Tree house Inspection
Tree houses are great fun for kids, but danger is inherent when you let children play in trees. Inspectors should be aware of a tree house on a property and warn the owners of their potential hazards.
Despite what we know about power line dangers for residential homes and commercial structures, homeowners sometimes build tree houses near power lines, perhaps due to space constraints. This situation increases the likelihood that children will be electrocuted or burned in a tragic treehouse fire, as it becomes quite easy for them to climb onto the power lines or deliberately touch them with sticks or poles. The wind may also cause the branches to contact the power lines. Some utility companies instruct their workers to flag tree houses that are dangerously close to power lines. Homeowners are then notified and, depending on the company, the tree may be either pruned or removed.
In addition to power lines, tree houses should not be built near or over a cliff, a busy road, or dangerous water features.
The Forestry Commission of England offers the following tree house safety guidelines (their code is in italics):
fall height. The fall height from the tree house should not be greater than 2 meters unless the structure has good protection against falls, such as railings or other edge protection.
fall zone. The fall zone around the tree house should be free of any pointed stumps, sharp or large rocks, or dangerous waste, such as sharp metal. Normal vegetation cover, saplings and bushes are not a problem. Woodchips make a good ground cover beneath the tree house.
access. Access to the tree house needs to be checked. If a rope or rope ladder is provided, then weight-bearing capacity should be checked by giving the rope a ‘good pull’ with feet firmly on the ground. Wooden ladders are better than rope ladders, which are less stable and pose a strangulation risk.
structure. Structure should be checked to ensure that collapse is not likely. This should be done in a safe manner from outside the structure [while] wearing safety helmet. If ladders are used to access the structure, then working at height regulations should be followed. Also, inspect the tree, as well as neighboring trees, for evidence of weakness, fungus or decay.
snag hazards. Inspect for rough, splintered areas that can be sanded down, and for nails sticking out that may be replaced with screws.
Inspect for loose or rotten boards.
Is there a railing? According to The Black and Decker Complete Guide: Build Your Kids a Tree house, railings should be at lest 36 inches (0.91 meters) tall with vertical balusters no more than 4 inches (10.2 cm) apart. On tree houses designed for small children, rope or cable should not be used for the balusters. Horizontal balusters are dangerous because children use them to climb.
Advice for Homeowners
Restrict access to the tree house, especially if you live in a neighborhood with a lot of children. You may be held responsible if a trespassing child is injured in the tree house.
Tree houses allow children privacy and freedom, which can be healthy, but keep an eye out for antisocial activities, such as drug use.
If the tree house borders a neighbor’s house, it may cause a nuisance. Children might need to keep their voices down and be respectful.
Is the tree house not on your property? Build tree houses on public land at your own risk, as the project might be illegal. Also, the tree house and children’s’ activity may disrupt the enjoyment of others, or negatively impact nature conservation areas.
Never allow children in the tree house during inclement weather, especially if you hear thunder.
Construct a pulley and bucket system for hauling items up to reduce the chance of fall or injury.
Restrict the number of children allowed in the tree house at one time.
Post a list of safety rules for the children to learn, and make sure they follow them.
In summary, tree houses pose some unique risks that can be mitigated with inspection and common sense.
Fred Sweezer Sr.
Certified Property Inspector