No homeowner can get by for long without a good extension ladder. It’s a basic tool for painting, roof and gutter work, cleaning and changing windows, working in trees and all-around outdoor maintenance.
Surprisingly, few homeowners know much about buying ladders or using them safely, despite the fact that the wrong ladder, or the right one used improperly, can land you flat on your back, in a hospital bed--or worse.
If you need a new ladder, probably the best all-around choice is aluminum. It will cost about the same as wood, weigh less and last longer. Magnesium is even lighter, but quite expensive. Fiberglass is safer around electrical lines, but higher in weight and price.
How long should your ladder be? Measure the distance up to the highest point on your home that you feel the need to reach. This is roughly how long the ladder should be. Of course, a 24-footer won’t extend all the way to 24 feet because the two sections must overlap. And, of course, you can’t safely stand on the top three rungs of any extension ladder. These two limitations cut the “effective height” of any ladder about 6 feet.
Even so, when you add your height plus your overhead reach to the formula, you do manage to end up just about where you started: at the listed length of the ladder.
Sold By Duty Ratings
In practice, for most work on the typical two-story house, a 24-footer is a good choice. If your home has high gables, a 32-footer will be more useful.
Ladders are sold with duty ratings of I, II and III. Type I is the strongest and stiffest, Type III the lightest duty.
Type II stands in the middle, and is a good compromise between expense, weight and rigidity, at least for a 24-foot ladder. If you need a 32-footer, you’ll probably feel safer on a Type I. Lighter duty ladders this long can sway and wobble enough to destroy your confidence when you are 20 feet off the ground.
Each time you use any ladder, check it over first. This is especially important with wooden ladders. If stored improperly, they can rot, dry out and crack, losing strength in the process. Once when my father was up on a wooden ladder, the rung he was standing on broke under his weight. He crashed down to the rung below and that one broke, too. Fortunately, the next rung held and he wasn’t hurt. This kind of domino effect is a lot of laughs when it happens to the Road Runner, but it’s not quite so funny in real life.
Next step for safety? Step into some hard-soled shoes with heels. The hard soles provide comfort and the heels keep your feet from slipping off the rungs.
Now you are ready to stand the ladder up. This is easiest when the ladder isn’t extended. Place its base against the foundation of your house so it can’t move. Grasp the other end of the ladder and walk hand over hand along the rungs, raising the ladder as you go. Do this in one smooth motion and the momentum will help you get the ladder up.
Once it’s vertical, you can extend the ladder by pulling on the extension rope. Next, move the foot of the ladder out from the wall so the ladder leans in at a 75-degree angle.
Your ladder may have a sight-line sticker on it to help you get the angle right. If not, put the base about one-third the extended height of the ladder away from the wall, as shown in the sketch. This should put you in the ballpark. If the base is too close to the wall, the ladder can tip over backwards. If it’s too far out, the ladder may sag excessively, or even break under your weight.
Before climbing the ladder, be sure both its feet rest firmly on the ground. Some ladders come with adjustable feet to help you compensate for uneven terrain. With others you can dig out under the “long” (best approach) or shim under the “short” leg.