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Do It Yourself: Ladder safety starts with a stabilizer

Sun., Nov. 11, 2012, midnight

Q. I use a 24-foot extension ladder to clean my rain gutters and do other high work on my house. I have never felt really safe on it and recently I came close to having an accident when it started to slide sideways. What can I do to improve safety?

A. There are several things you can do to improve the safety of the ladder, but you should keep in mind that ladders are basically dangerous and must always be used with extreme caution.

One good step is to equip the ladder with a stabilizer, a removable device that greatly increases the span of the ladder at the top. A stabilizer or standoff is a U-shaped device that is bolted near the top of the ladder.

Stabilizers are normally about four feet wide and have padded feet to rest against a roof or siding without damaging them. This device not only makes it easier and safer to clean gutters, but can span windows to make access easy for painting, cleaning, caulking or various repairs.

A disadvantage is that a stabilizer makes a ladder slightly top-heavy and awkward to move.

You must still make sure your ladder is firmly planted at the base and on a level surface. Since ground around a building usually slopes or is uneven, there are several ways to level the ladder.

If the slope or unevenness is minor you can use wood shims under the bottoms of the rails to keep the ladder perfectly vertical. This will help eliminate those very dangerous sideway slides.

I keep a supply of shims in a cardboard box; they are flat pieces of wood that range in thickness from one-quarter inch to one-and one-half inches, with half-inch and three-quarter inch shims included. Each of the shims is large enough to give the ladder foot adequate support. I don’t recommend using shims on sharply sloping or very rough ground. If you use shims, you should also avoid stacking more than a couple of shims under a ladder foot; too many shims would not be stable.

There are also ladders and retrofit attachments that bolt to the bottoms of the rails and can be adjusted to keep a ladder vertical on sloping or rough ground.

A third very important step is to make sure the base (rail bottoms) of an extension ladder is the correct distance from the building it is leaning against. A rule of thumb is that the base should be one foot away for every four feet of ladder height.

Q. I plan to buy a chainsaw for occasional use on my property. I’ll mostly be sawing fallen limbs into firewood. Some limbs are up to 8 inches in diameter. Do you recommend a gasoline-powered or electric chainsaw?

A: For occasional use, I would choose a good electric chainsaw. You need a three-pronged, grounded electrical outlet to plug it in, and the outlet should have a ground-fault circuit interrupter for extra shock protection. If you add a couple of heavy-duty, outdoor extension cords, you can use the saw 100 feet or more from the outlet.

The main reason I would go electric is convenience. All you need to do to use the saw is make sure it contains some bar-and-chain oil to lubricate the chain. A saw with automatic chain oiling is best – you won’t have to keep pushing a button with your thumb to oil it. I’d get a saw with 16-inch bar – a good-quality saw with sharp chain can easily slice through 8-inch limbs.

Gasoline-powered saws are great for people who use them regularly – they are powerful and can be carried anywhere without reliance on electricity.

A downside is that gasoline chainsaws require a carefully prepared gas-oil mixture to operate. Another disadvantage is that gas saws are extremely noisy, much moreso than electrics.

The fuel ratios vary, but a mixture of 40 parts gasoline to one part two-cycle engine oil is often used. Occasional users who mix too much fuel and try to store it often end with stale fuel that makes the saw difficult or impossible to start. This can happen even if a fuel stabilizer, such as Sta-Bil, is added to the mixture.

I have used both gasoline and electric saws, and mixing small quantities of fuel that I could use within a reasonable time was quite a hassle.

Chainsaws of any type are much like ladders in that they are basically dangerous. When sawing, wear heavy gloves, safety glasses and noise-deadening earmuffs. Most saw manuals also recommend some special clothing, such as protective pants. Keep chainsaw blades sharp and at the correct tension for best and safest performance.

Questions and comments should be emailed to Gene Austin at Send regular mail for Gene Austin to 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, Pa. 19422.

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