Homeowners find man-made decking is a smart choice
By Vicky Katz Whitaker
Copley News Service
That deck you've been thinking about building can be yours, virtually maintenance-free, thanks to composites - a common misnomer for several types of man-made decking that can mimic the look, color and feel of real wood.
Available in a wide range of materials including recycled plastic and wood fiber, plastic, vinyl, cellular PVC or aluminum, composites share one common characteristic: they're easy to keep clean with an occasional squirt from a garden hose. That's a boon to homeowners who don't have the time or inclination to keep a wood deck in top shape.
Though wood is still used in more than 75 percent of deck construction, composite decks are becoming more popular, despite their higher cost and exacting construction requirements.
"Man-made decks are a growing part of the market," says John Mortimer, president of the North American Deck and Railing Association and owner of Sweetwater Decks in Tennessee.
Those looking to escape the annual cycle of cleaning and repainting wood decks are not the only ones attracted to composites. They're also finding a market among owners of seaside vacation homes and empty nesters.
Beachfront homes benefit the most, says Mortimer. "The sun's ultraviolet rays are killers for real wood and the beach is where they are most intense." A constant source of moisture, especially salty moisture, can add up to more maintenance. "Who wants to work on keeping up a beach house? With a vacation property, less maintenance is always better!"
Some empty nesters prefer a low-maintenance deck to fit in with a lifestyle that no longer includes children living at home. "They want a new look, a bigger deck, shade, an outdoor kitchen, some subtle outdoor lighting, and maybe a fire pit," and, he says, "they want a real entertainment area minus the upkeep necessary to keep a wood deck looking and feeling good on their bare feet."
Another prominent deck builder, Texas-based James McDowell of Accent Deck Works, finds consumer demand on the rise in a market that in recent years has been flooded with dozens of new composite products and manufacturers.
But, he cautions, not all products live up to their marketing claims or warranties, making it more difficult for homeowners to select the right product. Whether you're planning to do-it-yourself or have a deck built professionally, McDowell strongly recommends that homeowners take time to gather facts, talk to professional deck builders and visit local lumberyards whose staffs have knowledge and experience with man-made decking products.
Morrison recommends homeowners pay attention to the color and texture of the finish of man-made decking. The darker the color, he says, the hotter the deck surface will feel. Fading and stain resistance are other factors to be considered along with local availability of the product you choose.
Installing man-made decking may not be for the average do-it-yourselfer, Morrison points out. "Wood is very forgiving and may be sanded. The man-made products are not. They require additional support, since they do not possess the strength and structure that wood does - and no one likes a soft floor." McDowell finds that man-made decking even handles differently. "We call it 'noodle decking' because when you carry it, the ends flop like a noodle."
Both deck experts suggest that if you're bent on doing it yourself, carefully follow the manufacturer's installation instructions lest you void the warranty. "Man-made products expand and contract differently than wood and this additional space must be built-in during construction," Morrison explains. "While most decks are built to be level, certain individual man-made decking products require a small slope to allow rain water to run off and not puddle."
If you want a pro to handle the job, here's what the experts suggest:
- Talk to friends and neighbors with man-made decks.
- Look at manufacturer Web sites. Many list dealers and contractors.
- Check out national association Web sites like NADRA (www.nadra.org) whose members subscribe to a code of ethics.
- If your state requires it, make sure your contractor is licensed and can provide you with a copy of his liability insurance.
- Check out the contractor's references, including inspecting jobs that have been completed.
- Get a signed contract with the terms spelled out.
- Don't pay in full until the work is complete and the site cleaned up.
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