I have seen this on more than a few home inspections. Many homeowners will unfortunately install a pull-down ladder in the ceiling of the garage to access the attic space above for storage.
The issue is that most pull down ladders that you would purchase at the local Big Box store are not fire-rated. These units are typically constructed with a thin sheet of ¼” plywood as the “door” that will quickly ignite if there were to be a fire.
Beware of The DIY Attic Access Projects
Some DIYer’s who understand the concept of the fire separation required between the garage and the home will often try to correct this by adhering a piece of ½” drywall to the underside of the pull down ladder. The concept being that when the ladder is in the closed position it should meet the requirements for the fire separation. This added weight could also void the warranty of the ladder manufacturer. Most of the time the DIYer has also not installed a latch to keep this door tightly closed. The added weight of the drywall, and the absence of a latch, prevents the ladder door from closing entirely. The gap resulting from this will allow fire to get into the attic and compromise the fire separation between the garage and living space.
Just to clarify, wood pull-down ladders are acceptable when a fire separation exists in the attic at the wall between the areas above the garage and house. (As shown in photo #1-1.)
Fire Rated Options For Attic Access In Your Garage
There are other options also. Fire-rated pull-down ladders are also available, but costly. I was able to locate the fire rated ladder unit pictured (#1-2) for about $750. One online source with many options is The Stairway Shop. If you are budget conscious, you can purchase and install a fire rated hatch cover (#1-3) for about $185, and then use a conventional ladder to access the space above the garage.
After all of this trouble and expense, and before you store anything in your new found space, you should consult with a professional to determine if the attic structure is designed to support the load created by whatever items you wish to store there.
This Is The Text of the Building
Code For Fire Separation
The 2006 edition of the IRC states the following concerning garage walls and ceilings:
R309.2 Separation Required
The garage shall be separated from the residence and its attic area by not less than 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) gypsum board applied to the garage side. Garages beneath habitable rooms shall be separated from all habitable rooms above by not less than 5/8-inch (15.9 mm) Type X gypsum board or equivalent. Where the separation is a floor-ceiling assembly, the structure supporting the separation shall also be protected by not less than 1/2-inch (12.7 mm) gypsum board or equivalent. Garages located less than 3 feet (914 mm) from a dwelling unit on the same lot shall be protected with not less than 1/2–inch (12.7 mm) gypsum board applied to the interior side of exterior walls that are within this area. Openings in these walls shall be regulated by Section 309.1. This provision does not apply to garage walls that are perpendicular to the adjacent dwelling unit wall.
R309.1 Opening Penetration
Openings from a private garage directly into a room used for sleeping purposes shall not be permitted. Other openings between the garage and the residence shall be equipped with solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8” (35 mm) in thickness, solid- or honeycomb-core steel doors not less than 1-3/8” (35 mm) thick, or 20-minute fire-rated doors.
THIS ARTICLE IS NOT INTENDED AS EITHER AN EXHAUSTIVE EXPLANATION OF THE BUILDING CODES, NOR A SUBSTITUTE FOR AN EVALUATION BY A PROFESSIONAL. IT SHOULD GIVE YOU A GOOD IDEA OF WHAT IS NEEDED TO SAFELY USE YOUR GARAGE ATTIC FOR LIGHT STORAGE. IF YOU HAVE SPECIFIC QUESTIONS ABOUT THE REQUIREMENTS FOR YOUR HOME, PLEASE CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL BUILDING OFFICIAL.
About the author: Frank Rotte is the Owner of Certified Inspection Services, LLC in Bonsall, CA. Comments are always welcome! Please visit us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/homeinspectionsandiego/