Long-lasting, low-maintenance decks become a reality

For Chesapeake Home + Living
What if you could double your deck's lifespan? Here's how to do it.

If you’ve got the kind of friends who are more likely to show up for an afternoon of barbecue and chilled Dogfish Head than a weekend of deck scrubbing and sealing, consider the kind of maintenance it will require — materials make a difference.

Able to gracefully withstand the humidity of a coastal Annapolis summer and the chills of a Baltimore winter, high-performance decking materials have become viable contenders for a climate of vast temperature and humidity changes. With the potential to double your deck’s life span and drastically reduce the care it needs, tropical hardwoods and composite decking might get you to think twice about the typical pressure-treated pine.

Life span and sticker shock

Both tropical hardwoods and composite decking combat two of wood’s biggest shortcomings: a short life span and high maintenance. Generally, homeowners can expect to get about 15 years out of a pressure-treated pine deck, assuming diligent maintenance, and the prognosis for decks on the waterfront is even less favorable.

In comparison, a deck guaranteed to last 25 years (composite) or the potential to last 50 years (Brazilian ipe) sounds great — until the sticker shock hits, that is. According to Dave Lombardo, president of American Deck & Patio in Baltimore, convincingly natural-looking composite decking can run the customer 2 1/2 to seven times as much as pressure-treated pine. There’s also a higher installation cost, Lombardo says: “The installation cost delta varies from 15 percent to 45 percent based on contractor and amount and type of composites selected.”

But this higher initial cost is often recouped within the first five years of maintenance-free ownership, and some entry-level decks that look less like wood are priced only 30 percent higher than pressure-treated pine.

Lombardo finds that when comparing annual maintenance costs for pressure-treated pine to low-maintenance composites, the “difference is $2 to $3 per square foot per year. Thus a typical ‘payback’ period is four to seven years.”

For homeowners who want to use real wood, there are low-maintenance options — durable and pest-resistant tropical hardwoods such as ipe can last 20 to 50 years and can withstand much of the Chesapeake Bay region’s climate. Neglectful, guilt-free enjoyment is definitely a selling point. The only maintenance necessary is annual oiling to maintain the rich depth of color. Left unoiled, wood will settle into a weathered gray, although it will continue to avoid cracks, scratches or stains.

Like composites, tropical hardwoods not only mean more expensive planks and hardware, but the installation costs more as well. This exceedingly heavy, dense wood takes special tools and a bit more brute strength to handle. Additionally, consumers prioritizing responsibly sourced hardwoods may find it tricky to confirm the wood is sourced in an environmentally sound manner. But as is the case for composites, sometimes the initial cost is worth the benefit of a long life span of maintenance-free living.

The case for composites

Many homeowners interested in tropical hardwood or who previously owned pressure-treated pine decks are giving composites a second look because they last longer than pressure-treated pine while conveying the rich look of tropical hardwoods. Celeste and Brandon Diehm have multiple decks on their Clarksburg home and their bay cottage in Lusby. Comparing their pressure-treated pine decks to the composite ones, Celeste Diehm says, “We like our composite deck for the smoothness under foot and how easy it is to care for — no sealing or staining required.”

Her husband, Brandon, who has done his share of deck maintenance over the years on the pine planks, unequivocally says that when the time comes to replace the wood decks, he’ll look at composites.

For Jonathan Bach, wood decking wasn’t even a consideration for his new home in Mt. Washington. After owning wood decks that warped and aged quickly, his heart was set on composite materials that promised a longer life and lower maintenance. He researched and compared different varieties before settling on the Wolf brand for its slightly lower cost, attractive warranty, local availability and color options. He also selected Coretex’s Hidden Fastening System to hide evidence of screws and prevent rusting.

Since the deck’s completion last June, Bach has hardly needed to lift a finger.

“We haven’t had to do anything,” he says. “I think I rinsed it off twice during the summer, and that’s it. There are no marks. It doesn’t look dirty.”

What’s made composite planks a viable option for homeowners like Bach and the Diehms? The market has responded to composite-related complaints and made changes to address previous concerns about the artificial sheen, the slippery texture and the heat-absorbing colors that burn feet and raise the ambient temperature of decks.

“Staying with the big four brands with longest tenure and best warranty (Trex, Fiberon, CPG [Azek and TimberTech], and EverGrain) is certainly safe with many very good options for texture, color [and] aesthetics,” says Lombardo.

Additionally, while it can be difficult to be sure that weather-durable tropical hardwoods are responsibly sourced, a majority of composite materials are made from waste like sawdust and milk jugs. For every 20 feet of cool, natural-looking decking material, 30 pounds of landfill-bound materials are rescued, according to Trex.

Joy at any price

With unlimited resources, who wouldn’t choose to watch the world go by while relaxing on a top-of-the-line, low-maintenance, natural-looking deck? But Ross Ehudin, whose father started G & E Contractors in Baltimore in the late 1940s, says the most important consideration is to give the customer a place to enjoy, regardless of budget. As someone who’s been in the business his entire life, Ehudin knows that what a deck gives his customers goes deeper than the planks. Although more expensive, low-maintenance materials are strong choices, “some people just cannot afford it in this economy,” he says.

His priority is making the joy of a deck available to everyone, regardless of what’s under their feet.

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Considering a composite?

Answer these questions to determine the right kind of deck for you.

1. Are your preferred colors and textures available? Major manufacturers now offer a range of color options and textures. Tamko, maker of the EverGrain line, applies one of the deepest wood grains to its composite decking in the industry, making a synthetic structure look almost like natural wood.

2. Are the planks reversible? Reversible boards, like those offered by TimberTech and Certainteed, can be flipped for either a smooth-side or wood-grain face. This type of texturizing makes installation easier and gives homeowners more aesthetic options.

3. Is weight or water a concern? Gorilla Deck, made by Homeland Vinyl in Florida, and Cali Bamboo, a direct sales manufacturer with local recommendations for installers, both offer exceedingly dense, lightweight lines. Cali Bamboo claims to be three times as strong as competitors, in addition to maintaining one-tenth of the water absorption rates — definitely an added value for a perennially shaded or waterfront location where a deck can get weighed down by moisture.

4. Does the area under the deck need to stay dry? With the architectural world’s adoption of “outdoor living” and “purposeful spaces,” American Deck & Patio’s Dave Lombardo explains, more homes are using space under a deck as a social space or dry storage. This trend “really opened the door for niche products like Admiral’s SpaceMaker, [which] allows no water to go through a deck surface when properly installed. This one product has successfully mitigated most of the under-deck-frame water diversion problems,” he says.