A Homeowner's Guide to Ladders

Stepladder holding paint can.
credit: AnikaSalsera/iStock/GettyImages
Every household needs at least a small stepladder.

It's hard to imagine a functional household without a stepladder for common tasks like hanging artwork, getting to tall shelves, and removing cobwebs in ceiling corners. You could climb on a chair to get to hard-to-reach spots, of course, but it's a long step down and it certainly won't help you reach everywhere! Routine outdoor maintenance tasks require other types of ladders.

If you're planning on doing any kind of home improvement you absolutely require a ladder or two. Here's a guide to the ladders out there to help you choose the type you need for your projects.

Types of Ladders

A straight ladder, also known as a single pole ladder, consists of one rail. It's meant to lean against a surface.

A stepladder has two rails hinged at the top so the ladder, when open, looks like an inverted "V" and stands on its own. This type of ladder can have as few as three steps and measure as little as 4 feet tall, or range to a length of 20 feet. Frequently, the steps are only on the front rail; the back rail cannot be climbed, and it often has a shelf pail near the top. It sometimes has a railing at the top that you can grab onto.

Extension ladders have two or three rails that slide apart to extend the length of the ladder; they slide back together for easier storage when the ladder isn't in use. Like a straight ladder, an extension ladder is meant to lean against a surface. It will have slip-resistant feet of some kind.

A multi-position ladder can be converted into a stepladder, a stairwell ladder, an extension ladder, and a self-supporting scaffold.

multi-position ladder
credit: Home Depot
A multi-position ladder

Materials

You'll find ladders made of wood, aluminum, or fiberglass. Each material has pros and cons.

  • Aluminum is lightweight, but it conducts electricity and is therefore dangerous around live wires.
  • Wood is nonconductive, but it's heavy.
  • Fiberglass is also nonconductive, as well as more resistant to the elements, but it's relatively heavy and expensive.

Duty Ratings

Also known as performance ratings and capacity ratings, duty ratings specify how much weight a ladder can hold. Manufacturers are required to place a duty ratings sticker on every ladder.

When determining weight, combine the weight of the person with his or her clothing, shoes, safety equipment, any tools or equipment he or she is carrying, and anything else placed on the ladder at the same time, such as a gallon of paint or a toolbox.

The American National Standards Institute has developed these five ratings:

  • Type IAA (extra-extra heavy duty): 375 lbs.
  • Type IA (extra heavy duty): 300 lbs.
  • Type I (heavy duty): 250 lbs.
  • Type II (medium duty): 225 lbs.
  • Type III (light duty): 200 lbs.

General Safety

Here are some tips for safe ladder use:

  • Always face the ladder when on it.
  • Whether climbing up or down or working in a stationary spot, always keep three points of contact on the ladder—one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot.
  • Always place the ladder as close as possible to the spot you're working on. Reaching and leaning increase the chances of tipping or falling.
  • Never attempt to relocate a ladder when you're on it. Always come down, move it, then climb back up. The same goes with changing the length of an extension ladder: Never try to extend or shorten it while on the ladder.
  • Never stand higher than the step recommended on the ladder. It increases the risk of losing your balance.
  • Having more than one person on a ladder at once canrender it unstable, unless the manufacturer states that multiple users are possible.
  • Never place a ladder on other objects in an effort to add just a little more height.
User standing on top of a ladder.
credit: rookman/iStock/GettyImages
Never, ever stand on the top of a stepladder; this is extremely dangerous!

Stepladder Safety

  • Always place all four feet of a stepladder on level ground. Uneven ground increases the risk of tipping.
  • Never stand on the pail shelf.
  • Never climb all the way to the top of a stepladder. The highest you should stand is two steps down from the top.

Extension Ladder Safety

Overlap the sections by at least 3 feet on extension ladders up to 36 feet long, and by as much as 5 feet on ladders longer than that.

Straight Ladder and Extension Ladder Safety

  • Never climb all the way to the top. The highest you can safely stand is four steps down from the top.
  • Both feet of the ladder should rest on level ground. Both rails at the top of the ladder must be evenly supported.
  • A ladder positioned at too sharp of an angle will tip more easily. For safety, its bottom should rest at least 1 foot away from the surface it is leaned against for every 4 feet of height from the ground to the resting point of the top of the ladder. For example, if the top of the ladder leans against a wall at a height of 16 feet, the bottom of the ladder should rest on level ground 4 feet from the wall.

Choosing a Ladder

Here are some tips for choosing ladders for your home:

  • A ladder should be neither too long nor too short. If it's too short, you might be tempted to reach dangerously far or climb to a forbidden step, causing you to lose your balance. A ladder that's too long—for example a 12-foot straight ladder in a room with 8-foot ceilings—will be at too low an angle and its feet may therefore slip out from under when you climb it.
  • A ladder leaned against a roof line should extend 1 to 3 feet past that point—no more, no less.
  • An extension ladder should be 7 to 10 feet longer than the height you wish to reach. This leaves enough ladder for the overlap and, when applicable, for the ladder to extend properly past the roof line.
  • To calculate the range of your ladder, combine the height of the user's reach plus the height of the highest allowable standing level of the ladder.
open metallic stepladder in studio on grey
credit: LightFieldStudios/iStock/GettyImages
Stepladders range in height from 4 feet to 10 feet.

How Far Stepladders Reach

Here are reach estimates for an average user (5 feet 6 inches tall) on a stepladder:

  • If you require a 8-foot reach, buy a 4-foot ladder.
  • If you require a 10-foot reach, buy a 6-foot ladder.
  • If you require a 11-foot reach, buy a 7-foot ladder.
  • If you require a 12-foot reach, buy a 8-foot ladder.
  • If you require a 14-foot reach, buy a 10-foot ladder.

How Far Extension Ladders Reach

Here are reach estimates for an average user (5 feet 6 inches tall) on an extension ladder:

  • If you require a 15-foot reach, buy a 16-foot ladder. Use this ladder with a 9-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 19-foot reach, buy a 20-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 9- to 13-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 23-foot reach, buy a 24-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 13- to 17-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 27-foot reach, buy a 28-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 17- to 21-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 31-foot reach, buy a 32-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 21- to 25-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 35-foot reach, buy a 36-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 25- to 28-foot horizontal support point.
  • If you require a 39-foot reach, buy a 40-feet ladder. Use this ladder with a 28- to 31-foot horizontal support point.
Extension ladder.
credit: Home Depot
An extension ladder gives you reach when extended while being easier to handle and store when slid back together.