Dear James: I store stuff in the attic, but it’s difficult to get up through the opening in the closet ceiling.
Is a permanent folding ladder easy to install myself?
— Kristin L.
Dear Kristin: People most often use step ladders to get up into the attic, but they are not very sturdy — especially when you have your arms full of stuff.
The opening through the ceiling is often too small because it’s best to make an opening between joists.
There are certainly more convenient and safe options than a step ladder for getting up into your attic.
In addition to common folding ladders, there are one-piece disappearing stairways that slide down. Although they are more expensive, they are usually higher quality and stronger than most folding ladders.
Inexpensive folding ladders usually have a steepness of about 65 degrees. This is not as steep as a step ladder, but it is still quite uncomfortable when carrying anything.
Normal stairs in a house have a steepness of about 40 to 45 degrees. Disappearing stairways are about 55 degrees. This is comfortable to walk up.
Before rushing out to the home center to buy one, first determine where you want the stairway. Both a folding ladder and a disappearing stairway require a larger opening in your ceiling and some clearance from walls when you pull it down from the ceiling opening.
The typical rough opening size for folding stairs is about 2 feet by 5 feet and about 2½ feet by 8 feet for the disappearing stairs.
The best and most convenient location is a hallway, usually near the bedrooms.
Locate a position in the hallway where there is adequate clearance from walls, doors and handrails. Locate the corners of the rough opening on the ceiling and drill a small hole into diagonal corners. Push a long straight wire up through the holes into the attic.
Go up into the attic through your small existing opening and find the wires sticking up through the insulation. Wear a breathing mask and goggles.
Check for any obvious obstructions. Brush the insulation away and check for any wires or plumbing on the floor. If all is clear, you can proceed.
Now it is time to select your ladder or stairway. When comparing folding ladders, make sure that the treads and stringer (side piece that the treads attach to) are at least ¾ inches thick for strength and rigidity. There should also be a steel support wire under each tread.
Several manufacturers of high-quality attic access ladders and stairways are:
Installing a folding ladder and fitting it properly can be a bit tricky, so read through the instructions twice before starting. Using a reciprocating saw, cut the proper size attic access hole in the ceiling.
You will have to reinforce some of the floor joists that you sawed through. If you are adding reinforcement at a right angle to existing joists, use joist hangers. Do not just nail them in place.
Always use structural joist hanger nails, not common roofing nails.
When you actually attach the folding ladder or stairway in place, make sure to have a helper. Good quality units are too heavy for even a strong man to handle alone safely on a ladder.
One-quarter-inch lag bolts are a good choice for attaching it to the rough opening.
If you chose a folding ladder, your final step is to fit the height. For a common three-section ladder, extend the top two sections.
Lay a tape measure against the stringer and measure at the same angle to the floor. Saw off the bottom of the third section to this length.