Access to garage attic puts house at risk in fire

Q: We bought a resale house and discovered that the previous owner used the attic above the garage for storage. The only thing is, he cut a hole in the ceiling and just left it there. We want to use the attic space for storage, but don’t want to add stairs in the opening. We thought of a removable panel to cover the hole for cosmetic purposes. What kind of panel should we use?

A: The hole in your garage ceiling breaches the fire rating, and restoring the rating will take measures that you may prefer not to do. Many homeowners enjoy the attic’s storage capacity, but many are unaware of the increased fire risk. It’s always safer to repair the fire rating of the ceiling rather than just cover the hole.

It is a code requirement to use fire-rated drywall in the ceiling of your garage. The drywall is five-eighths of an inch thick and has “type-x” stamped on it. It also has noncombustible fibers added to it to achieve fire-resistance ratings, and its thickness slows the transfer of heat during exposure to fire.

If you have a big hole in your ceiling and a fire starts in the garage, it can get into the attic. You can buy a fire-rated access door, but these are typically special-order items and cost several hundred dollars. They are fairly easy to install though.

The fact that you want to cover the hole for cosmetic purposes is personal preference, just be aware that the danger of an attic fire exists.

So, to make your ceiling hole semiattractive again, you will need a piece of type-x drywall, as well as some molding to hold it in place. Realize that using the fire-resistant drywall panel alone isn’t going to restore the fire rating. There will be a gap around the perimeter of the panel, and the panel will be held in place with wood molding.

You want the drywall panel to be slightly smaller than the actual hole in your ceiling. You can make the panel one-half inch smaller in both length and width, so that when you do go into the attic, the panel will be easy to remove.

You can easily cut the drywall with a drywall saw, or you can use a utility knife and score the paper on one side, break the drywall along the score line and then cut the paper on the back side.

To hold the panel in place, buy some molding and cut it to fit. You want the molding to have a one-half inch lip along the inside perimeter of the opening. That way, the drywall panel will rest on it as it sits inside the opening. Try using a miter saw and cut 45-degree angles at the ends for square corners and a clean appearance.

Nail the molding to the ceiling and into the ceiling joists so that the nail penetrates the joist by at least three-quarters of an inch. If you feel froggy, you can texture the drywall and paint it to match the surrounding ceiling.

Michael D. Klimek is a licensed contractor and president of Pro Handyman Corp. Questions may be sent by e-mail to: questions@pro-handyman.com. Or, mail to: P.O. Box 96761, Las Vegas, NV 89193. His Web address is: www.pro-handyman.com.

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