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How to buy the best ladder

For safety and ease of storage, match the ladder with the job.

three different ladders

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When looking for a ladder for your home, the first question to ask is "How high?" Getting a spare blanket from the top shelf of the wardrobe or taking the curtains down for a wash may only require a small domestic stepladder or step-stool, with two or three steps.

But if you have high ceilings or do lots of work around the house, a larger platform stepladder or A-frame ladder may be the best option.

If versatility is your thing you might be considering a multipurpose ladder – but there are some safety concerns there.

Ladder types

Platform stepladders are like the domestic step ladders you keep behind the kitchen cupboard, but on steroids. They have a wide, non-slip platform near the top to provide a working area where you can stand fairly comfortably, or rest your work tools, can of paint and so on. Others have two or three usable steps and a safety rail at the top against which you can brace your legs or body, depending on the rail's height.

Look for a strongly built model with cross bracing and a broad, secure platform with a non-slip surface. Ideally, the platform should lock in place. Small two- or three-step platform stepladders can be especially useful for indoor tasks, as they can be easier to stand on than an ordinary stepladder.

A-frame or extension option

Common-and-garden 'A-frame' ladders are the most popular type for home use and for good reason – they are generally well made with few moving parts and they are stable. For typical household tasks like indoor painting or changing light bulbs, a 1.8m domestic stepladder is all most people ever need.

If you do want more versatility in your ladder, but don't need it to be contorted into a dozen different shapes, then a step extension ladder might be the perfect home solution.

The step extension ladder can be used as a standard A-frame ladder and past tests have found this type of ladder to be very stable. However if you want more reach you can fold the ladder out and have a longer straight ladder, which effectively doubles your reach when placed against the side of the house.

Multipurpose ladders

Not just any old ladder – the multipurpose ladder can be folded in on itself to create a scaffold, fold one of the legs out and turn your stairs into a flat platform, or fold it out and you can climb onto the roof of your house. Once you finish you just fold it up and put it in your cupboard.

While it's true that these ladders are very versatile, this versatility can make the ladder unstable if not operated exactly as instructed. The joint locks that create the impressive folding configurations can be hard to operate, and if you aren't very careful to ensure all the locking mechanisms are completely secure you could find yourself, your paint and your dignity crashing to the ground.

Compared to ladders performing the same tasks, multipurpose ladders are heavy and bulky and can require a fair amount of physical strength to manipulate them into shape, although the advertorial selling these items often show a slim, petite actress going about the job as if it were a breeze.

What to look for

Rigid structure

If a ladder isn't rigid enough, it can 'walk' when you shift your weight side to side — that's when the ladder twists and the feet move unexpectedly. It's a problem that can affect even the smallest, simplest stepladder if it's not braced enough. Ladders that have spreaders (or cross bracing) tend to be much more rigid and are less likely to walk. Although you can't give the ladder a full-on test at the hardware store, you can at least step onto a couple of different models and move around a bit to see if it remains stable.

Watch the load

A ladder for domestic use has a load rating of 100kg. If your weight's about 100kg or more, a better option is a ladder with an industrial duty rating that can support a load of up to 120kg or 150kg.

Fit for purpose

If you want to use your ladder as a scaffold, or put your tools or paint can at the top rung, look for models that specifically have these as claimed features.

Non-slip grip

Make sure the rungs/steps and feet are made to reduce slippage.

Ladders: the silent killer

Forget about shark attacks – if you are an older man and love DIY maintenance, treat your ladder like it's out to get you.

A fall from a height of one to two metres can be enough to cause serious injuries. There are several deaths each year in Australia as a result of falling from a ladder. Almost all are male, with an average age of 65. 

If you are a senior citizen, consider whether you're really the right person for any job requiring a ladder. If you don't have a suitably skilled friend or relative, perhaps a tradesperson or assistance from your local council might be a better and safer option.

Prepare properly and read the instructions

Don't read the ladder's safety instructions like you read the instructions for microwave popcorn – read them as if your life depended on it. Open the ladder fully and make sure all joints and spreaders lock firmly in place.

When you have finished with your ladder, store it in a dry, ventilated place to prevent rust and rot. This is particularly important for multipurpose ladders, as there are several angles and joints that can adversely affect the performance and safety of the ladder.

Be seen to be safe

When using your ladder, place it in an area that can be seen by others. Don't use it in front of a door that someone could open onto you and send you hurtling down the stairs.

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