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Guardrail vs. Handrail, image showing steps with aluminum handrail and guardrail in the background.

Guardrail Vs. Handrail

  •   Posted on August 31, 2021

Wait, Guardrail and Handrail aren’t the same thing? Since when?

While oftentimes used interchangeably, guardrail (typically shortened to just rail or railing) and handrail are very different items used in alternate circumstances. It is important to note which is which when attempting to communicate what you need for a specific project. Join us as we take a closer look at the critical differences in these two terms.

So, what is a Guardrail?

All you really need to know is right there in the name. In simplest terms, a guardrail is a railing that guards people (or pets….we don’t discriminate!) from falling off of a structure or entering an area they are not intended to be in. In commercial applications this would include places like apartment balconies, ramps and stairs, lines or queues, and more. In a residential setting it is common to use a guardrail on porches or stairways although it may not be required. For a more specific breakdown on where guardrail is required, check out our outline of relevant railing codes.   

Aluminum guardrail lines balconies at an apartment complex

Guardrail lines the balconies at an apartment complex

But isn't that what Handrail is too?

A common misconception is that handrail is a synonym for guardrail but that is not the case. Similar to guardrail, most of what you need to know is in the name. A Handrail is simply a railing used almost exclusively with your hand. Envision walking up several flights of stairs, grabbing hold of the pipe attached to the wall as you go. This is what is referred to as a handrail. Handrails are commonplace on stairs and ramps while also sometimes being attached on level surfaces in places like nursing homes. Sometimes Handrail is attached to a wall, but other times it is attached to a guardrail.

Why are the terms ever together then?

In many instances there is no wall to attach the handrail to as a stairway or ramp is out in the open (especially in exterior applications). In these circumstances, guardrail and handrail join forces to create one code compliant railing system.

In numerous applications, a guardrail will be put up to provide safety from falling off a surface while handrail is mounted directly to the guardrail to provide essential mobility assistance. It is common for the type of guardrail to vary but handrail is typically a pipe handrail system.

In some instances, one railing can serve as both a handrail and guardrail without the need for a separate attachment. We won’t go too in depth on that here today, but the outline of relevant railing codes touches on that a bit.

Series 550 aluminum pipe picket railing being used in a stairway as a guardrail, with series 500 aluminum pipe railing attached serving as a handrail.

The pipe picket railing serves as a guardrail while the attached pipe 3/4 of the way up the railing serves as a handrail.

Got it! But what do I do now?

If you are interested in learning more about these two distinct items, you contact us. If you think you now know what you need to do for your project, please feel free to get a railing quote!


Further Readings

Fence Vs. Railing - What's the Difference

Understanding 20 Common Railing Terms

Do You Know Your Code?