When I worked in a welding shop, one of our best clients was a local builder who specialized in large homes built to custom-designed plans commissioned by wealthy customers. He was a reliable customer that the front office loved, but back in the welding shop, we dreaded seeing his name on our shop drawings.
The reason was that the home's design and specifications would always change before construction was done, and he would neglect to pass those changes on to us. When we'd go to install the railings and other metalwork we'd carefully designed to spec months earlier, they wouldn't fit, and we would have to make hasty field modifications to squeeze them into place. It would sometimes be necessary to rebuild entire sections and correct the baluster spacing just to make the pattern look right, which isn't easy to do on-site. Modular railing systems, on the other hand, are much easier to install to meet code. They also come with baluster spacing already set. All this makes them cheaper and easier to install as well as longer-lasting, for reasons we'll talk about further along in this post.
Understanding Railing Parts
Understanding why it's so much easier to install modular railing systems requires some knowledge of the parts of a railing system and the codes that govern their safety. There are three basic parts that go into a railing:
- Posts are the vertical elements that hold a railing up, and are attached at the base to the floor or stairs. Sometimes the posts that hold up deck railings are the same posts that hold up the deck’s surface. They’ve merely been extended beyond the surface of the deck along the perimeter to serve double duty as railing posts.
- Rails run horizontally and in parallel between the posts. These are responsible for supporting the spindles, balusters, or other infill that goes between them. They also give railings their names.
- Infill is the material that goes between the rails. This is usually in the form of closely-spaced rods, dowels, or round or square tubing, called balusters or spindles. Other materials that are used include glass, stainless steel cable, and even materials like wire mesh, lattices, and plywood. The infill does most of a railing’s job, keeping people and pets from squeezing through. It’s also the most visible part of a railing, so a lot of attention is paid to its appearance.
In custom railings, all of these pieces are welded together, often on-site, which can create issues like burned flooring from sparks. Welding on-site also destroys the rust-resistant coating of galvanization that steel comes with, which can lead to corrosion problems down the road. Modular railing systems, on the other hand, don't have these issues, and they make meeting codes easier, too.
Meeting Railing Safety Codes
The safety regulations around railings specify that they must be able to resist a certain amount of force coming at them from the side, which is why the posts are usually placed no more than six feet apart. Railings must also be at least 36 inches in height on a residential structure, and 42 inches in height on a commercial or multi-family structure. On stairs, the required measurement is between 34 inches and 38 inches above the nosing of the stairs. These requirements aren't that difficult to meet when designing or fabricating a custom railing.
The requirement that does make things difficult states that whatever is used for infill cannot allow a four-inch sphere to pass through it anywhere between the walking surface and the top of the railing, with a six-inch exception allowed between the top of a stair tread and the bottom of the rails. What that means is that balusters can't be too far apart, and the bottom rail of the railing can't be too high above the surface of the deck. When you're working with railings that are simply a series of balusters, this isn't too much of an issue. If the railing is a unique custom design with a lot of flourishes, it can be a problem as every last bit of the design has to be adjusted to meet code and match the other elements of the design in a pleasing way.
One of the biggest advantages of modular railing is that these systems are usually designed to meet and exceed code in terms of strength, height, and spacing, taking a big concern off the plate of homeowners, contractors, and installers.
Why Choose Modular Railing Systems?
Along with meeting code requirements, modular systems also make installing a railing easy, even for a DIYer. The railing panels are cut to length, if necessary, brackets are installed at the right height on each post, and railing sections are mounted into the brackets and fastened with screws. The only essentials are the ability to read a tape measure and the possession of a cordless drill with the appropriate bits.
Along with this ease of installation, modular railing systems also benefit from being engineered and built in controlled conditions. That means that a modular railing panel will have been thoroughly tested, will meet code, and in most cases will exceed code requirements for strength under loads. This a nice safety assurance to have in a residence, and vitally important in commercial and multi-family residences. It's also why modular railing systems make some of the best apartment and condo balcony railings. This engineering assurance carries over to the coatings that help railings resist rust and stay strong over the long haul.
Coatings-their quality and type, when they were applied during manufacture, and how many were used-make the difference between a railing that will last a few years and a railing that will last dozens of years. Coatings prepared under controlled environments bond to metal and prevent corrosion better than even the best paint for metal railings. There is a caveat to all this; not all modular railing systems are made with an eye towards quality, and there are those out there that meet minimum codes and use basic coatings that don't stand up well to humidity and UV rays. For railings that stay attractive and functional without requiring replacement or maintenance, it's important to look for quality engineering and testing, along with multiple corrosion-resistant coatings.
The modular railing systems offered by Fortress Railing have this engineering and a multi-layer coating system. Their steel railings start off pre-galvanized and are given an additional e-coating before receiving a high-quality powder coat. If you’d like to find a dealer, installer, or a place to buy railings made by Fortress, use our contact form. The same careful coating process is used in Fortress Building Products’ long-lasting steel fences from Fortress Fence. Even the specially-designed fasteners used to install the Infinity composite decking from Fortress Deck have a unique nano coating to prevent corrosion. It’s part of the way Fortress makes products–with care and attention to detail throughout the process.