Volume 38, Issue 11, November 2003

Riding the Rails

Beauty and Safety Through Glass Rail Engineering 
by Dennis Elonka and Paul Worland

In today’s age of class action lawsuits and outrageous insurance premiums, it is becoming harder and more risky to take on new kinds of products and jobs such as glass railing. People often find themselves avoiding these projects due to liability issues; they are afraid to step on their shadow for fear of a lawsuit. 

However, with a little extra planning and attention to detail, glaziers can ensure customer safety while protecting themselves legally when installing a glass rail system. Professional liability does not have to be a mystery. The key is to have a state-certified engineers’ seal of approval and make sure to follow their specifications. 

Glass railing is no different than any other rail system. All types of railing systems, handrail or guardrail, must be calculated and approved by a certified engineer. By taking simple precautions, you can open your business to a whole new market that is growing rapidly. Here is a look at some of the engineering and liability concerns.

Basic Elements
There are three basic elements to any glass baluster system: the aluminum base shoe or boot, the glass panel and the hand railing. All of these elements are engineered to handle specific load requirements during the design process. 

The base shoe is one of the strongest elements of the system. It holds the glass in place and provides lateral strength. It is applied easily and used universally. 
In a baluster system, the glass panel provides the vertical support.
“The code requires the panels to be fully tempered, tempered-laminated or heat-strengthened-laminated glass,” said Donn Harter, director of technical services for the California Glass Association. This makes the glass incredibly strong and safe to use in a handrail or guardrail application. 

The top-rail, or handrail piece, is the final structural element in a glass rail application. It must be able to support the load that local building codes require (usually 50 pounds uniform load or a 200-pound concentrated load) even if a glass panel is missing. That way, if the glass breaks anyone leaning against it would still be supported. 

Top-rail has been the source of conflict between many glaziers and policy makers. Chapter 24 of the Universal Building Code by the International Conference of Building Officials states that all glass railing systems must have a top rail. Simply adding a piece of U-channel or trim will not suffice. There may be increased liability for the installer if proper materials are not installed.

All of the elements should be specified by an engineer or architect. Also, it is wise to get an engineer’s signature on the specifications and project draw-up. If there ever is a problem, the professional liability shifts to the engineer. 

Anchors are an element of every project. They will almost never be the same twice and should be engineered specifically for each project. 

“The anchor is the responsibility of the installer. Always have a structural engineer inspect the substrate and calculate the anchors. Recommendations like, ‘That should be good enough,’ should never be followed when planning a rail installation,” said Gary Towndrow, president of RGA Architectural Sales, a distributor for Morse Industries, who has more than 30 years of experience in the glass industry. 

The standard fastener is a stainless steel threaded bolt or through bolt. The makeup of the flooring will determine which anchor is used.

There are different requirements for each species of wood, for concrete, for steel and for composites. The important thing is that an engineer has designed the fastener size and length, layout, frequency and attachment method for the designated application. 

“In short, there are a wide variety of attachment methods, and installers should contact a structural engineer when anchoring a glass railing system,” said Dana White, railing specialist for Morse Industries. “Only then can the installer be assured that he will be free from liability and the system will be safe.” 

Professional Liability
After designing and engineering your system to meet code and general safety requirements, the last and most important part of the process is to follow the specifications during installation. 

It may sound trite or obvious, but adhering to the specifications is very important and often overlooked. If any of the steps are left out or changed without approval, you can again be liable. Even if you are out of the specified bolts or have surplus of a different size or length, it is imperative that the specifications be followed exactly to release the installer of liability. 
Other details include using the correct substrate waterproofing for the material and application, and making sure that any necessary barriers are in place to prevent corrosion or wood rot.

Keep in mind that the engineer certification of a system does [not] give someone a license to abuse. No matter what material is used for a rail system, it can all be broken in a major trauma or under heavy force.

So the basic message is to make sure you have all of your bases covered before stepping on site to do the installation. Only then will you be able to achieve the amazing mix of safety and beauty that glass railing provides. Remember, a glass rail system is no different in its safety, engineering or code requirements than any other rail system. It does, however, look better. 


© Copyright Key Communications Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.