The #1 question I have been getting from folks is, “How do I baby proof my stairs?”
Understandably, that is one of the product installs you want to get right, (read this article if you missed my interview with safety expert Dr. McKenzie on safety gate related falls) but it all breaks down to the following:
1) No tension mount gates at the top of stairs
2) Understanding the material you are installing into
3) Knowing when to call in professionals
To address #1: If you have stairs, using a hardware mounted gate is your only option because it uses screws to mount into the wall making it the most reliable. You cannot use a tension mounted gate to support the weight of your child at the top of stairs – they just aren’t stable enough.
You can however use a tension mount gate at the bottom of stairs.
Some tension mount gates offer the hardware to convert them into a true fixed mount gate. You have some great options!
As a rule of thumb, stair gate installation should take around 20 – 45 minutes unless you get into the "Wonky" section which I outline below.
PRE-INSTALL PREP (5 - 15 minutes):
1) FOLLOW DIRECTIONS: Always read the installation manual cover to cover. I hope you are thinking, “Thanks Captain Obvious” because this is a mandatory.
2) GET VISUAL REINFORCEMENT: I’m not sure about you, but I’m not fluent in the language of “Stick-people-without-words-ese” commonly found in install manuals. Check for any manufacturer created online support materials like install videos on YouTube, the manufacturer’s website or on product pages from e-commerce sites.
3) THE PEOPLE SAYETH: Take 5 minutes and check Amazon consumer reviews for your exact product for any helpful tips and troubleshooting in the install process. Please note, this advice is just Joe Schmo talking about Joe’s particular home set-up – he’s never been to your house and he’s not an expert – so use your judgment. That being said, I’ve found that checking the reviews for trends can help you quickly determine what is normal install stuff vs. actual, “I need to return this,” problems with the product.
4) MEASURE TWICE, DRILL ONCE: There is the reality that some gate packages/instructions don’t disclose ALL their installation requirements, ahem, like baseboard compatibility! Before you let the drill fly, take 2 minutes to re-measure your set-up and make sure the product you purchased really will work.
5) ON THE LEVEL: Check how level your floor and walls are – I learned the hard way if walls aren’t plum the install will not go smoothly. Use a simple level like this to figure it out.
Baby proofing tip: If the installation manual doesn’t offer troubleshooting tips, call the Customer Support line for your gate to get the manufacturer recommendation for dealing with non-level surfaces.
INSTALLING YOUR STAIRWAY GATE: (15 – 30 minutes)
6) DOOR DIRECTION: Make sure the door to the gate can only swing in one direction, away from the stairwell.
7) FINDING A STUD: Installing into a stud is the most secure mounting option. So first you need to find said stud (tee hee). There are relatively inexpensive stud finders/detectors on the market <$10 or see if your handy neighbor has one to borrow. Just waive the finder over the wall and it is like a vertical version of the metal detector at the beach. Beep!
8) DRY WALL INSTALL: If you can't install into a stud, installing into dry-wall is your next best option. You will need to use a drywall anchor to help the screw grip and provide support for the frame. This anchor should be provided by the manufacturer.
Try to only drill into the wall as far as the anchor is long because you don’t know what is behind that wall and you don’t want to dill into anything important. Drill at depth and then put in the anchor into the wall and hammer until it’s flush with the wall. Follow assembly instructions and use your screwdriver to screw in the screw. Voila!
Baby proofing tip: Double check the installation manual for the appropriate drill bit size - it's different than when you drill into the stud.
9) WOOD INSTALL: If you are installing into wood (like a stairway banister, high baseboard or door framing) this is similar to installing into a stud. The potential wood issue is people don’t like to install into wood because of post-install damage or maybe you rent and you aren’t able to do anything destructive to the walls. Check out the section below.
Silver lining: You may be able to use a stair gate installation kit or stair mounting kit. They sell these on Amazon and they fit over your banister (like a clamp does) to create a new flat, drillable surface. Take extra time to read consumer reviews and check out consumer pictures to see what is most similar to your banister post needs. Take note that some people purchase these and they still don’t work. If that’s you then you should look into local Baby Proofing services.
10) WONKY SURFACES: What’s critical on a good install is a flat, parallel surface and drillable material. Here are the big issues to look out for:
a. Non-drillable surfaces (like wrought iron railings, concrete etc.)
b. Irregular shapes (like a ball shaped banister base)
c. Angled walls
d. Floating stairs or one parallel wall missing
Reality note: If you have any of the above scenarios and you can't block off access to the stairs, or use the stair mounting kit there is a strong possibility you may need a professional Baby Proofing Servicer to help you. Yes, they are more expensive but there are times you just shouldn't do it yourself. Some blogs say you can ALWAYS baby proof on your own and it's simply not true. Don't be a MacGyver on this one please.
Congrats, you should be all set for the next few years, well at least in the stair safety department!
Have some CRAY-Z stairs? Email firstname.lastname@example.org a picture with height, width and depth measurements and I will try to help you.
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