Decking Alternatives: Pros and Cons
A beautiful wood deck is the superstar amenity of a home’s exterior. It is the undisputed focal point, serving both visually and as the “heart” of one’s outdoor lifestyle. Much like the kitchen phenomenon indoors, decks are a social “magnet” where those who live there relax and will spend a great deal of time – and it is where guests gather and socialize. Simply put, decks – in and of themselves – are a great attraction…with great attraction.
Say “decks” and one automatically thinks: wood. Why? It’s only natural. Wood is beautiful, there are numerous choices – with various levels of quality and pricing – and when warmed by the summer sun…it simply “feels” good, both physically and aesthetically.
Appearance aside, the wood one chooses for their deck is generally a function of budget. The most pervasive and least expensive natural material is pine, Douglas Fir and economy grades of redwood. While considered the most traditional of all decking materials, even with proper care, they have a limited lifespan – generally about 10-years or less – depending upon exposure and how well they are maintained.
In the first level of man’s tinkering with Mother Nature’s products, one can extend the lifespan of “economy” lumber (or POW “Plain Old Wood”) by using that which has been “Pressure Treated,” whereby chemicals (pesticides) are driven deep into wood fibers to retard deterioration due to moisture and to provide insect resistance.
Pressure Treated wood, with proper care, is said to “double your pleasure and double your fun” – by extending the lifespan of POW’s from 10-years to as much as 20-years. And naturally, where there are “pro’s” you will find “con’s.” The obvious pluses and benefits are offset by a modest increase in price (no surprise here) and a minor controversy over the long-term exposure to the actual chemicals used to achieve the desired effect. The original formula, called CCA (for Chromated Copper Arsenate) contained arsenic. Today’s more Earth and human-friendly version, ACQ (for Ammonia Copper Quaternary ammonia) uses copper based preservatives to accomplish the benefits of pressure treated wood and though less toxic, still conjures up health concerns among families with little ones who might scour the surface on all fours.
Beyond economical and longer-lasting lie a number of woods that increase price-wise exponentially as does the beauty, durability and exotic aspects of the species. The pricing stair step begins with cedar and cypress, and goes on up to and through rich mahoganies, durable and beautiful redwoods and exotics like South America Ironwood, pau lope and ipe.
Budget aside, a beautiful wood deck can also put a damper on one’s summer fun and/or entertaining with on-going maintenance. However, as one might suspect, today’s technology is steadily providing exciting new answers to this age old nemesis.
The cost and drudgery of keeping wood looking good is rapidly giving way to a man-made species – called Composite Wood – that is giving Mother Nature a real run for her money.
Say “Composite Wood,” and the uninformed may think: cheesy plastic? No way, not today. Along with the steadily increasing numbers of manufacturers (over 50 to date) — offering a wide range of looks — has come a product that truly rivals the properties, performance and reason for using natural woods.
Composite wood in general blends real wood fibers with various forms of plastic and molds it into “board form” to achieve the look and properties of conventional decking – but with a host of built-in benefits that can only be called “better living through technology.”
First be aware that composite wood is only used for deck surfaces, and that all sub-structure still utilizes traditional framing techniques and conventional materials – here’s where pressure-treated lumber really shines. But it is on the surface where composite wood-look decking is becoming a superstar.
Basically, composite woods last far longer than natural lumber and require very little maintenance by comparison. Periodic soap and water clean up is all the maintenance usually required. Composite decking will stain just like natural materials, so be sure to prevent nasty spills and drips from your barbecue.
Beyond being artfully molded into planks that truly capture (and rival) the “look” of traditional decking; it does not warp, crack, rot, split or splinter – and it resists insects. It handles like wood, as far as sawing, drilling and fasteners (screws and nails), all flaws are virtually eliminated and it requires no staining, painting or finishing – initially or later on. While not a “no-maintenance” product, it is certainly low-maintenance – and the elimination of initial staining and/or sealing and re-staining and/or re-sealing over time equates to savings that more than offsets the modest increased upfront cost.
Ah-hah, you say…there’s the catch. Not really, composite woods fall in the same price range as the upscale choices – such as cedars and redwoods – but without the “down the road” drastic changes in appearance and inevitable care required. Keep in mind that even composite materials will age, oxidize and turn gray with prolonged exposure to the sun. But then so will you.
Since man now controls what goes into one’s decking, it pays to know what’s in there and to compare potential performance versus visual aesthetics alone. All composite decking is a blend of wood and plastic, but the similarities end with the source and type of plastic, wood fiber sources and a multitude of variables like profiles and colors offered, consistency of coloration, product engineering and solid planks versus hollow-core – to name but a few.
Today, most manufacturers use sawdust or reclaim/recycle woods (by grinding up lumber scraps or wood pallets). Some even use alternative materials, such as rice hulls. The plastic can be either recycled (milk and soda bottles, plastic grocery bags, etc.) and the recycled content can be as high as 98%. While keeping these items out of landfills is good from an ecology standpoint – the use of virgin plastics in composite woods has merits worth considering. Virgin plastics give manufacturers greater control over quality and durability – and benefits can include consistency of coloration, UV protection from the sun and even a cooler surface temperature on hot days.
Once you’ve decided that composite wood just may be your decking surface solution, compare before you buy. The internet is a great place to start, as most manufacturers provide a great deal of comparative data on their web sites. Once you’ve narrowed the field down to only a few – based on that which appeals to you – head for dealerships where those products are offered in your area.
You’ll soon find a wide range of technologies and engineering, such as reversible planks (with different graining on either side) and tongue-and-groove edges that make spacing easy and provide proper drainage. Then there are hidden fastener options (for better appearance and safety), hollow product that allows for wider joist spacing, extended warranties (up to 25-years) and composite accessory options such as matching railing systems.
Collect literature and brochures for comparison and ask to visit a finished deck where you can see and test-walk on their product.
In the end, a beautiful deck increases the beauty, value and enjoyment of your home – and choosing (and using) the new composite wood deck surface that’s right for you might just make things better in all three categories.
Today, a little homework upfront saves a lot of home “work” later on.
For more home improvement tips and information visit our website at www.onthehouse.com or call us at 1-800-737-2474 every Saturday, 9 AM to 1 PM EST. Carey brothers dated March 26 2017.