Handrail Code Requirements For A Correct Glass Railing Install

glass railing system complying with handrail code requirements

Handrail Code Requirements for a Correct Glass Railing Install

Glass handrail code requirements take into consideration safety, liability and a variety of other factors. Code compliance is certainly a complicated issue and identifying which code to adhere to can be challenging for any glazier or installer. Additionally, the International Building Code (IBC) can alter specifications for glass railings, which influence local code modifications.

Make Sure the Specified Code Satisfies Precise Project Requirements

Due to many local variants for model building codes, it can be challenging to stay up to date with the latest handrail code requirements and comprehend ramifications. This calls for continual education, reaffirmation, and a greater appreciation of what should really be looked over for your project.

Architects may take from their own local codes or use central resources as a reference when specifying. However, local factors such as geography, topography, building design, and uses must be considered to ensure the product specified performs as needed. To make certain a job meets the proper regulations, it is important to note model building codes are only measuring sticks, which may not be regionally, locally or project specific.

Recognize Important Aspects in Choosing the Best Building Codes

There isn’t an exclusive method of adopting the correct code and guaranteeing compliance with glass handrail code requirements. So, what exactly is the best code? That answer is dependent upon several factors that need to be meticulously examined.

Life Safety

Be sure to keep the end users of your design as the main consideration. A building code may be a minimum safety standard based on the specific project—however, there could be value in specifying more stringent safety precautions above what the handrail code requirements call for. The crucial question is, “What are the demands of this application and how can I ensure danger will be mitigated for all users?”

Local Standards and Requirements

Geographical or topographical variations may require strict codes be met.  For example, Los Angeles County Building Code or Miami-Dade County Building Code have regulations concerning issues specific to their region.


A glass railing system improperly specified or installed may lead to an enormous liability claim if an accident occurs. If an inspector determines a project doesn’t meet appropriate codes, the installer may be forced to repair, correct, or change the design or product at their own expense.

Currently, IBC 2018 is the model code all states and jurisdictions should be adopting. Always check with your local jurisdiction to determine what IBC 2018 impacts as it pertains to glass railing systems, glass requirements, top rail use and glass edge appearance. Considering IBC 2018 requirements, those involved in railing installations with glass should start by looking at four things to better understand compliance:

  1. Determine if tempered laminated glass should be used
  2. Determine top rail requirements
  3. Familiarize yourself with American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards for edge tolerance
  4. Consult the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) to confirm requirements prior to installation

Tempered Laminated Glass vs. Monolithic Tempered Glass
IBC 2018 not only details the code for handrails, it also covers code for handrails with glass infill. There are two types of glass commonly used as infill panels in glass railing systems: tempered laminated glass and monolithic tempered glass. Tempered laminated glass is a hybrid of two types of glass, consisting of a vinyl interlayer with two glass panes on either side that is then heat treated. This construction allows the glass to break on either side of the interlayer, causing the pieces to stick together, reducing shattering and fallout should failure occur. Monolithic tempered glass is a single sheet of glass that is tempered to increase durability. Should this type of glass break, it will break into a web-like interlocking pattern but remain within its frame.

IBC 2018 requires fully tempered or heat-strengthened laminated glass to meet Category 1 or Class A impact requirements. This helps to protect individuals from falling glass should the infill shatter. Monolithic tempered glass is only allowed where there is no walkway under the glass, or if the walking surface is permanently protected from the risk of falling glass. All other glass infill handrail systems must use tempered laminated glass.

This IBC requirement originated due to several instances in which monolithic glass railing was breaking. The primary cause of failure was nickel-sulfide inclusions within the panel or unprotected edges.

Nickel-sulfide inclusions are imperfections in flat glass, which expand and cause glass to break spontaneously. While domestically-produced glass has a lower risk of these imperfections, many cases of failure were traced to glass that had been produced offshore but tempered in the U.S.

Monolithic tempered glass is also subject to breakage by impact on its edges. Edges of tempered glass are inherently weaker than the central field of the glass and panels may break due to impact from above.

Inclusion of Top Rail

IBC 2018 also requires all glass systems to be designed with a top rail in order to hold the glass in place should it break. The only exception to this requirement is when the glass system uses laminated glass panels designed to withstand loads that are specified in IBC 1607.8.

Edge Appearance

Exposed edge appearance and the tolerance of visible exposed edges can be an issue with tempered laminated glass. The standards for tolerance fall not just under IBC 2018, but under ASTM Standards. Here are links to ASTM resources for specifying edge tolerances for glass railing systems.

  • ASTM C1036: Standard specification for flat glass
  • ASTM C1048: Standard specification for heat strengthened and fully tempered flat glass
  • ASTM C1172: Standard specification for laminated architectural flat glass
  • ASTM E2353-06: Standard test methods for performance of glass in permanent glass railing systems, guards and balustrades
  • ASTM E2358-04: Standard specification for the performance of glass in permanent glass railing systems, guards and balustrades

Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)

While best case scenario for safety would be universal adaption of IBC 2018, the fact remains that variances exist in model building code requirements. To ensure your design meets code, confer with the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) over your project. Depending on location, this authority could include the fire marshal, building inspector, accessibility reviewer, and several other groups or agencies. For assistance in determining the authority for the next job, your railing supplier can point you in the right direction.

Residential Applications

The 2018 International Residential Code (IRC) includes a code requirement for residential glass railing that is similar to the wording in the IBC.

R308.4.4.1 Structural Glass Baluster Panels

In residential applications where the railing span is small, you don’t need to use three panels if the top rail or handrail is large enough to withstand the load on its own. This would require selecting a top rail that can withstand 200 lb. concentrated load or 50 lbs/ft uniform load and while attaching the ends in such a way that the top rail/handrail can withstand the load. Note: in a residential application, the handrail and top rail can be one in the same as the guard height minimum is 36″. The handrail must be located between 34″ and 38″, but this is not the same in the IBC as the guard minimum height is 42″.

Consult Professionals to Ensure Compliance

Align yourself with knowledgeable partners to help complete your project with codes in mind. Considering codes from project inception can help to eliminate issues when it comes time to install handrail.

  1. Partner with a Reputable Supplier—in order to meet code, proper specifications are essential to avoid liability. An experienced supplier will help identify code requirements. They also can assist glaziers and installers to create a solution that suits demands of numerous types of applications. Suppliers can provide precise evaluation of building use, application, geographical concerns, and all other factors prior to meeting with the local AHJ.
  2. Check with the Area AHJ—the local AHJ will define your local glass handrail code requirements. As codes change frequently, the AHJ can help you be sure building codes are being met from specification to installation.

Compliance with glass handrail code requirements can be complicated, and requirements and standards can vary depending on the project. While IBC 2018 is a great starting place for building code compliance, you will find specialists in the field who can help figure out how to satisfy local requirements while balancing profitability. Contact us for more information.


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