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Choosing a Ladder

Any homeowner doing their own maintenance or home improvements will appreciate the usefulness of a ladder or two. It is not just professional builders, painters and roofers who find ladders such an indispensable tool.

Ladder Buyer's Guide

With so much choice when it comes to buying … where do you start?

There are a number of important options for you to consider before buying any ladder. You need to decide the following:

  • ​What type is appropriate for the work you need it for?
  • What should the maximum height of the ladder be to reach the job safely?
  • What is the maximum weight the ladder will need to bear?
  • Will the ladder be used indoors, outdoors or both?
  • Where are you going to store the ladder when it’s not in use?

Types of Ladder

The main types of ladder used in home maintenance are rigid (extension) ladders which are not free-standing, and folding or multi-purpose ladders and stepladders which are free-standing, and can be used for a number of different uses.

  • Rigid Ladders are a fixed length and need to be supported against something - leaned up against a wall, for example. They are generally used for high up work areas. This is the main type of ladder for heavy duty and professional building work. They can also be used indoors.

    They may have an extension that slides along the main length to increase the reach of the ladder. Each of these sections needs to overlap by at least three feet for safety.
  • Folding or multi-purpose ladders can be configured in a number of different shapes and positions to facilitate better access to the intended work area. They are equally useful for indoor and outdoor projects.

    They can be used for low height work as well as higher projects, but don’t generally extend as high as rigid ladders. They can be used over obstacles that might otherwise prevent a ladder being used, and are equally useful indoors as well as outdoors.
  • Step Ladders are the most commonly used type of ladder in households today. They are small and lightweight units that can be quickly folded out A-frame style to use for low height working - painting ceilings, cleaning windows, reaching tops of cupboards for example. Because of their compact size they can usually be stored indoors.

Ladder Materials

Aluminum and fibreglass are the main materials used to make ladders, although in the past wooden ladders were more common.

Aluminium is a strong and lightweight material that is both inexpensive and durable, and is an ideal choice for home users.

Fiberglass ladders are mainly used by people working around electrical installations. They are rated the safest type to use as they do not conduct electricity.

You can still get wooden ladders, as well as those made of steel or plastic, but aluminum is still the most commonly used for household use.

How Long Should Your Ladder Be?

Getting the length right when choosing a ladder is important. It is not as straightforward as it may seem.

The physical length of a ladder does not equate to its maximum working length. For example, with a rigid ladder, the higher your ladder is extended, the further out from the wall, say, it has to be positioned to remain stable. You don't climb a ladder when it is vertical, it is angled against something. An old rule-of-thumb says the ladder base should move out 1 foot for every four feet in height. So you lose some usable height there.

Also, you cannot safely stand on the very top rungs of a ladder. You will stand on the fourth rung down so you have something to hold on to, because you need to reduce the risk of losing your balance and falling. So you lose some more usable height here.

If you are using an extension ladder, then you also have to factor in the required overlap of the two or three sections as well. For this, follow the advice given by the manufacturer, or work to an absolute minimum overlap of three feet per section when a ladder is fully extended.

As an example, let's look at a Werner extension ladder. The D1116 is a 16 feet aluminum ladder comprising two 8 feet sections, one sliding atop the other. When it is being used fully extended the ladder will measure 13 feet from base to top because the two sections need to overlap by three feet to remain stable. That is, they are not being used end-to-end.

With rungs being about a foot apart, when you stand on the fourth rung from the top (for safety reasons) your feet will be at the 10 feet height. If you are of average height that means you will have a reach height of 15 feet.

It might seem confusing at first but it really is straightforward once you've run through it a few times.

Before you make a purchase, the important thing to know is the maximum height you will ever need to work at. Buying a ladder which is not long enough for all your needs can be a frustrating experience.

Ladder Capacity​

Ladders are also rated by capacity - that is, how much weight they can carry. Not just the body weight of the user, but also the weight of any materials and tools being taken up the ladder at the same time, or being hung from the ladder whilst the work is going on.

Someone of average weight using a suitably rated ladder could put undue strain on it if, for example, they were also carrying an excessive weight of tools and building materials.

Body weight and tools plus the weight of a bucket of cement or a sling of shingles for example, could put excessive pressure on a ladder and make it seriously unsafe. So check the ladder capacity before purchase.

The table below shows the official duty rating (capacity) of all ladders.​

Ladder TypeDuty Rating
(pounds)
Description
Type 1AA Ladder375Extra heavy-duty industrial
Type 1A Ladder300Heavy-duty industrial
Type 1 Ladder250Heavy-duty industrial
Type 2 Ladder225Medium-duty commercial
Type 3 Ladder200Light-duty household

Ladder Storage - Where will you keep yours?

​Storing your ladder when it is not in use is another consideration to keep in mind. Many ladders fold down into a compact shape and can easily be stored under the stairs or in a garage or shed. They are also easy to move around.

​If you don’t have space in a garage or a backyard storage building, or your ladder would be too long to fit under cover, where are you going to keep it? Long ladders stored outside and in view of people passing by are a potential home security risk.

To Summarize:

Spend some time considering all the points raised above before buying, and you will ensure you have the right type and length of ladder for the job in hand.

If you think you may have to work near an electrical supply at any time, then ensure you use a ladder that is made of non-conductive material like fiberglass. The risks of electrocuting yourself are very high when working around electricity whether on an extension or stepladder so pay heed to your safety.

Many homeowners have a step ladder and a multi-purpose ladder which manage to cover most of the the maintenance jobs they have at home, both indoors and out. Just make sure you use the right type and length of ladder for any project and stay safe.

 

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