Safe Attic Storage Systems

January 22, 2019 - spacelift

Safe Attic Storage Systems

What are some safety concerns for attic storage? What safe attic storage systems can you install yourself? Attics are wonderful for storage but there are important safety considerations. Properly prepared attics make great storage spaces. Attic storage is great for seasonal items like Halloween and Christmas decorations. It’s perfect for things you use only rarely like a miter saw. It’s a great place to hold things for years you’ll eventually want like baby clothes. Moving items into attic storage lets you claim more living space and reduce clutter. However there are some considerations to ensure your safety and preservation of your stored items.

Here are some key areas to consider for safe attic storage:

  • Attic access
    • For people
    • For storage items
  • Attic flooring systems
  • Attic roof framing
  • Attic climate

Attic Access Safety

Getting into your attic has two important considerations: access for people and access for storage items. Most attics are built with a hatch of some sort in their floor, that is, the ceiling of the living space below the attic. Many also come with an extendable, pull down ladder or stairs. These are a potential hazard on two levels. First, if they are improperly installed or maintained, they can fail, resulting in a nasty fall. Second, ladders are an okay attic access system for people, but not much good for cargo. Carrying items up and down the attic ladder or stairs is a significant concern.

Good ladder practice dictates keeping three points of contact with the ladder at all times: two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand. Giving up both hands to carry a storage bin or box of stuff up into the attic, balancing only on your feet, is risky. Risk is even greater if the storage item is bulky, odd shaped or very heavy.

graphic of ladder safety showing 3 points of contact

For those lucky few in older homes that have a dedicated attic stairway, these are the safest for conveying people, but still of concern for carrying storage items. You still have to let go of the handrail, if there is one, to go up and down when carrying something.

Unfortunately, few attics come with a dedicated system to move storage items in and out of the attic. SpaceLift Products offers an attic lift you can install. It’s like a dumbwaiter for your attic. Now you can use the attic ladder or stairs only for you. You load up to 200 pounds of attic storage items on one floor, push a button and meet your items on the other floor. Two people can even set up an fast and efficient chain system, one in the attic, the other in your garage or home living space, loading and unloading the lift. A SpaceLift attic lift is an integral part of safe attic storage systems.

Attic Flooring Safety

Do you remember the scene in “Christmas Vacation” where Clark Griswold is stumbling through his attic, stepping on loose boards laid over the floor joists, with the boards flipping up to slap him in the face? Next he takes a chance standing on the ceiling instead of the joists and breaks through to the room below. It’s funny in the movies, but in real life, people have broken legs falling through attic floors. One misstep can cause hundreds of dollars in damage. A proper attic floor is a key part of safe attic storage systems.

First you should know how much load your attic floor is designed to hold. DIY guru and “This Old House” host BobVila.com offers an article “Flooring 101: All You Need to Know about Attic Flooring.” Author Glenda Taylor states, “A common misconception is that it takes little more than the installation of some decking over the attic joists.”

Most attic structures are strong enough for storage of typical items like Christmas decorations and clothes. However some are made to support only the weight of the drywall ceiling hung below and little else.

Taylor says you can get some idea of your attic’s load bearing ability by examining the floor joists. The size of the joists and the spacing between them are key indicators. Joists made of 2x6s or 2x8s should be suitable for most attic storage items. Standard joist spacing is 16 inches on center. Sometimes to save money, builders will place joists 24 inches on center, obviously a weaker configuration.

The only way to be sure is to consult a structural engineer familiar with your local building codes.

A variety of methods to strengthen joists and attic flooring to carry a heavier load are described in the article.

For light storage, usually all that’s required is an attic floor or flooring system installed over the existing joists. At the very least you should create flooring around your attic access space and your SpaceLift attic lift. You can install just catwalks or put in a full floor. Remember to consider weight of flooring materials in your load calculations.

For joists on 16-inch spacing, ½ inch plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) 4 x 8 panels can be screwed into the joists. (Don’t use nails, you may disturb the drywall or plaster ceiling below.) For 24-inch centered joists, consider using sturdier ¾ inch plywood to prevent sagging.

An alternative to plywood, Metro Products offers Attic Dek, a plastic panel system. Lightweight but strong panels can be screwed to the joists in an open or interlocking configuration. They’re lighter to handle than plywood, won’t warp or sag and are premade with holes for screwing into 16 or 24 inch spaced joists. Attic Dek even includes the screws. The product was invented after the owner of a plastics company accidentally put his foot through his kitchen ceiling.

Proper attic flooring is an important component of safe attic storage systems.

Attic Roof Framing

Now that you have the floor resolved, look up . . . carefully.

Traditional house roofs are built with rafters running from a center beam at the peak down to the walls. Sometimes the rafters meet without a center beam. Newer construction methods use truss-framed roofs. Prefabricated trusses are big triangles that typically include the roof rafters and floor joists. Often they have additional bracing triangles built into them for strength. Trusses can limit space for moving about in the attic and storage options. Some modified versions are made with open space in the center for storage. Trusses should not be cut or compromised. Remember they’re holding up your roof and ceiling.

One company, Attic Maxx, developed a clever shelving system to utilize attic trusses as an organized storage space.

Once you’ve determined your attic framing system, there are several cautions to consider for your safe attic storage system. Of course you don’t want to exceed the attic framing’s load ability. This includes hanging items from the rafters or trusses. It might make for handy storage, but a heavy snow could compromise the structure.

Headspace is a consideration in many attics. They are often built lower than a standard ceiling height to save expense. You’ll want to site your attic access hatch and SpaceLift attic lift where you have maximum headspace. SpaceLift offers a site guide to help you determine the best place to install one in your attic.

Attic trusses are often manufactured with flat metal plates joining the wood. These are typically not finished and can have sharp edges. In high traffic areas you can pad the plates with duct tape or even insulation foam. Also, it is not unusual for roofing nails to be sticking down through the ceiling.

Attic Climate

Often attics are spaces are outside of the home’s thermal envelope, the insulated space keeping your living space comfy. Most attics do not have climate control, heat and air conditioning. To manage the attic space climate – and protect the living space climate – there are a wide variety of attic insulation and ventilation schemes. You should know and understand yours.

If you’re using your attic for storage only, generally you simply want to make sure you do not interfere with your existing insulation and air movement system. Don’t block vents with storage containers and don’t move or add insulation. Knowing what temperature extremes to expect in your attic in your part of the country helps inform the items suitable for storage there. Safe attic storage systems consider both the people using them and the items being stored.

Conclusion

A properly configured attic storage space adds value to your home. Convenient attic access is key to reducing clutter, claiming more living space and getting more enjoyment from your home and garage. Creating safe attic storage systems ensures these benefits for years to come. Often the best, and least expensive, home storage solution is right above your head.

Resources:

Attic ladder or pull down stairs safety: http://www.mcgarryandmadsen.com/Blog/Entries/2015/1/11_What_are_the_warning_signs_of_a_dangerous_attic_pull-down_ladder.html

Attic flooring safety:
https://www.bobvila.com/articles/attic-flooring/

The Spruce attic storage:
https://www.thespruce.com/attic-storage-1398040

Metro Products Attic Dek
http://metro-products.com

Home Storage Solutions 101, attic safety
https://www.home-storage-solutions-101.com/attic-storage.html

Attic Max shelving
http://atticmaxx.com

DIY Stack Exchange
https://diy.stackexchange.com/questions/9246/what-should-i-keep-in-mind-for-attic-storage-solutions-for-a-small-home-with-14