If you are building a new wood deck or resurfacing an existing one, you are weighing the options and trying to determine what deck material will be best. You want something that is attractive, easy to maintain and cost effective.
One option to consider instead of a real wood deck surface will be composite products from manufacturers like Trex, Evergrain, TimberTech, CertainTeed, and LP.
Most composite deck materials are manufactured with a blend of recycled plastics such as polyethylene or PVC and wood fiber and sawdust by-products. Introduced to the market in the early 1990s, the initial products were made almost entirely with recycled products and touted as being environmentally friendly.
Characteristics of Composite Deck Materials
Today, in order to engineer longer lasting, more attractive composite deck materials, many manufacturers use recycled and/or virgin polyethylene or PVC, blended with wood flour and cellulose fibers. Each manufacturer uses a secret recipe, claiming that its unique blend will last longer, resist mold, fading, and superior expansion and contraction characteristics.
These composite products definitely give your deck better resistance to insects and rot than real wood and make it less likely to split, crack and weather as quickly. A variety of colors and finishes are available, including redwood, cedar, gray, buckskin and weathered wood. Some of the better products can look almost as good as a real wood deck!
Two basic types of composite deck materials are available; solid and hollow. Solid composite decking looks more like real wood decking but also expands and contracts more due to its mass. Hollow composite decking products may be more susceptible to damage on the job site and after installation.
Benefits of Composite Deck Materials
- Does not deteriorate or rot as quickly as real wood
- Resists fading and heat damage
- Easy to install
- Requires less maintenance than a real wood deck; no sanding, staining, sealing or refinishing is required
- Surface designed to prevent slipping when wet
- Does not splinter or sliver like real wood decking material
Disadvantages of Composite Deck Materials
- Probably only has a useful life of 5 to 10 years; while manufacturers claim otherwise, after about 5 seasons your composite deck will begin to show signs of wear and tear, with some degradation of the surface finish, color fading, scratches and even some warping
- Cannot be refinished, unlike a wood deck, which can be stained, oiled or otherwise refinished; the look you get when you buy it is what you’ll have for the life of your deck surface
- May pose environmental concerns since it can not currently be recycled and, unlike wood deck materials, may last up to 1,000 years in a landfill
Composite Deck Purchasing Tips
- Look at a variety of options before you select a composite decking material; warranties, features and prices vary widely and some products are better suited to certain types of climates than others
- Be sure you understand the manufacturer’s warranty period and specific terms; purchase your materials from a reputable dealer or home improvement center that will be there to back up the products they sell
- Consider whether you want to use deck railing and hardware made by the same manufacturer to match your deck surface or whether you prefer something like a wrought iron or other type of railings
- Get at least 3 separate contractors to provide you quotes if you plan to have your deck installed professionally; check references and compare prices before deciding on a contractor. Even if you are considering installing composite deck material yourself, getting the quotes and talking to the contractors first will help you better determine whether you are up to this project and what pitfalls to avoid!
Composite Deck Installation Tips
- Use the specially made screws meant for fastening composite decking material to prevent the deck material from "mushrooming" around the screw head; nails or regular deck screws are not the way to go!
- Although the directions for these screws say no pre-drilling is required, you should always pre-drill the holes with a drill-countersink combination bit; my own experience is that this is the only way to get the screw heads properly counter sunk without any mushrooming or mounding around the heads for a nice, smooth deck surface.
- Use an impact head on your drill and set the tension loose so that you do not over tighten the screw heads and break completely through the surface; you don’t want them too deep.
- As with wood deck materials, you need to correct any curvature in the boards as you install them; snap chalk lines and tack nails to the deck joist along the chalk lines between the composite deck planks to get the spacing even as you install each one.
- If the span you are covering is longer than the composite deck planks, stagger the joints where ends meet; you can either stagger the joints randomly or use an alternating length to create a uniform pattern.
- Start laying deck planks from the outside edge of the deck and work your way inward toward the house; this way if you need to rip the final board to width the cut side can be more easily concealed.
- You can also leave the ends of your deck a bit ragged and uneven as you install if that helps reduce the number of cuts and notches required; trim the ends with a circular saw after all the boards are installed and use a belt sander to round and smooth the ends.
Composite Deck Maintenance and Cleaning Tips
- Be sure to follow your manufacturer’s care instructions
- You need a gap of at least 3/16 inch between composite deck boards (1/8 inch is common) to ensure that leaves, dust, etc. does not clog the gaps and provide an organic food source for mildew and mold to form
- Use a broom or leaf blower to keep your composite deck free of leaves, dust, pollen, etc.
- Keeping your composite deck clean is the best way to prolong its useful life; periodically clean the surfaces with a cleaning solution and stiff scrub brush, scrubbing in the direction of the grain
- A homemade cleaning solution consisting of 1/3 cup of powered laundry soap, 2/3 cup of tri sodium phosphate, one quart of bleach and three quarts of water works well; you can also buy commercial deck cleaning solutions
- Always test the cleaning solution first on a small, out-of-site area of the deck to be sure it does not discolor or otherwise harm the composite deck boards
- Wet the entire deck surface thoroughly before spraying the cleaning solution on to help it spread evenly and penetrate the mold, mildew and grime; it’s easier to do this in small areas, working your way from one end to the other.
- Let the cleaning solution sit for about 15 minutes, scrub it well and then rinse with a garden hose and spray attachment; repeated scrubbing may be required in heavily soiled areas
- If you use a power washer to rinse the deck boards, be sure to use a very low power setting and attachment or you may harm the composite deck surface and void your warrantee; consult your manufacturer’s care instructions before using a power washer.
- Use a putty knife to remove organic material that collects in joints or gaps
- Use care with the cleaning solution; it is acidic and will harm unprotected plants near the deck as you rinse the deck, splashing overspray onto the foliage