and more importantly, prevent unsafe conditions. Railing posts that are set in concrete slabs should be monitored to ensure that the sealant is intact; if the sealant fails, the grout surrounding the posts is exposed to moisture and will deteriorate. This could eventually lead to the dangerous loosening of the post.
Building managers and owners should regularly monitor and maintain balcony railings in order to comply with code and FISP (formerly Local Law) requirements, and to delay or prevent expensive restoration repairs. First and foremost, however, responsible building owners should ensure that balconies remain safe spaces for residents to enjoy.