Home Mods: Taking it to the Next Level

A home ramp primer

by Jan Blaustone on September 1, 2008 - 10:13am

QUEST Vol. 15, No. 5

You’re one of the lucky few if your home’s entrance accommodates a wheelchair without any modifications. But before you throw down a metal ramp purchased on eBay, consider all your options and make an entrance of which you can be proud.

First things first

You want the ramp to be safe. Be familiar with ADA requirements prior to buying. Basic ADA ramp requirements are:

  • Maximum ramp slope of 1 inch of rise for every 12 inches of length.
  • Maximum rise of 30 inches for any length.
  • Level landings every 30 feet and at the top and bottom of the ramp. Landings should be a minimum of 60 inches and at least as wide as the ramp. Turns should be at least 5-feet-by-5-feet. Note: When a landing has a doorway, leave enough space to accommodate the wheelchair after the door has opened.
  • Any ramp higher than 6 inches or longer than 6 feet must have a handrail on either side.
  • Minimum inside width of at least 36 inches.
Fiberglass is used in ramps from Add-a-Ramp.

Ramp plans are available online, from most wheelchair manufacturers and sometimes from the local hardware store. Be sure plans correspond with the entrance you’re ramping. Take careful measurements, including required level landing space between slopes. Before beginning, check local building codes and obtain a building permit if needed.

Your next decision is ramp material. This will be dictated in part by the weather where you live and the location of the ramp. Some choose an area where the ground is the flattest and the rise is least significant. Others determine their wheelchair entryway based on aesthetics or overhead coverage, like inside a garage.

The easiest ramp to construct from a plan for a handy do-it-yourselfer is a modular ramp. Modulars can be built in stages in a garage and assembled later onsite. Whether permanent or temporary, modular ramps typically are just slope sections and landings that fasten together.

When deciding on ramp design, consider these aspects:

  • Know the maximum weight the ramp will be required to support.
  • Is the ramp to be temporary or permanent?
  • If you’re using a garage entrance, do you want to leave room for vehicles as well?
  • Do you live in an area of extreme heat or one that receives an abundance of rain, sleet or snow?
  • Will your design complement the look of your home?

Ramp materials

Brick, concrete and wood decking were used in the construction of this ramp from Gozna Services.

Ramps can be concrete, wood, metal, fiberglass, brick or other composite material. There are pluses and minuses to every type.

Metal modular ramps, whether temporary or permanent, are a good choice for economy and durability. They’re virtually maintenance free, can have 90-degree angles, are strong, have high load-bearing capacities and can complement your landscape through decorative handrail designs or colored mesh panels. They can be easily disassembled and relocated elsewhere. However, if you live in a very hot climate, the metal will get extremely hot to the touch. They also can be slippery when wet. Although sand grit strips can be applied, they wear down quickly, especially under the weight of a power wheelchair. Prices vary depending upon style and features, but they generally range from $350 thresholds to $2,200 for a 22-foot straight ramp, and hold a high resale value.

Wood modular ramps are popular because they’re easy to build and install. Never use plywood outdoors because it warps and chips. Select a hard wood that’s been pressure treated and use at least 3-inch galvanized screws (not nails that can pop up). Although a wood ramp is a permanent choice, it’s durable and blends easily with most decors whether painted or stained. The downside is that wood can be very slippery when wet and it must be maintained.

Mike Hamby of Tullahoma, Tenn., built an attractive wood ramp onto the front porch for his son Joshua, 21, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD).

“The entry ramp ‘floats’ on the sidewalk,” he says. “It uses a treated 1-by-4 to correct for the slight difference in elevation between the 2-by-6s and the porch. It cost about $300 in materials.”

Vinyl ramps require less maintenance and may cost less than all wood.

Concrete is a good option for a permanent outside ramp. The nature of concrete makes the ramp naturally slip-resistant, strong and long lasting under very rough usage. While wood ramps are strong and durable, they can’t handle extreme weather conditions like concrete, and concrete doesn’t heat up like metal does. You can add a decorative look by etching in a pattern (adding even more traction) or using colored concrete. A straight ramp that rises one foot requires about 20 60-pound bags of cement, costing approximately $150 to $350, depending on the blend (some cement blends set up faster). The cost of hiring a contractor for the job probably would start at about $500, but could go much higher if the site is difficult to access and cement has to be brought in by wheelbarrow.

Composite: The obvious drawback of a concrete ramp is that it lasts forever — until now! Your local builder can advise you about the new “concrete deck wheelchair ramp” that’s made to look and feel like concrete but is actually a composite material that comes in sections like any other modular ramp. Even though they cost more than traditional concrete, they’re becoming quite popular because they can be relocated. Excluding handrails, the ramp itself is priced at $149 per foot based on a 4’ width. Platforms run $79 per square foot. Be sure to consider shipping costs as they are quite heavy.

Fiberglass is another relatively new ramp material, made of very thin noncorrosive glass fibers. Premade ramps usually come in 30-inch to 36-inch widths with a 2-inch edging. They support weights up to 660 pounds, don’t buckle, and with their rough texture, provide excellent traction. Fiberglass can handle any element Mother Nature throws its way. Perhaps its best advantage is that, although durable and strong, it’s extremely lightweight and easy to transport. The top flap of the ramp sits on the edge of the upper landing where it simply screws into place.

These ramps average between $200 for thresholds and $600 for a 5-foot length. The independence they provide the user is well worth the price. They’re so lightweight, with two-piece hinged and foldable construction, that they easily can be carried on the back of a wheelchair in a carrying bag or toted on an airplane.

If you can’t ramp it, lift it

Instead of a ramp, the Frye family of Winchester, Tenn., chose a lift/platform combination in their garage (which was later converted into a recreation room), allowing 11-year-old Kevin, who has DMD, to enter his home with ease in his power wheelchair.

With the help of some handy friends, Kevin’s grandfather, Thomas Wicklander, built a platform and stairs that rise 4 feet above the garage floor. This was accomplished in one day, costing between $400 and $500 in materials. On another day, a lift company come out and installed a $3,995 lift in about three hours.

“There was no room for a ramp in the garage,” says Wicklander, “and we wanted to save space for the rec room. A ramp rising that height would have required too much zigzagging and probably cost us $1,000 in wood. This system operates perfectly and we still have plenty of room. I don’t know what we’d do without it.”

Build two

Joshua Hamby’s “floating” wood ramp.

One ramp isn’t really enough.

The Hamby family installed a ramp in their garage leading into the house in order to create two accessible exits — great fire preparedness and something every house with a wheelchair user should have! Because it was covered, they used plywood for the garage ramp.

The bottom line: Build your entrance safe, build it strong and build it beautiful. Not only wheelchair users will appreciate it, so will your dog and other aging family members for many years to come.

Jan Blaustone, a freelance writer living in Nashville, has limb-girdle muscular dystrophy. She lives in a stepless, rampless home she designed herself.


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