As a homeowner, there are numerous tasks that can crop up that can only be satisfied with a certain tool. Say your cat's up a tree (again) and the fire department is busy fighting, like, an actual fire. Or maybe you've rethought the "Lipstick Red" that you painted your dining room after watching one too many episodes of Design on a Dime. Or perhaps your gutters are so full of leaves they're beginning to sag like the rear end of an old hound.
When a homeowner needs a ladder, no other tool will do. And given the cost, you don't want to bring home the wrong one. So how do you choose the proper ladder for the job?
The first consideration is material. The traditional ladder is made of wood, which is still an economical choice. However, wood is heavy, tends to age poorly, and must be stored in a dry area. It can also be slippery when wet, and when saturated can conduct electricity, making it a poor choice when working around electric lines.
The least expensive and most lightweight option is aluminum. It's strong, easy to carry, lasts forever, and can be stored in damp places. However, it's also a dandy conductor of electricity, and so shouldn't be used near power lines. The best modern material for ladders is fiberglass, found in the Werner 6-Foot Fiberglass Step Ladder listed below. It's non-conductive, not terribly heavy, durable, and non-corrosive. It's not, however, the cheapest material, so expect to pay for a top-flight fiberglass ladder.
Also consider what you'll use your ladder for: this is a function of the work you plan to do. If you are looking for a ladder to use indoors to paint walls and ceilings, the traditional stepladder is your best choice. If you're looking for something to use to clean gutters on a two-story house, you're talking an extension ladder, like the Werner 28-Foot Type III Aluminum Extension Ladder found below. If you just want to prune your crab apple trees, a single ladder can serve the purpose.
However, your choices are no longer limited to these three. Modern multipurpose ladders use hinges within the ladder and can, like Transformers, be articulated to act as a stepladder, a straight ladder, or scaffolding. This makes them great one-ladder solutions for households that don't need to access a high roof.
The third consideration in selecting a ladder is its length. First, understand that you won't be able to stand safely on the top or second rung of a stepladder. If you need to paint the ceiling of a 10-foot room, for example, and the distance from the bottom of your feet to the limit of your reach is six feet, you'll need a ladder that lifts you that extra four feet. Adding in the two rungs you can't use at the top of your ladder, and I calculate you'll need a 6-foot ladder.
For a straight ladder, you lose some height because you shouldn't stand on the top three rungs. You'll also lose a smidgen of height because the ladder should be resting at a 15 degree angle from the perpendicular (the old hypotenuse thing). If you're of average height, though, you should still be able to reach an object 12 feet in the air comfortably from a 12-foot ladder.
An extension ladder has its own needs when it comes to height. The two sections of the ladder must remain overlapped by at least three to five feet, which may diminish its overall useful height. Also, if you're using the ladder to access a roof, you'll want at least three feet extending beyond the upper resting point, usually near the gutter. A good rule of thumb: an extension ladder should be seven to 10 feet longer than the highest support point. You don't want to climb on the four uppermost rungs, for safety.
Also when it comes to safety, by the way, there's a right way to erect a straight or extension ladder. According to OSHA, a ladder's feet should be one foot away from the wall for every four feet of height, to produce that ideal 15 degree angle. To check this, use a simple test; with your toes touching the bottom of the ladder and your back erect, extend your arm straight out; your hand should just reach the ladder.
You shouldn't forget to take into consideration the weight limit of the ladder you're investing in. This is the wrong time to lie about your weight, because the consequences could be dire. Ladders are rated by types: Type IAA is deemed extra heavy duty, with a maximum weight limit of 375 lbs.; a Type IA ladder can hold up to 300 lbs.; Type I is deemed heavy duty and capable of holding up to 250 lbs.; Type II is designated a medium duty ladder supporting up to 225 lbs.; and Type III is a light duty ladder that can support up to 200 lbs. To see how much weight your ladder can hold, look for a duty rating sticker on the side. When deciding how much weight you need it to support, add in the heft of anything that you anticipate carrying up with you. A bundle of shingles weighs around 70 lbs., as does five gallons of roof coating. A sheet of plywood can weigh up to 80 lbs.
Once you've selected the right ladder, don't feel like you're home free. You'll also need to learn how to safely operate it. We've mentioned already the necessity of maintaining a 15 degree angle when erecting a straight ladder, and proper footing is also crucial. Again according to OSHA, "a 20-foot ladder that is unlevel by only 3/4" at the bottom will be out of plumb by 14" at the top," an instability that could send you plummeting to Earth. Look for level ground, and give the dirt a kick test; if your heel sinks more than an inch into the ground, look for better footing. Also consider anchoring your ladder at the bottom and top if possible. If in a pedestrian area, warn those around you and use cones or flags to make your ladder placement easier to see. And last, but certainly not least, remember that electricity is not your friend when using a ladder, so stay at least 10 feet clear of any overhead lines; wind is not your friend, either, so use your ladder in calm weather only.
If you're now considering shopping around for a ladder, we've found a few current deals to get your started. They demonstrate the variety available today, but keep in mind that no one model will embody all of the parameters above. You will have to find the mix of specifications that best fit your needs.
The Werner 6-Foot Fiberglass Step Ladder ($78 with free shipping, a low by $5) has a 250 lb. capacity, is made of fiberglass, and features slip-resistant steps. This would be a good everyday ladder for interior household work.
The Werner 28-Foot Type III Aluminum Extension Ladder ($191.62 with free in-store pickup, a low by $24) weighs only 38 lbs., has mar-resistant molded end caps, rail closures, and double rung locks. It's a good ladder for lightweights, as its weight limit is 200 lbs.
The Trademark Tools 8.5-Foot Telescoping Ladder ($89.99 with free shipping, a low by $30) cleverly telescopes from a collapsed height of 27.25" to an extended height as a straight ladder of 8.5 feet. It supports up to 330 lbs and is a great ladder for those with storage problems.
The Climbtek 12-Foot Articulated Ladder ($181.89 with $21.44 s&h, a low by $5) is a great example of the modern multi-use ladder; it can be used as a straight ladder, step ladder, scaffold, or even sawhorses.
When you do go shopping for a ladder, make sure you can handle the weight, that you have a place to store it, that it will support your weight, and, most importantly, that it will fit your needs. It's a tool that should last you a lifetime, so don't find yourself up the wrong ladder.