By Edward R. Lipinski

New York Times News Service

If you own a home, you should own a ladder. It's almost impossible to maintain a house properly without one. Most people know what a ladder is used for, but they don't always know how to use one properly. The Consumer Products Safety Commission estimates that every year about 65,000 people are hospitalized because of ladder accidents.

There are different types of ladders, but homeowners need only be concerned with the two most common ones: the step ladder and the extension ladder. Both types are available in wood, aluminum, magnesium and fiberglass.

The main advantage to buying a wooden ladder is that it is cheaper than an aluminum or fiberglass one. There are two drawbacks to wooden ladders. First, they are heavy. Wooden extension ladders are difficult to carry and to maneuver in place. Second, they deteriorate when left unprotected. Excessive moisture can penetrate the wood, causing rot and decay.

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Hanging the ladder in a dry place will keep moisture from collecting on the wood. You can also protect it by applying a coat of clear finish to the wood. Never paint a wooden ladder; the paint will cover defects that could make the ladder unsafe.

Aluminum ladders are less expensive than fiberglass ones and lighter than the wooden models. Their main drawback is that they conduct electricity and can be dangerous to use around electrical wires.

Some extension ladders are made from magnesium. They are expensive, and most stores do not carry them. Magnesium ladders are even lighter than aluminum ones, but they flex more. Many do-it-yourselfers find that working on a long magnesium ladder can be an unsettling experience when it starts to bend.

Fiberglass ladders are lightweight, weather resistant and non-conductive (although a wet or dirty fiberglass ladder can conduct electricity), but they are more expensive than either aluminum or wooden ladders.

Besides price and material, there are two other factors to consider when choosing a ladder. The first is the duty rating. It indicates the load capacity the ladder will bear. Type IA can hold 300 pounds (it is designed for industrial applications), Type I holds 250 pounds, Type II 225 pounds and Type III 200 pounds. These ratings indicate the total weight the ladder can hold; this includes the weight of person on the ladder and also the weight of any tools or materials he may carry.

The second factor to consider is the length of the ladder. Obviously you need a ladder long enough to reach your home's highest ceiling or roof peak. Ladder length can be deceiving, because you really can't use the entire length. It's unsafe, for example, to stand on the top step of stepladder, so a six-foot stepladder only gives you five feet of usable height. Similarly, the top three rungs (approximately three feet in length) of an extension ladder should only be used for handholds, not for standing.

Stepladders are available in lengths from 2 to 14 feet, but the most useful one for homeowners is the 6-foot model. Extension ladders are manufactured in 4-foot increments, from 16 to 40 feet. To find the right length for you, measure the distance from the ground to the roof eaves or peak and add three feet. Remember that a long extension ladder can be difficult to maneuver.

When using a ladder, remember that it is most stable when your weight is centered between the stiles (the two upright side rails). Avoid over-reaching; leaning or reaching beyond the ladder can cause it to topple. If something is not within your immediate grasp, climb down and reposition the ladder. Read all instruction and caution labels printed on the ladder. Before using any ladder, inspect it carefully for worn or damaged parts. Do not use any ladder that has bent or cracked stiles or rungs. Make sure that the rungs or steps are free from dirt and grease and wear sensible, slip-resistant footwear. Always face the ladder when climbing or descending it.

When setting up a stepladder, make sure that it is fully opened and that the folding stays are locked. Never stand or sit on the top shelf or the folding pail shelf. Do not attempt to climb on the back of a stepladder. If you must erect a stepladder in front of a door, either lock the door or post a warning sign on the other side. Periodically check the brace nuts on the side of the stepladder. If they are loose, use an adjustable wrench to tighten them.

When setting up an extension ladder, watch for overhead power lines. To erect the ladder, position the bottom against the house, then starting from the top walk toward the bottom raising the ladder hand over hand. When the ladder is vertical, pull the bottom out so the feet are one-quarter of its working length from the house. Next secure the feet of the ladder to keep them from slipping. If possible, nail a cleat behind the ladder or tie the feet to stakes to keep them in place. Never climb an unsteady ladder; when in doubt, enlist the aid of a helper to hold the ladder in place.

Keep your ladder in top condition by taking proper care of it. Store it by hanging it on a wall with supports positioned every six feet. Clean and lubricate all moving parts periodically.