Gray Deck

Alternative Decking Options: Composite Wood, PVC and More

Wood decks are notorious for their maintenance needs. Pressure-treated lumber—the popular and inexpensive wood choice—requires regular cleaning, sanding and staining to maintain its appearance. First-generation composite decks sought to fulfill consumer demand for a maintenance-free decking option.

 


A railing system and lighting rounds out this alternative decking solution by Casa Decks.
A railing system and lighting rounds out this alternative decking solution by Casa Decks.

Made from a blend of recycled by-products of the wood industry and plastic, first-generation composite decks were much more resilient to the cracking, splitting and other weathering effects of constant exposure to the elements compared to pressure-treated wood.

But the “no maintenance” claims of some manufacturers were soon challenged by the public as the first-generation composite deck materials suffered from a few unsightly issues. “Consumers were unhappy with the first-generation composites because of the fading, staining, and mold and mildew issues,” says Mike Descoteaux, marketing manager for CorrectDeck, an alternative decking manufacturer. Exposure to UV light caused some of the first-generation products to fade and lose their original color. The tannins in the wood fibers left the material susceptible to staining and the wood fibers also provided food for mold growth. The stains and the mold required cleaning—sometimes with significant effort and bleach-based chemicals. A consumer backlash against the first-generation products has prompted the alternative decking manufacturers to address these issues.

Second-Generation Composite Decking
To resolve the maintenance issues and preserve the composite nature of their products, the composite decking industry has turned to a couple technological solutions. “We have a capped surface over our composite core that offers a high level of fade, stain and scratch resistance,” says Chris Beyer, vice president of marketing for Fiber Composites, manufacturers of Fiberon® Horizon composite decking. Fiberon’s patent-pending “PermaTech™ Innovation” encapsulates the wood composite core to essentially negate the staining, fading and mold issues that stemmed from the wood fibers in the composite.

CorrectDeck utilized a similar solution with its “CorrectDeck CX” line of second-generation composite decking by using a coextruded top layer of polypropylene to cover the top and sides of each composite board. “The first generation of composite decks exposed wood fibers as the main culprit,” says Descoteaux. “The CX fully encapsulates the wood fibers.” As a final protective touch, the CX co-extrusion layer contains an anti-microbial product and a UV-inhibitor to resist mold and fading from Sun exposure.

These improved encapsulation systems have led to the creation of a new category of composite and alternative decking called “ultra-low maintenance” decking. The new label distinguishes the second generation of composites from the first. This new-and-improved family of composite decking products may still require a periodic wash or simple detergent cleaning every now and again, but consumers won’t be worrying about permanent stains and frequent mold growth. “You just need soap and water to wash it off,” says Descoteaux. “You don’t need to scrub or power wash.”

The PVC Difference
In addition to better-encapsulated composite decking products, the alternative decking industry has stepped up its PVC decking options. Once a bit player in the alternative decking market, PVC decking has gained ground and recognition. “The number of PVC options out there is growing everyday,” says Descoteaux. Once a regular recipient of criticisms over staining and fading issues, the PVC decking products on the market today benefit from a few technological enhancements. Fiberon’s “Sensibuilt™” PVC decking product features a patent-pending surface treatment called “Luminite™” that—like the PermaTech—protects the solid, cellular PVC core. “Luminite delivers a high level of stain, fade and scratch resistance,” says Beyer.

 

Fiberon has put a 10-year stain and fade warranty on the Luminite™ system —an industry first. “The 10-year warranty is huge,” says George Drummond, founder and owner of Casa Decks, a deck contracting business in based in Virginia Beach, Va. “I think you’ll see a lot of the other PVC manufacturers improving their products to try to match it.” Drummond specializes almost exclusively with composite and PVC decks—the so-called “alternative” decking products—and he
 


Fiberon’s Sesibuilt™ PVC decking has a 10-year warranty against staining and fading.
Fiberon’s Sesibuilt™ PVC decking has a 10-year warranty against staining and fading.

sees benefits to working with both types of product. “PVC is a lot lighter,” he says, speaking to the ease of working with and installing the product.

Not only is PVC inherently lighter than composite decking, it does not contain any wood fibers, which are the main culprits behind the fading and mold and mildew growth experienced by first-generation composite decking products. PVC decks are also often preferred for pool deck application as the material does not absorb the Sun and hold heat as much as composite decking can. The PVC alternative is not without some drawbacks, however. It is often considered a less sturdy product and it commonly costs more than composite decking.

New Wood Looks
New wood looks for both composite and PVC deck products have developed along with the new protective surface technologies. “There are so many more grain and color options,” says Drummond. Natural-looking reds, browns and grays remain the staples, while the exotic look of tropical wood is also available in products such as Trex’s “Brasilia” and Fiberon’s “Tropics” lines of composite decking. TimberTech, another manufacturer, has a “Color Visualizer” tool on its Web site to help consumers choose from 10 deck board colors and match to eight railing color options. “You can put real hardwood down next to the composite version and you won’t be able to tell the difference,” says Beyer.

Railing Systems and Accessories
A wider range of available railing system colors has matched the increase in alternative decking color and grain options. “The industry has moved well beyond the simple white railing option,” says Beyer. From the elegant “Designer” line of railing systems from Evergrain to the classic and versatile “Builder” rail from TimberTech, each manufacturer has expanded its railing offerings to include a variety of styles and a number of color options within each style. Like their deck board counterparts, the railing systems and components are composed of composite materials or PVC, depending on the manufacturer and the product line. Extended warranties—sometimes up to 25 years—against cracking, splitting and rotting are common. Railing components include balusters, handrails, posts, post caps, post sleeves or skirts and spindles.

Contractors like Drummond commonly round out their deck packages to include lighting systems in addition to the decking and rail systems and components. TimberTech makes the lighting addition even easier, building optional lighting modules light fixtures into its railing products. A packaged lighting system can put the finishing touch on a new deck and railing project.

Hidden Fasteners
The alternative decking manufacturers have also made advancements in their hidden fastener systems. More than a few lines of composite deck boards are formed with grooves along the sides of the boards. Tabbed fasteners that screw directly into the joists below the deck also slide into the grooves of adjoining deck boards, firmly holding the deck boards together without the need of unsightly face nails. Proper installation of the hidden fastener systems should ensure a gap left between deck boards for ventilation and water drainage.

The new second-generation alternative decking products on the market speak to the consumer demand for true low maintenance decking options. Whether purchasing a second-generation composite decking product or an enhanced PVC deck, consumers can enjoy the confidence that their new deck will retain its real-wood look for years to come—without the constant upkeep required of natural wood.

Credit: Renovate Your World