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

So, what is a Guardrail?

Really, all you 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, down a structure, or entering an area they are not intended to be in. Typically, in commercial applications you would be talking about places like apartment balconies, ramps/stairs, line queues, and more. In a more residential setting it is common to use a guardrail on porches or stairways although it may not necessarily 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. In reality that is not the case at all. 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 every step drains more and more precious energy. You may not have realized at the time, but you were utilizing a handrail here! Handrail is commonplace on stairs and ramps while also sometimes being attached on level surfaces in places like nursing homes where residents may have mobility issues. Sometimes Handrail is attached to a wall, but other times….

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 open to the world (especially in exterior applications). In these circumstances, guardrail and handrail join forces to create one awesome code compliant railing safety force!

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. Typically, the guardrail will be whatever type of railing desired and the handrail will be 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?