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Home safety

There are a number of items around the home that require regular checking to ensure the safety of occupiers and visitors such as smoke alarms, balustrades and pool fences. This also includes removal of asbestos materials when doing maintenance or building works.

Balustrades

Residential buildings

Homeowners should regularly inspect and maintain their property's balustrades, particularly those made of timber.

Timber balustrades are more susceptible to the elements than other materials. This is particularly the case in coastal areas where the combination of salt and rain can have more damaging effects.

It is again advisable to consider making the balustrades in residential settings comply with the current height requirements of the BCA, which stipulates balustrades must be at least one metre high. Check the height from the floor as it may have changed due to the installation of tiles or some other surface finish after the balustrade was completed.

Where balustrades use steel (or timber) posts and tensioned stainless steel wires are installed, it is essential that all aspects of the building code relating to the use of wire are adhered to. These relate to size and tension of the cable and the distance between cables and supports forming the balustrade. It is also essential that the steel or wood has remained solid to support the tensioning.

Balustrades with toughened glass panels are also used in domestic situations and can involve a stair rail or a balcony rail. In all situations it is important to ensure the correct glass has been used and the means of attaching it is regularly checked for safety. Any cracked or broken glass panes must immediately be replaced to reduce the risk of injury.

Fixings

  • Make sure that fixings like metal stirrups to floors, bolts, screws, etc. are not compromised or loose.

Maintaining balconies and decks

The following tips are designed to assist in the ongoing maintenance of balconies, decks and balustrades, ensuring the safety of the people who use them:

  • check handrails and balustrades to ensure they are not rotted, corroded, loose or unsuitable
  • be aware that certain timbers, such as pine and other soft woods, are more susceptible to the elements and therefore require frequent inspections
  • look for any compression or deformation of the supporting posts, beams or joists
  • make sure the balustrade/handrail is properly fixed to the building and floor
  • ensure that posts are securely anchored to the foundation in concrete or attached to concrete footings using proprietary metal brackets.

Importantly, if you suspect a problem with your balustrade, balcony or deck, contact a building surveyor, structural engineer, registered builder, architect or building inspector. If you are in any doubt about the soundness of any of these structures, these professionals will check to make sure they meet BCA and safety requirements.

Balcony maintenance - Check your Deck!

Inspection statistics have revealed numerous rotting balconies that could cause severe injury or death in the event of a collapse. Of course, the risk is greatest when they are heavily loaded with people.

There are many things building owners should be aware of that can affect the structural adequacy of a balcony over time. These may include:

  • termites
  • wet rot
  • seaside and corrosive effects
  • loadings.

As a safety measure, all home owners with balconies should ensure that:

  • it is constructed following the issue of a building permit
  • it is inspected on a regular basis for any warning signs of potential collapse
  • a maintenance program is introduced to extend its designed life
  • where there is a problem, the balcony is inspected by a structural engineer or other suitably qualified building practitioner and that remedial measures, as necessary, are arranged.

Further information on balustrades visit the Victorian Building Authority website.

Smoke alarms

Smoke alarms are compulsory and must be installed in every residential building on or near the ceiling of every storey.

The Building Regulations state that smoke alarms must meet the Australian Standard AS 3786-1993.  You will find a range of complying models at most electrical appliance outlets or hardware stores.

Smoke alarms must be connected to your building's power mains as well as having a battery back-up, unless your building was built before 1 August 1997, where a battery-powered detector/alarm meets the Regulations.

If you are renting a dwelling or unit, it is your landlord's responsibility to ensure smoke alarms are installed and kept in working condition. However, you can take action to ensure compliance with the Regulations at any time.

Smoke alarms are intended to detect smoke before it reaches people sleeping in a building. Therefore they must be located in a position designed to wake sleeping occupants up and in time to evacuate a building.

For smoke alarms to be effective, it is essential they be maintained. At the very least you should: 

  • check that your smoke alarm is working by depressing the button on its outside
  • replace your smoke alarm battery on an annual basis (if the battery is lithium ion, every ten years)
  • if your smoke alarm emits a warning sound, a high-pitched single beep every 30 seconds, replace its battery
  • clean your alarm regularly to remove dust particles
  • familiarise yourself with the manufacturer's maintenance guidelines.

For further information on smoke alarms please visit the Victorian Building Authority website.

Swimming pool/spa safety barriers

Safety barriers should be maintained regularly. The following is a checklist for maintaining safety barriers:

  • maintain safety components of gates, doors (where permitted at time of construction) and windows such as self-closers, latches, flyscreens, catches, and bolts by adjusting as required to keep in good working condition
  • make sure there are no chairs, boxes, pool pumps, tree branches, pot plants, or other items close to the barrier that could be used to climb the safety barrier to access the swimming pool or spa
  • make sure any fences (especially timber paling fences) are in good repair and non-climbable
  • ensure all gates and doors (where permitted at time of construction) that provide access to the swimming pool or spa are closed at all times, except when entering or leaving the area
  • where applicable make sure that the neighbours’ properties adjoining your swimming pool or spa area have no potential hazards or climbable objects.

As the occupier of a home you are responsible for taking all reasonable steps to ensure that any fence or barrier restricting access to a swimming pool or spa area is maintained and operating effectively. If you don’t comply with the regulations, you risk the lives of family and friends as well as substantial fines.

Basketball rings

The Victorian Building Authority has developed the following nine guidelines for the installation, safe use and maintenance of basketball rings:

  • always tell children to never hang or swing on the ring
  • dismantle any ring and backboard currently mounted on a single skin of brickwork - such as brickwork above the garage door
  • do not under any circumstances fix any ring and backboard to a single skin of brickwork
  • do not use any ring and backboard currently mounted on any brickwork until it has been checked for structural safety. If you plan to fix a ring and backboard to brickwork or any other structure, you should consult a structural engineer
  • A ring and backboard in normal suburban backyards should ideally be fixed to a hot dipped galvanised steel post - 90mm x 90mm with a 5mm wall thickness. The post should be set at least 800mm into a mass concrete footing 500mm x 500mm (or 500mm diameter) by one metre deep. Alternative systems can be provided by a structural engineer or by the equipment manufacturer
  • follow the manufacturer's instructions when attaching the basketball ring to the backboard, and the backboard to the post
  • check the stability of the post, brick wall or any other supporting structure on a regular basis, as these can deteriorate over time
  • ensure that water does not pond or pool at the base of the post - this is especially important in saltwater environments
  • if there is any doubt about the safety or stability of an installation consult a structural engineer.

Drainage and landscaping

Protection of the building perimeter

It is essential to remember that the soil that affects footings extends well beyond the actual building line. Watering of garden plants, shrubs and trees causes some of the most serious water problems.

For this reason, particularly where problems exist or are likely to occur, it is recommended that an apron of paving be installed around as much of the building perimeter as necessary. This paving should extend outwards a minimum of 900mm (more in highly reactive soil) and should have a minimum fall away from the building of 1:60. The finished paving should be no less than 100mm below brick vent bases.

It is prudent to relocate drainage pipes away from this paving, if possible, to avoid complications from future leakage. If this is not practical, earthenware pipes should be replaced by PVC and backfilling should be of the same soil type as the surrounding soil and compacted to the same density.

It may be desirable to install a grated drain at the outside edge of the paving on the uphill side of the building. If subsoil drainage is needed this can be installed under the surface drain.

The garden

The ideal vegetation layout is to have lawn or plants that require only light watering immediately adjacent to the drainage or paving edge, then more demanding plants, shrubs and trees spread out in the order.

Overwatering due to misuse of automatic watering systems is a common cause of saturation and water migration under footings. If it is necessary to use these systems, it is important to remove garden beds to a completely safe distance from any building.

Existing trees

Where a tree is causing a problem of soil drying or there is the existence or threat of upheaval of footings, if the offending roots are subsidiary and their removal will not significantly damage the tree, they should be severed and a concrete or metal barrier placed vertically in the soil to prevent future root growth in the direction of the building. If it is not possible to remove the relevant roots without damage to the free, an application to remove the tree should be made to Council. A prudent plan is to transplant likely offenders before they become a problem.

Plumbing

Where building movement is caused by water service or roof plumbing failure, the remedy is to repair the problem. It is prudent, however, to consider also rerouting pipes away from the building where possible, and relocating taps to positions where any leakage will not direct water to the building vicinity. Even where gully traps are present, there is sometimes sufficient spill to create erosion or saturation, particularly in modern installations using smaller diameter PVC fixtures. Indeed, some gully traps are not situated directly under taps that are installed to charge them, with the result that water from the tap may enter the backfilled trench that houses the sewer piping. If the trench has been poorly backfilled, the water will either pond or flow along the bottom of the trench. As these trenches usually run alongside the footings and can be at a similar depth, it is not hard to see how any water that is thus directed into a trench can easily affect the foundation's ability to support footings or even gain entry to the subfloor area.

Ground drainage

In all soils there is the capacity for water to travel on the surface and below it. Surface water flows can be established by inspection during and after heavy or prolonged rain. If necessary, a grated drain system connected to the stormwater collection system is usually an easy solution.

It is, however, sometimes necessary when attempting to prevent water migration that testing be carried out to establish water table height and subsoil water flows. This subject is an area for an expert consultant.

Termite management

To guard against termite attack, there are several precautions that should be taken:

  • carry out a complete inspection in and about your building and property to determine if there are any signs of termite activity, at least every 12 months
  • if your building is only 5 to 10 years old, check the electrical meter box or similar for a copy of a notice which details the method of termite risk management and manufacturers recommendations for the scope and frequency of regular inspections for termite activity
  • where a chemical barrier has been used, you will have to engage a registered termite treatment company
  • remove all timber debris from under the house, since its presence encourages foraging termites. Move piles of timber or firewood (potential food source for a new colony) away from the house, and store the timber in a dry, well ventilated location. Old decayed tree stumps should be removed to below the ground level. If you notice what you think is termite activity, take some live specimens and have them identified immediately
  • provide good ventilation under all floors. The reduced humidity and moisture makes the subfloor area vastly less attractive to termites. Leaking water pipes or bad drainage encourages termite presence so these faults should be remedied
  • never disturb what you think may be termite activity. This prompts the termites to move elsewhere which makes further detection and eradication more difficult. It may also result in the damage being increased elsewhere
  • examine new constructions: for example, verandah's and timber decking, if built on stumps, may not have ant caps. These constructions, and concrete additions to the house, may also bridge previously laid chemical barriers, permitting unobserved termite entry. The underside of a concrete slab is a popular place for termites nests. If you have concrete laid next to the timber frame of your house damp conditions may be promoted and termite entry would be extremely difficult to detect. You should consider this when renovating: if concrete-next-to-timber is part of the design, have an expert lay a chemical barrier down first.

Asbestos

Asbestos in building material can be a very dangerous issue if not treated and disposed of properly. If you suspect you have asbestos, prior to commencing work you should have a qualified asbestos removalist inspect the material for verification.

The EPA is the relevant government agency for enforcing the correct removal and disposal requirements. The related link provides information on asbestos and its safe removal and disposal requirements.

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