Building a deck used to just mean one thing, now we have ALL THESE OPTIONS.
June 21, 2012 5:46 AM   Subscribe

To use composite decking or not to use composite decking, that is the question.

That's seriously the question. We have a smallish backyard - it's always been kind of awful, first because the old owner had dogs that destroyed it, and then because it's just too shady to really grow grass.

It's also awful because we just are not yard work people. Someone comes to mow the grass every two weeks and that's more or less the best thing that we've ever done for ourselves.

SO. This very small yard is probably something like the size of our garage - an 80's 2-car garage. Essentially what we want to do is put a low deck (12-14" off the ground) over all of the yard to make it lower-maintenance than "grass" and more usable (right now we don't go out there at all). We're looking at both traditional decking and composite decking, but I have no idea what is the right thing to do. Keep in mind, we are not the kind of people who are going to put ONE MILLION HOURS into this once it's done. We are the epitome of "set it and forget it." If I had my way, I'd go back in time and buy a brick house with vinyl windows and soffits and pressure wash the house once a year and be DONE.

I'm reading now that composite decking isn't really low maintenance, that you have to spend a lot more time than advertised cleaning it and once you do it's going to start looking terrible really quickly, because the cleaners are harsh and wear off the finish. I'm a little skeptical that you "must" use these harsh commercial cleaners - I am reading elsewhere that you can clean up with dishwashing liquid and use deck brightener if you need to - I'd assume that vinegar would kill fungus on a composite deck anyway.

So, questions/asks:
1. Do you have composite decking? How do you feel about it?
2. I'm assuming the commercial cleaners are a racket and you can just clean this stuff like a normal person. Correct?
3. Is there an actual maintenance advantage over traditional wooden decking, particularly considering we're not going to be that far off the ground?
4. I'm sure I'm overlooking something, so please tell me what that is.
posted by Medieval Maven to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
1. I have trex decking in a dull burgundy color. It has held up well (a few years old now) and I like it a lot. It has weathered nicely-the color does fade a bit.

2. I am lazy, so I let the rain wash it. There is a bit of mossy growth in the grain of some of my trex boards, and some stains from leaf tannins, but I think it adds character. I have a friend who uses simple green and says it works perfectly well. I have seen his trex deck and it looks pristine. I don't think he spends a lot of effort on it.

3. I know people with wood decks who have to restain, or paint, or sand, or whatnot every few years. I sweep, occasionally. I fail at outdoor maintenance (our grass is currently as high as a small elephant's eye) and this type of decking has been just my speed.

We built ours for similar reasons- the yard in back of the house was small, weird and muddy, and in our case extremely sloped. Adding our deck at ground floor level essentially gave us a level back "yard" which has been really nice.
posted by acanthous at 6:00 AM on June 21, 2012

I only know from Trex, and the maintenance advantage is that you never have to paint it, seal it or replace it as often.

It sounds like you don't have to do any more maintenance on it than you would a car that you park outside: wash it occasionally. It looks like the stuff with patterns needs to be scrubbed occasionally, but I'd wager that's only if you care what it looks like. It's probably the kind of thing you could do as your spring cleaning once a year and it would be fine. And a good excuse to buy a power washer.

I think the only thing that you could put back there that would be less maintenance would be a concrete pad.

I would make sure of a couple of things: building codes, and how close a deck can be to a property line. And how you will keep weeds out of the edges of it. I can envision a scenario where you have a deck that goes right up to a fence, and weeds growing in that edge area. And you having no way to get in there to chop them down.
posted by gjc at 6:05 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Given your description, why not have a concrete patio poured? This is incredibly low maintenance and you can have it stamped and stained to make it look like pavers, or flagstone, or whatever.

I have a redwood deck and it's very low maintenance. When we moved in it was painted that horrible barn-red, picnic table color, but I was able to use a stripping agent to get it back down to the natural wood color. Every couple of years I throw some Thompsons on it with a paint roller, and we're good to go. It's as low maintenance as any other thing.

A nice gizmo to have is the As Seen on TV, Water Jet (I sure do shill for a lot of this crap). It's pretty nifty. It has enough power to really get stains and gunk off of surfaces, but it won't blow the fur off of the dog.

No matter what you choose to do, this thing that attaches to a regular hose, will make quick clean ups a breeze. You can't beat the price.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:06 AM on June 21, 2012

My parents have a Trex deck and we collectively hate it. It feels weird, ours grows some sort of fungus no matter how much we clean it, and it looks like fake wood.

I vote for either concrete or wood; my parents would make the kids re-stain our very large, two story deck once a summer, and it took less than a couple of hours between two of us.
posted by punchtothehead at 6:14 AM on June 21, 2012

If you want something ultra-low maintenance, go with concrete, but composite decking is pretty low-maintenance. It does still grow mold pretty easily, but the advantage is that after you clean the mold off, it's not rotten and spongy like wood is. You don't have to paint it, you don't have to replace it, and the kids don't wind up howling on the ground because your wood deck gave them splinters in their bare feet. (Especially with pressure-treated wood, because pressure-treated wood splinters are from the devil.)

It's not going to look just like wood. The composite boards look like Barbie's Dream House materials, and they heat up in a very odd way on hot days. Plus, when stains get into them, they can be really tough to remove, and it's easier to stain than painted wood, I've found.

However, I like composite more than concrete. I'd prefer wood, but wood has so much upkeep, and especially if you have winters where things will freeze and expand and split and...ugh.
posted by xingcat at 6:18 AM on June 21, 2012

I've visited friends with composite decking and have two comments about it (negative)
- It gets really, really freaking hot in the sun (may be due to deck color etc, but like beach-sand scalding hot).
- When it weathers, it also feathers. ie the exposed part had weathered some (color dulled etc) but it also fluffed stuff off easily (on to clothes, shoes, skin that's run across it).

Can't say what product they used, but I wasn't impressed.
posted by k5.user at 6:18 AM on June 21, 2012

We have some relatively expensive composite that we inherited, probably trex. Pro: No splintering, will survive and look pretty decent even if you ignore it. Con: Does get mildew. Biggest con: It gets very hot in direct sunlight in the summer - too hot for kids in bare feet. This may be a problem specific to our brand and/or color, but whatever you decide be sure to get a sample and leave it outside in the hottest part of your day to see how it feels.
posted by true at 6:21 AM on June 21, 2012

My in-laws have a Trex deck, and it gets so hot in the summer that it is almost unusable in the daytime. We had a party there last summer on a hot day, and we could not use the deck until very late in the afternoon, since it was burning people's feet. It got so hot that it melted the gas line to the grill that was sitting on it.
posted by elvissa at 6:23 AM on June 21, 2012

1. Yes, waaaay better than wood, though it was way harder to work with. Looks better too.
2. Yes
3. Yes, never needs any maintenance!
4. way more $$$ and I found it harder to work with and install than wood.
posted by Blake at 6:58 AM on June 21, 2012

All I can tell you is that I've had 2 wooden decks (both made of treated wood) and can absolutely attest to the fact that they are a colossal pain in the ass to maintain. In the unlikely event I were to build another one, it would almost certainly be made out of Trex. In addition to hopefully needing less maintenance, wood in our area has a tendency to attract carpenter bees by the metric ton, and they are not at all averse to boring right into treated lumber.

Speaking of insects - that close to the ground and attached to the house may make shaded part of that foundation more attractive to subterranean termites, if you live in an area where they're a problem. In our first house, we had to pull the deck away from the house to expose the foundation to the sun after we got infested.

Another route (depending on the grade of the yard) might be a pavers-on-sand patio. We did this last year (in part, to replace a wooden deck) and there's been very little upkeep involved beyond refilling spots here and there where the polymeric sand has settled. We chose light-tan-colored pavers and they don't seem to hold much heat at all.
posted by jquinby at 7:02 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would think the number one reason not to do wood is because it'll be at ground level-- nature will chew it to pieces. I like the concrete idea,though it's relatively irreversable compared to composite decking. I'd go composite-- you can give it a vinegar or bleach scrub before throwing any party, and live with mold, up to your tolerance, the rest of the time.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:07 AM on June 21, 2012

Instead of a concrete slab like someone suggested why not use some kind of pavers. that way if you or future residents ever get the urge to grow a few flowers you just remove a few pavers.
posted by mareli at 7:49 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you're only going a foot off the ground, go with the suggestions for stone pavers. Get gravel dumped, leave holes here and there, fill them with topsoil and plant low-maintenance shrubs or grasses. Places where you're going to sit, cover a layer of sand and then with 2x2 bluestone slabs or something similar. The rest of it, cover with a layer of peastone, or whatever kind of stone you like. Done. No more expensive than a deck and zero-maintenance forever. Something like this.
posted by beagle at 8:23 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd probably do pavers, for some of the reasons others noted. Since they're directly on the ground, you don't have issues with insects or animals living under there, weeds are easier to kill (just spray Roundup in the spring), and you can safely put a grill or outdoor fire place on them without worrying about burning or melting your deck. Just make sure that they're installed correctly and graded away from the house so you don't have runoff issues (same with a deck).

If you really want to go for a deck, I'd probably go for regular-old PT lumber and then have somebody stain it with a good grade of stain. Repeat every few years. Since it's a small deck it won't cost that much to have stained, and I suspect that the cost difference between wood and composite will pay for several years' worth of staining.

The issues I have with composite decking, aside from cost, are the heat issue, the limited color selection and inability to change it in the future (vs. wood where you can always restain it as it ages/fades), mildew, and also that with most deck designs you'll end up with a certain amount of wood anyway for the railings and such. I've yet to see a 100% composite deck, although perhaps they exist -- most people I know with them only have the deck surface made of composite, with other parts made from wood that needs to be stained. So now you've got wood that needs maintenance and composite? No, thanks.

Also, it can be slippery as hell when wet. If you don't get much rain or never go out on the deck when it's not nice out, that might not matter ... but if this is a main or alternate entrance to your house, where you'll have to be walking on it during bad weather, be very careful.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:27 AM on June 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm currently in the process of replacing my old deck (non-pressure treated painted wood that is rotting) with a new fully synthetic deck. One thing that is worth noting is that not all synthetic decking is the same; in particular, you have composite decking which is basically plastic with wood fibers as well as synthetic, which is 100% plastic. The newest/highest-end decking synthetic that has a more natural grained appearance, as well as slight variations in color to make it more wood-like. The older composite decking was more susceptible to mold/mildew than the new synthetic since the organisms can actually feed on the material itself. With fully synthetic decking, mold and mildew can only grow on dirt or organic material on but not in the deck boards. For even more detailed info, you may find this blog helpful.
posted by EKStickland at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2012

Some additional info: Kadin2048 mentions that most synthetic decks are not 100% synthetic, and use some PT wood. This is largely true. However, there are some options for (virtually) full synthetic available. My deck is using hollow synthetic posts with an aluminum core (for strength) and powder-coated aluminum balusters. The rail tops are simply another deck board. Although there will be some parts of the deck (stair stringers, blocking between the floor joists, supports for the built-in bench) that are PT, none of these will require maintenance or staining during the functional life of the deck.

However, I suspect none of this will even be an issue for you since you're considering a deck 12-14" in height. Since it's barely off the ground, you'll have no need for rails or stairs anyway. For what you're describing, I'd nth the suggestion of considering pavers; depending on the height of the door leading to the proposed deck/patio, you can have a competent mason build you a nice stone-clad step up to the house that will match the pavers beautifully.
posted by EKStickland at 8:48 AM on June 21, 2012

1. Yes, and we like it a lot. We replaced a pressure treated wood deck (two levels and steps) with composite decking. I think it's a Home Depot or Lowe's "store brand" of Trex-type stuff in a nice silvery gray color.

2. We pressure wash it once a year. We've never used any cleaner on it.

3. What we liked was no splinters, no ruts, no wearing away of wood. Ours has been in place for more than 6 years and it looks great.

4. It gets hotter in the sun than a wooden deck will - that's the only thing I can think of that you didn't mention. Like, if it's in direct hot sun for a couple hours, you'll really not want to be on it without flip flops on.
posted by ersatzkat at 9:13 AM on June 21, 2012

We have composite railings on our front concrete porch and I love composite for that use. But, as noted above, for decking it gets too hot. Also I have seen composite decks that sag weirdly in unsupported locations, but I think that depends on the quality of the composite material used and design of the deck. Our deck in the back is cedar and about 25 years old. Beyond needing a cleaning it is in fantastic shape. I personally don't care for pressure treated wood, as it doesn't look as nice or age as well as cedar. We also have a paving stone patio, and that is fantastic too. I wouldn't use concrete for a deck as it is too permanent -- expensive to remove if you ever need foundation work or something done.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:06 AM on June 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks everyone, lots to think about. I'm not sure what the best answers are yet, but we'll do something. Yard's a mess. :)
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:49 AM on June 22, 2012

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