How to Choose a Ladder

When faced with an entire aisle of ladders, this guide will help you decide how to choose a ladder for the project that you are doing.

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Sometimes, I feel like the vast selection at the hardware store is like standing in the cold medication aisle. Everything looks like it will work equally as well but you feel like you have to pick the perfect item. Since we are all up on our roofs right now to add insulation, fix up gutters, and hang lights, it seemed appropriate to write up a guide on how to choose a ladder.

Shape of Ladder

A-Frame Ladders

There are two major types of ladders, A-frame and extension. A-frame ladders are typically shorter with the tallest ones only reaching 16-20 feet. These ladders have four legs that go down to the ground and form an A shape. Usually, these ladders have only one side that can be used and the other is just for stability. Some will have actually rungs on the second side of the ladder but these are typically more expensive.

Extension Ladders

Extension ladders reach taller heights, typically ranging from 16 feet to 30 feet. I have seen one that reaches 80 feet though. These ladders extend up and down and rest on the ground with only two legs. They need to lean against a structure in order to be stable. Extension ladders have a maximum extension that they can reach safely and it is important for the ladder to not be extended too far or it is likely to break.

Height of Ladder

Shorter

Step ladder reach guide
Adapted from Werner.com

The height of the ladder is vital for two reasons: you need a ladder tall enough to get you to the height you need but you don’t want it so tall that it’s difficult to carry and store. There is always a safe height to use the ladder. The last two rungs are never to be used to stand on because this puts you in an unstable position. To give you an idea, my roof can be reached with an eight foot tall ladder but just barely. I would have been safer getting a ten foot tall ladder.

Taller

Extension ladder reach guide
Adapted from Werner.com

When you get a ladder that is too tall for what you need, you will run into a couple of problems. First, the taller the ladder, the heavier it is going to be just because of the added material required. For those with less muscle, the taller ladder would be difficult to move. Taller ladders are also difficult to store because they take up more space.

Material of Ladder

Fiberglass

The material that the ladder is made of can play a key role in your selection. Fiberglass ladders are slightly more sturdy in their feel while you are using it so for people afraid of heights, they may prefer this material. Fiberglass is typically more expensive than aluminum as well but it doesn’t conduct electricity so it is favored among electricians.

Aluminum

Aluminum ladders are lighter and good for people who can’t lift a lot of weight. They are less expensive as well and those who are watching their budgets would appreciate their low cost. For the casual ladder user, there is no reason why an aluminum ladder wouldn’t do just fine, especially if you don’t have a specific project in mind.

Weight Rating/Usage Rating of Ladder

Ladder weight ratings table
Sydney Brisco

Ladders are labeled for a weight rating that is safe to use them for. What is important about this is that it is the weight of the person and the item they are carrying. I have heard far too many people say “I weigh less that 225 pounds, I’ll be fine” and the second question is what are you carrying? If they are carrying a 60 pound bundle of shingles, they are no longer under the weight limit and they need a ladder with a higher weight limit.

The usage rating of a ladder isn’t vital but it’s important for somebody looking to use their ladder extensively. Their usage ratings are based on the amount of bracing and the sturdiness of the connections. It’s important that if you are a contractor, handyman, or active home DIYer that you get one rated for the amount of use you expect or you’ll be disappointed when it breaks sooner.

Specialty ladders

Attic Ladders

Attic ladders come in wood and aluminum versions. Neither seems to add a lot of benefits that outweigh the others and typically, people choose one or the other based on price or size. Attic ladders are rated to fit a ceiling of a specific height. DO NOT cut off the legs of an attic ladder to make it shorter and don’t use an attic ladder for a shorter ceiling on a taller ceiling. This is incredibly unsafe because it stresses the hinges or makes the ladder a difficult angle.

There are specific sizes of openings that attic ladders fit in. Most of them are designed to fit an opening of 22.5″ x 54″ which fits nicely between 2 foot on center studs. However, if you are going to be moving larger things into your attic, you may appreciate an attic ladder with a wider opening and the extra work of reframing. For those with small openings, like myself, they make compact attic ladders that fit very small openings such as 18″ x 24.”

Collapsible Ladders

Collapsible ladders are some of my favorite types of ladder. They are an ultra compact extension ladder that compacts down into just a few feet tall but extends out to upwards of 20 feet. Looking back, I wish I had purchased one of these instead of a traditional extension ladder for the sake of the extra storage space. They do tend to be more expensive so it’s something to save for.

Multi-Ladders

And for the grand daddy of ladder inventions, there is the multi-ladder. These ladders fold small to save storage space, they can be A-frame or extension ladders, and they are less expensive than purchasing both an A-frame and extension ladder. These ladders are usually made of aluminum but there are fiberglass versions available. For their size, these ladders are very heavy so they aren’t for somebody who can’t carry weight. Originally designed for home inspectors and general contractors, their versatility makes them incredibly helpful to the average homeowner as well.

Conclusion

When you are trying to figure out how to choose a ladder, first think of what you are already planning on using the ladder for. If you have a specific need, find something that suits that need first. Then think of the sturdiness you need in a ladder and the weight of the material that you are buying. Finally, you should consider if you may have future uses that would require a different height, material, or weight rating.

Ultimately, don’t be afraid to ask salespeople in the store what they may suggest as well as if there will be any good sales coming up. Especially in the Fall and Winter, there are frequently sales on ladders since they are items in high demand at the time. Black Friday anybody?

Do you have any specific needs in a ladder? Comment below to get personal recommendations!

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Head Homeowner

Hey everybody! I'm Sydney, the head homeowner here. Let me know if you have any questions you didn't find the answer to. Tell me what projects you're working on. I love to hear from all my readers.

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