When is Fence a Railing and Railing a Fence?
A recent conversation went as follows:
Client: “Hi, we have a pool in our complex that doesn’t have a fence around it. We thought about erecting a block wall but decided that this would be overkill, so can you give us information on a fence?”
Advanced Products: “Absolutely. We are a railing manufacturer but can also supply fence if needed.”
Client: “Yes, that’s what I need, a fence, you know, a railing around the pool”.
This necessitated a more detailed explanation of the difference between “fencing” and “railing”. Most people have little reason to consider those differences and in truth, there are areas, the so-called “gray area”, where both can accomplish the same purpose.
To best understand where the two products are not compatible requires a brief review of the purpose for each. An analogy to an industry we all know may help. Let’s look at transportation for a moment. Transportation in our mobile society is a necessity. For your own protection and assurance of always safely arriving at a given destination, would you consider a military tank as your primary means of travel? Hardly! Our automobiles perform that task very nicely, and a tank would be massive overkill, yet both offer a means of transportation.
This may be an over exaggeration of the issue, yet it drives home the point. A tank is designed for different purposes than a car. As we are all aware of the purpose of a tank versus a car, this knowledge allows us the ability to logically decide where and when one would be used in place of the other. Knowledge of the design criteria of fencing and railing can allow us the same ability. This is very important if you are sharing in a decision to buy a fence or guard railing for your project.
By necessity and for our benefit, safety and building codes have been established to control the use and application of products within the buildings we occupy. Few would question the fact that these codes have greatly improved the quality, comfort and safety of our homes, offices, commercial and public buildings. Practicality dictates when these codes are established.
An entry door, for example, is engineered to resist unwanted access by intruders. It must also keep the elements of rain, wind, heat and cold from easily entering. Would you expect the same criteria for the doors that close off interior closets and other rooms? Typically, no! Herein lies the point between the proper use and specification of railing or fencing. Never would you consent to fencing on your balcony and it would be unnecessary to invest in guardrail to close in your yard or playground.
Fencing, regardless of style or the material it is made from, typically is used to restrict access to an area, such as a pool. It can be used as a barrier or simply for privacy-or both. Railing, on the other hand, is required to meet additional engineering and design criteria. The strength of a product at ground level where access, not strength, is the main requirement is considerably different than where falling would be extremely detrimental to your well-being and possibly your life.
Throughout most of the country, a simultaneous vertical loading of 200 pounds per linear foot and horizontal uniform loading of 100 pounds per linear foot has been established as a minimum requirement for a product to be used as railing. Fencing, however, does not need to meet any of these values. Consideration needs to be given also to the rails’ ability to maintain those code requirements over time as the effects of the elements begin to work on it, to say nothing of the cosmetic appearance of the product.
When designing a Railing System, these points and more are considered:
- Meeting mandated engineering/design criteria of local, state and national building codes such as:
- Spacing maximums between independent members
- The handrail “grasp ability” for ADA compliance
- The connection and mounting pull out values
- Will the acidity of a salt laden atmosphere negate the load values of the original system?
- Water infiltration
- Reduction in strength due to rust, oxidation or other corrosion, electrolysis
- Degradation caused by ultra violet sunlight
Fencing has no such stringent restrictions when being designed. Fencing must only exist and meet your appearance requirements. So when seriously evaluating your needs, consider closely whether a fence product or a true railing system is appropriate.
You should do the research necessary to ensure that you receive the full benefits of the boundless technological advancements that have occurred in the past two decades. Educate yourself on which materials offer all the requirements and assurances necessary, while taking into consideration the long term advantages and disadvantages of each material type. Bottom line: Get the best value and the product you need.