Ladder Buying Guide

Ladder injuries are one element of sweat equity you may not hear about on home-improvement shows. While human error may explain some of the roughly 175,000 emergency-room visits each year, so may faulty designs. So you need to be sure your ladder is up to the job.

Home ladders typically carry a label that indicates how much weight they can support. Since you can't always predict who will be using your ladder, we recommend one with a maximum weight rating of 300 pounds (Type 1A). We think the added safety margin is worth any extra cost and weight. 

What We Found

Buy the Right Ladder for the Job
Choose the right design and height for the work you do. And try before you buy. With stepladders, climb three steps and carefully shift your weight. The ladder shouldn't deform, tilt, or "walk." Check a multiuse model at the store to see how easy it is to adjust and lock—and ask if you can return it if it proves more challenging than you thought.

Follow the Directions
Even a ladder that's rated to hold 300 pounds can fail if you don't set it up and use it properly. Read the manufacturer's directions and safety information carefully and be sure you understand them before you start climbing.

Safety Concerns
The American Ladder Institute, the industry's major trade group, has attributed ladder injuries mostly to misuse and improper selection. But shoddy design and construction may add significantly to those injuries, judging by some of the testing we've done in our labs.

For example, steps on some 6-foot stepladders—the most popular type—bent under a higher-weight version of the industry's step-strength test we used to account for the stresses of climbing and weight-shifting. And we found that even the most stable stepladders twisted enough for their feet to "walk" slightly when we stood on them and simulated the weight shifting typical when painting or sanding. Some telescoping and multi-use ladders could also crush hands and fingers, and had feet that slid out easily.

Get a Leg Up on Ladder Types

Which type of ladder you choose should depend on the chores you do most often, inside or out. If you clean your own gutters, you'll need a taller ladder than you would if you are dusting a chandelier. Here are the types of ladders to consider.

These uncomplicated and relatively light A-shaped ladders are best for tasks relatively near the ground (maximum standing height ranges from about 45 to 54 inches for 6-foot models). A folding shelf typically holds tools or paint. But stepladders tend to be less rigid than multiuse ladders, and you can't use them on stairs. Some may have pinch points at the spreader bars.

Multiuse Ladders
These multi-folding ladders are designed to be versatile: They can act like a stepladder or an extension ladder and even a scaffold, and can be used on stairs. Multiuse ladders typically reach 12 to 15 feet as straight ladders and tend to be more rigid than stepladders while requiring less storage space than an extension ladder. But they're relatively heavy and pricey, and harder to set up with their multiple locking points. Models that extend beyond 17 feet can also be extremely difficult for one person to safely lift, maneuver, and fully extend.

Extension Ladders
These are your first choice for projects more than 17 feet off the ground. Extension ladders typically are light for their length and relatively easy to set up. And they're more rigid than multiuse models used as straight ladders. But they work only in a straight configuration and require ample storage space. What's more, some telescoping models can pose a crushing hazard to hands and fingers if you let them collapse too quickly.


After deciding on the type of ladder you need, consider the ladder features you'll want. Here are the major ones to consider.

What They're Made of
Aluminum ladders weigh the least, but they conduct electricity and should never be used near power lines or other voltage sources; choose a fiberglass or wooden ladder for those situations. And remember that any ladder, regardless of material, can conduct electricity when it's wet.

Choose a ladder high enough for the job—one that doesn't require you to reach up in a way that destabilizes the ladder. Indeed, stepping above a ladder's labeled maximum height significantly increases the odds of an accident. An extension ladder should extend at least 3 feet above the roofline or work surface.

Weight Rating
House ladders typically carry a label listing the maximum weight they're designed to safely support. This voluntary rating, based on a standard published by the American National Standards Institute, includes these classifications: Type IA (300 pounds); Type I (250 pounds); Type II (225 pounds); and Type III (200 pounds). To meet the standard, a ladder's steps must resist bending under a test load up to four times its weight rating, as well as pass side-twisting tests. But the added stresses of climbing and weight shifting can add to that load. We believe that ladder safety standards should be mandatory and based on updated tests. We also believe that all house ladders should be designed to meet the maximum 300-pound Type IA standard. Meanwhile, we recommend choosing only Type IA ladders for any home use.

Safety Tips

Whether you're painting your house, clearing your gutters, or just hanging a picture, these tips can help keep you from becoming an injury statistic.

Inspect and Maintain Regularly
Water, oil, and other slippery substances can damage the ladder and pose a safety hazard. Wipe them from steps and rails before you start climbing, and wipe the ladder clean after each use.

Keep hinges, reinforcing rods beneath steps, and bolts tightened, but don't over tighten them. On an extension ladder, inspect hinges or locks for wear, and check the lanyard for fraying. If you need to replace the lanyard, follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Aluminum ladders shouldn't have loose rivets, dents, or bent parts. Check fiberglass ladders for cracks, chips, and missing parts. With wood, look for splits, cracks, chips, and loose rungs or steps. Any such problems indicate imminent failure and mandate replacing the ladder.

Set It up Properly
Don't misuse a ladder. For example, don't set it up horizontally as a scaffold unless it's an articulating multiuse ladder that has that feature. Use a stepladder only in its fully open, A-shaped position, making sure the spreaders are locked. Beware of pinch points—any place where parts come together. When closing, folding, or retracting an extension ladder, grip the sides of the ladder securely, keeping your hands clear of the descending sections. And don't jury-rig equipment, say, by splicing two short ladders to create a longer ladder.

Place ladders on a firm, level surface, using the leg-levelers if necessary. Don't put lumber, a rock, or other object under a ladder leg for leveling. When raising an extension ladder, lock each section securely before going on to the next. With any ladder, look out for power lines, and watch for hazards to people in the area. Try to avoid setting up near a doorway or other high-traffic area. Outdoors, check the work area from the ground with a pair of binoculars to make sure an insect or bird's nest isn't there.

Lean a straight or extension ladder against a wall or other flat, fixed object, not against a narrow tree or other surface that can't support both side rails. Position the base of an extension ladder 1 foot away from the wall for every 4 feet of height—that's 3 feet at the base for a 12-foot ladder, or roughly a 75-degree angle. Shallower angles increase the chance that the ladder's feet will slide out from under you.

Use It Safely
Don't use a ladder during rain, lightning, or strong winds. Climb up and down slowly, facing the ladder and holding the side rails with both hands. If you become dizzy or disoriented, close your eyes and breathe deeply until the feeling passes, and then climb down slowly.

Keep both feet on the ladder and center your belt buckle between the rails so you don't reach more than 12 inches to either side. Avoid abrupt, jerky movements. Climb down to move the ladder; don't try to "walk" it to a new position while on it. And don't let anyone else get on the ladder with you.

Don't put your weight on the shelf or rear supports of a stepladder or sit on any part of it. Keep tools in a tool belt. When you work with unwieldy tools or paint cans, climb down far enough so someone can easily hand them up to you, or pull them up with a rope.

Protect It From the Elements
Store your ladder in a sheltered area away from moisture and heat, and keep a fiberglass ladder out of direct sunlight. Storing your ladder indoors denies burglars easy access to the upper floors of your home.

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