How to Building a Low Maintenance Deck

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Choosing the right decking material involves weighing maintenance against other priorities. There's a bit of a balancing act when it comes to deciding what type of decking material is right for you. Cost, maintenance, durability and appearance are the usual trade-offs.

You get (splinters) what you pay for

Pressure-treated decking is the most common, but this is solely because of cost. Usually made of pine, pressure-treated decking will splinter and fade without regular maintenance, and even then only lasts 10 or 15 years. For those willing to spend a little extra, cost usually remains a big part of the equation, as do aesthetic considerations: what does it look like? How does it feel underfoot? but a nearly universal priority is that decking be low-maintenance. Finding the right decking for you means weighing maintenance against your other priorities. The following options are comparable in price (tropical hardwood is, on average, slightly less expensive than the others), costing 50 to 100 percent more than pressure-treated decking.

Plastic decking: no maintenance, but...

From a maintenance standpoint, plastic decking like PVC and polystyrene is the hands-down winner. Other than occasional cleaning, PVC is maintenance-free and it lasts forever. Unfortunately, it's also relatively expensive, and it's ...plasticky. It neither sounds nor feels like wood as you walk across it, and because it is designed with gaps to allow for expansion and contraction in different types of weather, its components can rub together, leading to squeaking.

Like PVC, polystyrene decking is an all-plastic decking product that requires very little maintenance. It's more solid than PVC, more rigid than composite (see below), and looks a lot like real wood. It is also very durable, but can become discolored over time (as can PVC), which is a problem because it can't be refinished. Plastic decking products, despite often being made of recycled products, also don't pass the "green" test, as they contain toxic chemicals, and toxins are released in their manufacturing process.

Tropical hardwood: imitated, not duplicated

How hard is tropical hardwood? You need to drill a hole just to drive a nail through it. That equates to superior durability: a tropical hardwood deck will last 25 years or more. It also looks the way a deck is supposed to look -consider that most other decking products are designed to look like wood. Properly maintained, hardwood decking will look the same year after year without splintering, but that maintenance -it needs to be oiled annually - is crucial.

Composites: not living up to the hype

When composite decking first hit the market, it was supposed to be a game-changer, something that looked and felt like wood, would last forever, and require no maintenance. It didn't turn out to be quite that. Composites have been found to be prone to mold, so they need to be regularly cleaned with chemicals that cause them to fade. Recently, new products have been introduced that restore the finish to composites (prior to that, composites couldn't be refinished), but the promise of a zero-maintenance product hasn't panned out. Composite decking is relatively expensive, for two reasons. The decking itself is pricey, but it's also flimsy, meaning the joists in frames for composite decks need to be spaced 12 inches apart, which adds up to increased material and labor costs.

While Mother Nature still has the edge when it comes to deck aesthetics, low-maintenance manmade materials are getting better every year. It is possible to have an attractive, low-maintenance deck with today's plastic decking materials.

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