Composite Decking Vs Plastic Decking Vs Wood or Timber Decking
Natural-wood decking products can be roughly divided into three categories: pressure-treated lumber, redwood and cedar, and tropical hardwoods.
This ubiquitous green-tinted wood has been the best-selling decking material for several decades and still is today. The understructure frame—posts, beams, joists—of virtually every deck is made of PT lumber.
PT decking is the most affordable and widely available material.
Most PT decking is cut from yellow pine and then chemically treated to resist decay, fungus, and wood-boring bugs. For more 70 years PT lumber was infused with chromated copper arsenate (CCA), a suspected carcinogen. Today, most PT lumber is treated with less-toxic chemicals, such as alkaline copper quaternary (ACQ), copper azole, or carbon-based, nonmetallic preservatives.
The main disadvantage of PT decking is that because it's cut from pine, it's not very dimensionally stable. It has a tendency to swell, crack, split, and warp. When wet, it's surprisingly heavy. PT decking requires routine maintenance too, including an annual power washing and an application of stain or clear wood preservative every two or three years.
Redwood and Western Red Cedar
These two western softwood species are treasured for their rich crimson color and natural beauty. In addition, redwood and cedar tannins and oils make them naturally resistant to rot, decay, and voracious insects, so they don't need to be pumped full of chemicals. These two woods are also lightweight and easy to cut and fasten with nails or screws. They're stable and much more resistant to warping and splitting than PT lumber.
As per quality standards there are four grades of cedar for use as decking: Architect Clear, Custom Clear, Architect Knotty, and Custom Knotty. Again, the clearer the grade, the more it costs.
Typically, redwood is slightly more expensive than cedar, but both species are three to five times more expensive than pressure-treated lumber.
Even though redwood and cedar are naturally resistant to the weather, you should lightly scrub or power-wash the surface annually, and apply a stain or clear finish every three to four years. To maintain the wood's natural color and texture, you must apply a semitransparent stain. If you don't, both redwood and cedar will eventually weather to a soft silvery gray. It's fine to let the wood weather naturally, but we'd still recommend applying a clear wood preservative every few years to block excess moisture.
The newest entries into the real-wood decking market come from Africa, South America, Malaysia, the Phillipines, and other faraway places. Most have exotic-sounding names such as Massaranduba, jatoba, meranti batu, camara, abaco, red tauari, tigerwood, and ipe.
Tropical hardwoods share several common characteristics. They're all very dense, hard, heavy, durable, and naturally resistant to rot and insects. They're so dense, in fact, that it's impossible to drive a nail or screw without first boring a pilot hole, which is why most tropical decking is installed with hidden fasteners that clip or screw into the edge of the boards.
Tropical hardwoods are the most expensive real-wood decking option, costing slightly more than redwood and cedar.
No wood decking is 100 percent maintenance-free, but tropical hardwoods come close. Most need little more than an occasional scrubbing and perhaps a coat of clear wood preservative. They're so dense they don't accept stains very well, so if you choose to apply a stain, be sure it's a penetrating stain that's specifically formulated for tropical hardwood decking. Standard decking stain won't be completely absorbed, and it'll leave behind a sticky film. It's often recommended that you wait two or three months before applying a finish to tropical hardwood. This extra time allows natural oils to leach out of the hardwood, after which the decking will better accept the finish. If you choose not to stain tropical decking, it'll eventually weather to a light silver color.
Composite decking is a hybrid product that's composed primarily of wood fibers and recycled plastic. The result is a dense, heavy, and weather- and stain-resistant deck board that won't splinter, warp, rot or split.
The appeal of composite decking is that it's virtually maintenance-free. It never needs to be sanded, scraped, refinished, or stained. An occasional scrubbing with warm, soapy water will remove most dirt and grime. A little diluted bleach can kill mold and mildew that grow in damp, dark areas of a deck.
Standard composite decking comes in limited colors—brown, gray, tan—and most will fade over time, especially where the deck is exposed to direct sunlight. However, premium quality manufacturers now offer a line of fade-resistant composites, which cost a bit more but retain their color much longer.
Most products also have realistic-looking wood-grain patterns molded into their surfaces. Decking companies also manufacture their own matching railing systems and accessories such as trim boards and low voltage lighting.
If you invest in a composite deck you should probably use joist tape to ensure the life of the deck frame. If you double your beams you should run 3” tape along the top surface to ensure water doesn’t get between the two 2×10’s. Your frame will last the life of your composite flooring.
Plastic decking is made from 100 percent plastic (recycled and/or virgin) and contains no wood fibers or fillers. It's highly stain-resistant, doesn't require finishing, and won't ever crack, warp, or splinter.
The downside of plastic decking as compared with the other options is that it's designed as part of an overall system—therefore, it must be installed with strict adherence to manufacturer's instructions. This often requires purchasing special fasteners, fascia boards, and trim pieces.
PVC or vinyl decking has become a popular alternative to composite decking in recent years. Some composite companies have created new products that encapsulate the composite material with a thin layer of PVC capstock for a hardened exterior shell that protects the material from stain, mildew, scratching and UV fading. As the material is extruded it is usually given a textured surface for slip resistance and appearance. Some products have reversible boards that have a wood grain side and a brushed finished side. Most low maintenance decking products use polyethylene (HDPE or LDPE) plastic or PVC (polyvinyl chloride) as the base material for their decking boards. Mixing polyethylene with wood fiber, rice hulls or other fillers as well as a blend of chemical additives, creates composite decking. Some composite products are hollow and others are solid.
There is a tremendous variety of natural looking colors to choose from including many variegated tones that imitate realistic exotic hardwood grain patterns. New lines of colors are added so often many deck builders now refer to the ever-expanding design choices as “deck fashion”.
The main benefit of low maintenance decking is that you will never have to stain, seal or paint the decking like wood materials. Most higher quality synthetic decking materials are sold with a warranty against splitting, cracking, rotting and insect damage.
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