Should I Use Wood or Composite for my Deck?
Deck Material Comparisons
The question we’re most asked by homeowners is, “What's the difference between wood and composite decks?”. Today’s homeowners have numerous options to consider when building an outdoor deck, but not all offer the same benefits and maintenance requirements. The key will be finding the one that best suits the look you desire, what your budget is, and the amount of upkeep that will be required. This post will explain the various decking materials that are most commonly used in our area and compare some pros and cons along with approximate cost for each option.
1. Pressure-Treated Wood (PT): $20 - $25 per square foot, installed
Most PT decking is milled from southern yellow pine. Pressure and vacuum technology are used to force protective chemical preservatives into the wood, rendering a sturdier building material that is less susceptible to rot, moisture, and insects. Additionally, it’s resistant to fire, dents, scratches and wear. Treated lumber is versatile. It can be painted or stained any color you desire and damaged boards can be replaced easily and inexpensively. Price wise, it’s a great choice for smaller budgets. However, PT wood is considered high maintenance because it requires annual power washing, staining and sealing to keep it looking its best. It’s notorious for not aging well when exposed to weather. Boards often fade, shrink, swell, crack, cup, split, warp and dry out over time. Additionally, wood splinters are painful and can cause infections.
Pro Tip: If installing a pressure-treated wood deck, try to avoid the cheapest budget varieties, since these are typically more susceptible to cracks, warps, and splits over time, any of which could actually cost you more in repairs down the road.
2. Natural Wood: $30 or more per square foot, installed
Two of the most popular natural wood choices are redwood and cedar. Both of these softwoods are sought after for their rich color and natural beauty. Additionally, both of these woods contain tannins and oils that make them naturally resistant to rot, decay and hungry insects. With both of these options, the level of weather- and bug-resistance is directly related to the amount of heartwood that’s in the boards. Heartwood grows near the center of the tree and is harder and resistant to decay. It also contains little to no knots. Sapwood grows in the outer part of the tree, closer to the bark, and is softer which makes it more susceptible to deterioration. Sapwood has varying degrees of knots. Generally speaking, less knots equals a higher grade of wood, and with that, a premium price tag.
Pro tip: When buying tropical wood, or any wood for that matter, please be sure to check with your lumber dealer to make sure the wood is Forest Stewardship Council certified which means it was harvested in a legal and sustainable manner.
COMPOSITE & PLASTIC OPTIONS ($55 to $65 per square foot installed)
1. Composite decking is made from a blend of recycled wood (from wood chips and sawdust) and recycled plastic. This durable synthetic material resists warping and insect infestations. Composite decking is available in a wide variety of colors and styles, including looks that mimic natural wood, none of which require sealing, sanding, or staining unless you absolutely want to change the color later on. Dark-colored composite decking can get extremely hot in direct sunlight and mold and mildew can grow in shady, cool, or damp areas, making the surface quite slippery. This option requires very little maintenance and has a long life with minimal fading. On the flip side, low-end composites are about 30% higher than pressure-treated pine. High-end composites are about the same price range as ipe hardwood decking. Additionally, composites are easily scuffed (light scratches can be sanded and blend over time), prone to food and grease stains (stains typically fade over time) and a close look or touch gives away the fact that it’s a synthetic product. Trex is a popular composite brand (www.trex.com). Composite decking more closely mimics natural wood than plastic decking does. However, the same wood fibers that help give it a natural look also facilitate the attraction of mildew and dirt, making it more susceptible to moisture compared to all plastic decking.
2. Plastic decking material is usually comprised of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), although there are also versions made from polyethylene. Just like composite decking, plastic is durable and easy to maintain, requiring far less maintenance than a traditional wood structure. Whilst this option is a durable one, plastic will expand and contract – especially in areas (like Wisconsin) where there is a dramatic swing from cold to hot temperatures. Expanding and contracting makes this product more prone to cracking. As with composite choices, plastic decking comes in a wide variety of colors and options. TimberTech is a well know brand (www.timbertech.com). However, it is a more synthetic looking option and is typically the most expensive option. While composite and other decking have the edge when it comes to budget, the higher cost of a PVC product may be cheaper in the long run for a homeowner with substantial exposure to moisture.
Pro Tip: Composite and plastic decking come in “good”, “better” and “best” grades of quality. While, generally speaking, a composite material is more economical over a PVC decking, a “best” grade composite is comparable to a “good” grade plastic option. This is why we’ve categorized them within the same price range.
There are a lot of choices to consider when building a deck and it’s good to take some time to make the right choice. A qualified contractor (like Ahrens Custom Decks 😊) can talk through the various options and help you decide what material is best for your project. We’re always here to help you with any questions!
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