Attic pull-down ladders, also called attic pull-down stairs, are collapsible ladders that are permanently attached to the attic floor. Home owners can use these ladders to access their attics without being required to carry a portable ladder.
Homeowners, not professional carpenters, usually install attic pull-down ladders. Evidence of this distinction can be observed in consistently shoddy and dangerous work that rarely meets safety standards. Some of the more common defective conditions I’ve observed while doing home inspections are:
* Cut bottom cord of structural truss. Often, homeowners will cut through a structural member in the field while installing a pull-down ladder, unknowingly weakening the structure. Structural members should not be modified in the field without an engineer’s approval.
* Fastened with improper nails or screws. Homeowners often use drywall or deck screws rather than the standard 16d penny nails or ¼” x 3” lag screws. Nails and screws that are intended for other purposes may have reduced shear strength and they may not support pull-down ladders.
* Fastened with an insufficient number of nails or screws. Manufacturers provide a certain number of nails with instructions that they all be used, and they probably do this for a good reason.
* Lack of insulation. Hatches in many houses (especially older ones) are not likely to be weather-stripped and/or insulated. An uninsulated attic hatch allows air from the attic to flow freely into the home, which may cause the heating or cooling system to run overtime. An attic hatch cover box can be installed to increase energy savings.
* Loose mounting bolts. This condition is more often caused by age rather than installation, although improper installation will hasten the loosening process.
* Attic pull-down ladders are cut too short. Stairs should reach the floor.
* Attic pull-down ladders are cut too long. This causes pressure at the folding hinge, which can cause breakage.
* Compromised fire barrier when installed in the garage. When the attic space above the garage is opened to the attic above the house then the drywall on the garage ceiling is part of the fire separation wall. Unless a UL listed fire rated pull down ladder is used the fire separation will be compromised.
If you are planning on installing a pull-ladder in your garage or attic to make use of storage area, have the structural framing checked by a qualified contractor or engineer to make sure it can handle the additional loads. As a certified professional home inspector I have seen a lot of dangerous installations. If you are not confident that you can install a pull-down ladder please have it done by a professional.