This post was last updated on September 2nd, 2020 at 10:46 am
Any homeowner doing home 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 an indispensable tool.
With so much choice, what is the best way to go about choosing a ladder? Where do you start?
There are several options for you to consider before buying any ladder. Ask yourself the following:
- What type is appropriate for the tasks you have?
- 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 you use the ladder indoors, outdoors, or both?
- Where are you going to store the ladder when it’s not in use?
Types of Ladder
The main ladder types used by homeowners are:
- Rigid (extension) ladder
- Telescopic extension ladder
- Folding multi-purpose ladder
- Telescoping multi-use ladder
- Attic ladder
Rigid and telescopic ladders are not free-standing and must be used against a secure surface - like an external wall, in a stairwell, or the trap-door to an attic.
Folding and telescoping multi-purpose types and stepladders are free-standing, and you can use them in several different ways.
All the above are portable ladders, but you would install an attic ladder in a fixed position as it only has a single function - to gain access to a loft or attic.
Rigid Extension 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, but shorter sizes can also be used indoors.
They can be a single length or they could have an extension or two 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.
Aluminum telescoping ladders slide down to a compact size that makes them very easy to move around and to store. They are easy to extend to the working height you want, are safe to use, and sturdy.
They won't extend to the heights achievable by the longest rigid ladders, and they can be a bit heavier than you expect, but are a useful ladder to have around the house.
Folding Multi-Purpose Ladders
These can be configured in a number of different positions to facilitate better access to the intended work area.
They can be used for low height work as well as higher projects, but don’t generally extend as high as some 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.
Telescoping Multi-Use Ladders
Telescoping multi-use ladders differ from the standard telescopic ladders in that you can configure them in several ways. They extend as well as fold.
You can use these versatile ladders as an adjustable extension ladder, a stepladder, a staircase, and a 90-degree ladder. If you have a pair of them, they can be set up as a scaffolding system as well.
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 easily indoors.
It is easy to run out of storage space in your home. Using attic space as an additional storage area can go a long way to easing the problems of knowing where to keep possessions that you do not use very often.
Items can be stored safely and out of sight in the attic, but you’ll need a ladder to access the space. There are several types of ladder you could use to reach the attic; however, the ideal solution is to have a built-in attic ladder that folds out of sight when not in use.
Aluminum and fiberglass are the main materials used to make ladders, although in the past wooden ladders were more common.
Aluminum 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 ladders are the most common type found in the average household.
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 extension 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 sixteen footer Louisville Ladder extension ladder. It comprises 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 that is not long enough for all your needs can be a frustrating experience.
Ladders are also rated by capacity - that is, how much weight they can carry. Not just the bodyweight 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 while 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.
Bodyweight 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 Type Rating
Extra heavy-duty industrial
Ladder Storage - Where will you keep yours?
Storing your ladder when it is not in use is another consideration to keep in mind. Some 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. There are not so many options with extension ladders.
If you don’t have space in a garage or a backyard storage building, or your ladder would be too long to fit undercover, where are you going to keep it? Long ladders stored outside and in view of other people are a potential home security risk.
Spend some time considering all the points raised above before choosing a ladder, and you will ensure you have the right type and length for the job in hand.
If you'll be working near an electrical supply at any time, ensure you use a ladder 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.
Modern ladders make it so much easier to tackle home maintenance tasks that you won't need to spend out on hiring professionals when you can easily do-it-yourself - with the right kit.
Many homeowners have several ladders - a multi-purpose ladder and a small stepladder - which will cater for most of the maintenance jobs they have at home, both indoors and out.
Just make sure you use the right ladder for the job, and stay safe!