Composite decking began to emerge in the 1990s and has made a huge impact on the decking industry. Composite is a mixture of waste wood and recycled plastics. Manufacturers promote the environmental friendliness of the products. There are many advantages to composite decking. The advantages have proven to outweigh the problems, as composite decking is becoming a very popular choice for decks all around the country. For now, let’s look at some of the most common problems you will encounter with a composite deck.
The first problem many think of when they hear composite is mold and color fading. It is true that uncapped composite can mold and will fade. With uncapped composite, the wood is exposed to moisture and can become a breeding ground for mold. This can be unsightly leaving many homeowners feeling disappointed. The manufactures have added a cap to many of their products to prolong the life of the deck boards and prevent the mold and discoloration that is common with composite boards.
This cap is a thin coating, usually 1/16th of an inch, of PVC material to protect the composite from exposure to the elements. The PVC cap adds cost to boards which can make composite feel out of reach when deciding on what decking to buy. Many manufactures still offer uncapped composite and still offer long-term warranties on those boards. Be aware that these boards have the potential to mold and discolor.
Another concern brought up by many homeowners is temperature. Just how hot does composite get? It depends on how much sunlight it gets and for how long, but the short answer is, hot. Composite boards are dense mixtures of wood particles and polyethylene. The polyethylene will cause the boards to get hotter than your typical softwood alternatives. It will also cause the board to cool at a slower rate as the heat will absorb and be held by the dense composition of the planks. Many tests show that softwoods range from 130-140 degrees while composites can reach 160 degrees under direct sunlight in the summer heat. The bottom line is all surfaces will get hot and you should wear protection during the hottest days. The composite will cool off and will still be in solid condition after years of UV rays. Whereas wood will fade, crack, and splinter.
Many people think that composite decking is slick. This is untrue. Many composite boards have textures that allow for grip and even when wet the boards will not be slick. However, when ice forms on the surface of a composite board it can become very slick. This is the ice causing the problem and not the composite board. Softwoods can also become very slick when wet.
Composite boards are a great product especially when they come with a PVC cap. That cap provides lots of protection from mold, slick surfaces, and UV damage. The cap itself is vulnerable to scratching and fading. The cap layer seems strong but dragging a metal shovel or dropping something sharp on the boards will most likely leave a mark. Applying a heat gun to the scratches can usually blend and hide the appearance of the imperfection. Deep scratches and indentations will leave a permanent scar on the board. End cuts where the cap and the insides are exposed leave the boards open for chipping.
Composite boards are known to be maintenance-free. This can be a bit misleading, as nothing is totally maintenance-free. It’s necessary to keep a composite deck clean and to take care of the investment. Problems that may arise aren’t always caused by the boards themselves. The framing structure has a major effect on the performance of the composite decking. Framing lumber will dry and shrink and change shape and the composite boards will move with the framing. Poor installation methods can lead to the boards coming loose from the framing, curling up on the ends, or butt joints opening.
Composite is subject to movement as well. Wide ranges of temperature swings will also cause composite to expand and contract, which can cause problems. An experienced deck builder will anticipate these problems and relieve any potential disasters before they happen. With composite boards, the frame will need to be more precise and well built to prevent failure of the frame or the decking. Installing composite decking on an old frame will not increase the life of a deck. The frame needs to be built in a way that will last as long as the man-made planks. Composite decking is low maintenance, not maintenance-free.
Composite decking can be expensive. The initial investment can be 40-80% higher than a softwood deck. The extra details necessary for the frame and the overall cost of the product can put these decks over budget. Many homeowners are left with the choice of treated or cedar, along with the annual maintenance that comes with wood decks. The long-term investment of a properly maintained wood deck will be higher than a composite deck after 15 to 20 years. Many wood decks should be replaced after 20 years. After 20 years, the composite decking will still be under warranty and you will have spent a lot less time on maintenance and more time enjoying the space.
Composite decks have other pros and cons that should be considered before making a purchase. If you are looking to have a beautiful and strong deck for the foreseeable future, composite is a great choice. There are many colors and brands available to create a space you will enjoy and create memories, not frustrations. Looking beyond cost and choosing a life with low maintenance will save you time and money. Even with these problems, a composite deck is worth the investment. The choice is yours, what will you decide?