Handrail required for how many steps? 3 or 4?

The NACHI practice questions have two different answers for this question:


So, which is the correct one?

I think the confusion on this one is some areas require different things at different moments in time. My area requires 4 steps.

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You showing an outdated 2009 IRC code.

R311.7.8 Handrails

Handrails shall be provided on not less than one side of each flight of stairs with four or more risers.

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@labstein That makes sense, but this is the practice questions provided to study for the exam. How do I study for an exam when I can’t figure out which will be the correct answer on the exam?

@ccurrins I’m just showing the practice questions provided by InterNACHI. I’m studying for my licence and I need to know which will be the answer expected if this question shows up on the exam.

Christopher has it right it is outdated. Everyone agrees with you that it needs and should be updated. Currently my answer would always be four.


@labstein Thanks for clarifying that. I’ll go with four then, which fits with what Ben has been saying, sort of. Ben says the code allows three rises but Ben doesn’t.

The IRC has consistently required handrails for 4 or more risers since 2006 (R311.5.6)(2018 IRC 311.7.8). Prior to that the wording required handrails for steps with a total rise of 30 inches (R312.1- IRC 2000, 2003). BOCA code before the ICC may have required handrails based on number of treads but to the best of my knowledge IRC never did.

The second question in the OP is simply wrong.

(2009 IRC) - R311.7.7 Handrails. Handrails shall be provided on at least
one side of each continuous run of treads or flight with four
or more risers.


There is a difference between a step and a riser, as well as if it is even a step…

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There is a difference between a tread and a step as well. Therein lies the difficulty with the three tread rule. Many would not count the final step to a landing or deck simply because they did not consider it a stair tread. Or so the story was related to me by an old timer (he had a lot of stories).

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The questions are not apples to apples. In addition to there being a difference between a riser and a tread and old code vs new, as others have noted, there is also a big difference between a handrail and a railing. For example, a staircase without a railing can be fine…

You lost me there . . . care to elaborate?

Stairs with a full wall on both sides top to bottom, such as a split entry. Needs a handrail but not a railing.

Still not sure what you are calling a ‘railing.’ We have “handrails” and “guardrails.” The term ‘railings’ does not appear in the IRC.

Good thing we’re not code inspectors.


Okay, a railing is the thing that is not a handrail then :slight_smile: Around here they’re calling railings. I don’t worry about exact IRC wording. I’m saying that there are stairs where you don’t need the rail gadget thing that has balusters. Back to the OP, the point is that the two questions he provided are not the same question. One refers to a handrail, the other to a railing, the latter being what you want to call a guardrail. So that might be why they have different answers…

You still haven’t explained what the difference is. In the OPs two questions the terms are used interchangeably. We know this because both questions deal specifically with stairs with the second question being simply wrong. The 2009 IRC says “4 or more risers.” Apparently you are referring to a railing as being the top horizontal part of a handrail or guardrail. Neither question details the type of stairs. For what it’s worth in homes with stairs open on one side I always recommend a handrail for the open side even when one is fastened to the wall on the opposite side. It is a danger to children in particular who will at some point attempt to jump over the open side.

Nope, that isn’t what I’m referring to. We might be stuck on semantics. To me the terms are not at all interchangeable, which was the only point of my initial reply.

To me a railing, as in the test question, is what you prefer to call a guardrail. A guardrail, as you call it, or a railing as I call it, is the thing with balusters.

A handrail on a stairway is a single piece of wood attached to the wall, essentially a pole shape (to simplify it), and does not have balusters. There are no balusters because there’s a wall. it’s for your hand as you travel the stairs.

Now, to muddy it further, the top of a guardrail/railing isn’t necessarily in the shape of handrail. Sometimes it’s flat and wide and not graspable, and sometimes it’s the same or similar shape as a handrail. Depends.

That’s the terminology around these parts that I’ve always heard, including from other inspectors. And that’s why I say they’re not the same question. Again, I’m not talking about what exactly is in which version of the IRC…

FWIW, the IRC lists different definitions for each. They use the terms “Guard” and “Handrail”.