Composite Decking – My Experiences
by Dawn Lesley Stewart
Researching composite decking with all its pros and cons and varied user experiences can make anyone’s head begin to whirl. I did about four months of research before contacting someone to give me a quote. And when things didn’t run smoothly with that quote, I finally found the answers I needed. Here are my experiences.
I live in Massachusetts. My old 16-foot long x 14-foot wide deck was about 25-years old and constructed from Pressure Treated wood. I stained it each year, and took excellent care of it. Over the years, the top railings had been replaced due to wood warp. Now some of the deck boards were beginning to crack and show surface rot. It was time to explore options. Fast forward a bit … during demo of the deck, many of the boards that looked okay snapped way too easily with bare hands. The contractor showed me the extensive rotting. The deck had begun to decay from underneath where I could not see it. Good move to replace the deck before someone fell through it!
Composite Decking Material
The allure of composite materials includes low maintenance and longevity. However, composite boards are also more expensive than wood. If you weigh the low maintenance (ex: no staining or painting) of composite materials to the regular upkeep of wood, the composite alternative looks more attractive.
There are different types of composite decking material. The list of composite decking manufacturers and the material they offer is extensive. I strongly recommend finding someone who has the ability to obtain actual samples of the decking you are interested in so that you can physically touch it and compare the options side-by-side. This made a big impact on my final decision. Also, go to manufacturer websites and read their literature.
At first I thought I would like a PVC deck material. I appreciated that the PVC materials I read about kept plastic waste out of our overflowing landfills. Some composite boards also had a PVC overlay (or shell) around the board to protect the composite material inside. PVC is advertised as not staining from dirt, organic matter, and grease, and it is billed as not scratching. What shifted my viewpoint of this material is that it looked like plastic wood. When I held a sample, I asked how it would scratch. The person showing me the sample grabbed a rock from the edge of my garden and ran it across the PVC sample. The rock left a long deep scratch that would not rub out.
With the PVC option out of the way, I explored the various composite wood materials available. Composite boards are constructed from a combination of plastic and wood fiber and can include other ingredients such as those that minimize UV damage or deter organic growth on the boards (such as mildew). The boards can be solid, like wood, or have a hollow construction. Just inquire whether the composite boards have “flex” to them when stepped on; that steered me away from the hollow construction composite material samples shown to me. Composite decking is advertised as resisting insects and not cracking or warping. When I questioned how well composite decking withstood scratching, out came the rock, and it was scratched across several samples of composite wood. A slight scuff line showed where the rock had touched the wood, but the mark became less noticeable by finger-rubbing it.
Before settling on a decking material, do some online research. Make sure the decking has not had a class-action suit against it (which has happened). See what consumers think of the decking after having it installed and using it. If a problem arises, what do consumers say about the outcome? A composite deck is an expense, so it doesn’t hurt to do extra homework.
Big Box Store or Local Builder/Contractor?
I’m sure every composite deck owner has their own story. Mine started out at a big box store. I did not know anyone who owned a composite deck, and I didn’t know anyone who had experience building them. I phoned my local big box hardware store and spoke with a very pleasant person. He answered a lot of my questions, seemed upfront, and offered to come out to give me a free estimate. Sounded like a good place to start.
He promptly arrived with a box of samples, literature, and a measuring tape. Our family likes our current deck design (it resembles the bow of a ship with a staircase running off either side) … however we wanted the deck a bit longer. We settled on 20-feet long by 14-feet wide to accommodate the room my large vegetable garden needed. Since the composite boards came in 20-foot lengths, this made sense. We also wanted a nice railing system.
Now here is where the big box store experience went sour. I asked for references so I could check with people they had built decks for and was told this wouldn’t be a problem. Two weeks later, still no references and no quote, despite several phone calls. I then learned the work would be subcontracted. My contact at the big box store gave me the subcontractor’s name (I wanted to run a check on them), but the contractor’s name didn’t appear during my internet searches. Finally I received a quote of about $8,500.00, which seemed low to me (too good to be true?). Researching consumer experiences online, it seemed an average cost for demo, materials and all the work averaged around $15,000.00 (cost varies upon the brand of composite material selected). Next arrived the unwelcome news that I would have to pay 100-percent of the money before any work began on the deck. Whoa! I actually asked the fellow if he watched “Holmes on Homes” … never pay all the money up front. I told the man that would place me in a position of no leverage should something go wrong. “Oh, don’t worry,” he assured me. “You have our store’s 100-percent satisfaction guarantee.” Hmmmm ….
So there I was (a usually cheerful person) at work with a solemn expression. A coworker asked what was wrong, and I explained my deck woes. He promptly extolled the virtues of a contractor who had helped him with many home projects, and the contractor had deck experience. Phone number in hand, I made the call. Boy I’m glad I did!
The contractor arrived with plenty of samples and product literature. He liked our deck concept, took measurements, said he would draw up plans, provide a quote and references. His quote included three different deck material options, all of them with railing systems (which we wanted). We chose the more expensive option for $12,756.00, which included the matching railing system. For the money, the contractor would obtain all permits, be there for all inspections, include demo of the old deck, and haul away all debris. It also included cost of all materials including excavation and poured cement footings and flagstone at the bottom of the stairs, and construction of the deck (and the pressure treated wood framing), plus a composite railing system, two sets of stairs, including making sure the deck met all code requirements. No hidden fees. The price included everything, plus his references were excellent. Hired!
So What Composite Material Did I Select?
After weighing a lot of options, I chose Latitudes decking material. The contractor also said that Latitudes now offered a railing system in the same wood. Previously, it was difficult to buy a railing system that wasn’t white (and I didn’t want a white railing). Latitudes offered several color choices, too.
I selected Latitudes Intrepid Decking in the Redwood color. It’s a subtle redwood tone that blended well with our house and yard. The solid composite boards are double-sided. One side offers a wood grain, and the other side has a brushed look with fine grooved lines along the length of the board. After fiddling with samples, and visiting the Latitudes website to view finished decks, I opted for the brushed finish. The other side had the wood grain design repeating along the board and looked manufactured rather than natural. I love the look of the brushed finish. The boards come in 12-, 16-, and 20-foot lengths.
Some of the features that sold me on the Latitudes decking was the matching railing system and a variety of styles to choose from. The composite boards are splinter-free, slip-resistant, and UV fade-resistant (whatever minimal fading occurs will happen within 90 days according to Latitudes). This decking material is also made using Strandex technology, which “provides superior protection against UV degradation and water absorption.” There is no need to apply weather protectant or to water-proof it. Scratches brush out with either footsteps or some finger rubbing. The material also has a 25-year limited warranty.
It can be assembled with either a hidden fastener system or with composite decking screws. My deck guy has worked with both installation systems and says the hidden fastener system can make replacement of boards difficult (if necessary). I was leaning toward screw installation anyway. The way these composite boards are made, the screws puff up a bit of the composite material, and regular walking on the deck mashes down that bit of material to hide the screw heads.
I also purchased a wide soft-bristle broom to regularly sweep the deck. This works well. It is important to keep the deck free from organic materials such as pollen and debris blown from trees and other plants. Latitudes recommends cleaning the deck with soap and water. Be very careful if using a pressure washer since it can damage the deck material. Latitudes suggests testing a pressure washer on an inconspicuous piece of decking before using it on the entire deck. I opted to keep several leftover composite decking pieces in case I needed to experiment with the decking material in any way.
My List of Questions
In case you are interested, here is the list of questions I asked about composite decking material.
1. Is the decking material mold and mildew resistant? Is it treated or coated?
2. Is the material skid-proof, scratch-resistant, stain-proof?
3. Do the boards resist UV fading?
4. Are the boards rigid? Will they flex with walking? Can they support heavy furniture?
5. How will the boards be fastened/installed? With screws or an invisible hanger system?
6. Will the framing be from Pressure Treated wood? (Composite decking is not strong enough to also be used as framing material.)
7. What care does the composite material require?
8. What is the warranty?
It took three weeks to dismantle and construct the new deck. I snapped photos throughout the entire construction process so that I have a photo-log. The contractor went above and beyond in building this deck. I believe that if the house somehow disintegrated, the deck would remain standing.
So far the deck has beautifully come through a nasty hail storm as well as over a week of consistent rain. It is also located in a spot that sees a lot of sun and heat, and the boards are behaving well. This has been one of the messiest springs I have seen. It’s amazing how much debris keeps falling from the trees and blowing in on the wind. If I had one complaint about the deck, it is that the boards are not stain-free. Some spotting is visible. But I have to wonder if any decking material is truly 100-percent stain free. Judging by the many comments I read online while doing my research, my guess would be that most decks are prone to some staining depending upon the organic matter they encounter. Compared to the condition of my old wood deck, though, this slight spotting is nothing. On the other hand, I have easily washed bird poo from the deck and railing, and it did not leave a stain. Meanwhile, I keep sweeping the deck clean.
Our family loves this deck. We have typical outdoor furniture on it. Plus, there is a two-seater glider that our family enjoys. The deck is sturdy and looks beautiful. The neighbors have already hinted it is a great space for parties.
I hope my composite deck experiences have helped you.
Enjoy your day !
Dawn Lesley Stewart has enjoyed organic gardening for over forty years, learning at a young age from her father. First love is vegetable gardening followed by her interest in butterfly and bee habitats. She considers her yard a sanctuary for birds and wildlife. Her writing has appeared online and in print and has won writing awards. Dawn is the author of Harriet’s Horrible Hair Day (picture book), Mist-Seer (paranormal novel), and her newest book 300-Plus Quilting Tips, Tricks & Techniques features over 35 years of quilting knowledge.
Copyright 2011 Dawn Lesley Stewart