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Rising to the Occasion

A good ladder is one of the most important tools in the home.


If you don't use a ladder for some chore around the house nearly every weekend, you're either a very new homeowner or about to sign an NBA contract.

A good ladder--or ladders, in most cases--is as valuable as any tool you can own. Every household should have a stepladder--wood, aluminum or fiberglass--and an aluminum extension ladder.

Another option is an articulating ladder, which can imitate extension and stepladders and do some more tricks as well.

So whether you're ladder shopping for the first time or upgrading, here's what you need to know.

The first order of business is to make sure you buy a ladder that is tall enough for the tasks you'll ask it to perform.

Outside. The average one-story house measures about 12 feet from the roof line to the ground, and about 20 feet from the peak of the gable to the ground. That calls for at least a 24-foot extension ladder. But these dimensions vary a lot with roof pitch and how much the ground slopes at your house. To be sure, measure from a high window.

Inside. Most ceilings are 8 feet, so a 6-foot stepladder will do. But if you have a cathedral ceiling, which can easily run over 12 feet, you'll need a 10- or even 12-foot stepladder.

In addition to deciding on a size, you'll need to choose from one of four maximum load ratings:

* IA Industrial (extra heavy duty): 300 pounds

* I Industrial (heavy duty): 250 pounds

* II Commercial (medium): 225 pounds

* III Household (light): 200 pounds

Ignore the descriptive names of these ratings, and look at the numbers--these describe the maximum weight the ladder can safely hold. At a rating of 225 pounds, Type II ladders are a good all-around choice for homeowners. Even if you don't weigh that much, you have to factor in that 40-pound air conditioner you're going to haul up or down the ladder with you.

Ladder safety. According to statistics, the most dangerous household tool is a ladder. So whether you're buying your first extension ladder or you own three of them, it's worth reviewing basic ladder safety from time to time.

Ladder safety is just common sense--but we all get lazy and take shortcuts. The most common one? Not making the ladder stable before climbing.

Part of the stability of extension ladders is the angle of lean. The bottom of the ladder should be 1 foot away from the wall for every 4 feet of height. So if the top of the ladder rests 20 feet off the ground, the base should be 5 feet away from the building.

It's also tempting to work on the top rungs of a ladder to get a little extra height. Don't. If you lose your balance, there will be nothing there to grab but air. For stepladders, make the third step from the top the final one.

Recommended work height for a 16-foot ladder is 13 feet. For a 24-foot ladder, it's 21 feet. For a 28-foot ladder, 24 feet.

Another source of ladder danger comes from power lines. You can't assume their insulation is intact, and it's instinct to grab at anything nearby when trying to recover your balance. Give them a wide berth.

Also avoid leaning. It's tempting, but once your ladder goes into a skid, you're helpless. Climb down and move it, or add a ladder and ladder jacks--small, adjustable platforms that fit over the rungs (you can rent them)--with a scaffolding plank in between.

If you're going on the roof, here's another important precaution. Make sure the top of the ladder extends 4 feet above the roof line to make climbing back down safer.

How Many?

Most households should at least have a stepladder and an extension ladder. An option for some homes is an articulating ladder, which has three sets of multi-position hinges that enable you to use it as a stepladder or straight ladder, or in a number of other positions.

For example, you can place one end on the floor and the other on stairs when painting a stairwell.

However, articulating ladders are expensive and, like many multipurpose tools, aren't quite as good at a given job as their dedicated cousins. Still, they're very handy.

Articulating Ladders

* Make sure hinges enable you to change positions by yourself.

* Flared ends provide stability. Some models also have a stabilizer bar on one end.

* Feet should be covered with slip-resistant rubber. Also look for slip-resistant rungs.

Aluminum Stepladders

* Inside spreader braces are the key to a steady ladder. Make sure they are beefy and have double-riveted anti-pinch hinges.

* Feet should be covered with thick, slip-resistant plastic "shoes."

* Look for heavy angle braces beneath the top and bottom steps. They add strength to the stepladder and help defeat wobble.

* A molded-plastic top provides protection.

Wood Stepladders

* Steps should be at least 3 1/2 inches wide and have radius edges and grooves for sure footing. A metal tie rod beneath each step adds extra support. Metal braces on the bottom step help keep the ladder steady.

* Spreader braces should be made of heavy-duty riveted steel. Look for pinch-proof hinges as well.

* Feet should be cut so they have full contact with the ground.

Fiberglass Stepladders

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