Just how do you get on deck with green cleaners?

The Baltimore Sun

I am having a spirited debate with my husband about how to clean a deck. The job doesn't seem that hard, but my husband wants to use a pressure washer because he thinks it will save time. I want to use a green cleaner that is nontoxic and environmentally safe. What is the proper way to clean a deck and keep it looking nice?

Cleaning a backyard deck is not supposed to create marital strife. In this instance, I think you and your husband might be able to reach a compromise that allows each of you to do the job in the manner you see fit. I have cleaned countless decks, and there are pros and cons to each of the methods you mention.

Let's talk about pressure washers. These tools are extremely popular among homeowners. They come in all different sizes, and the end of the spray wand can be equipped with a variety of tips that concentrate the high-pressure stream of water in different ways. That stream of water is what cleans, by agitating the surface of whatever it strikes.

A pressure washer can clean a wood deck much faster than you can scrub it by hand. That is a terrific advantage. However, a pressure washer frequently will destroy the surface of the wood. The stream of water can be powerful enough to erode the light-colored spring wood fibers. Those that are not eroded can be dislodged, leaving the wood fuzzy or rough after it dries.

Professional deck cleaners argue with me that this happens only when an inexperienced user is working with the tool, the pressure was too great, the wrong tip was used and/or the tip was held too closely to the wood surface. If you decide to use a pressure washer, you had better test it or have the professional prove to you that he/she can use the tool without damaging the wood. If you're really interested in making your deck-cleaning project a green activity, you should seriously consider the secondary effects that gasoline or electric-powered machines have on our environment.

I am a big proponent of nontoxic cleaners. The older I get, the more I suspect that certain chemicals in everyday products are responsible for many health issues. I am not a doctor, but common sense tells me that harsh chemicals are not processed well by our bodies.

Years ago I discovered that there are different types of bleaches - one of them being oxygen bleach. Many people think bleach is bleach, but the bleach found in most homes is chlorine bleach. The active ingredient in chlorine bleach is sodium hypochlorite. Check the label of many bleaches or deck cleaners, and you might see this chemical name.

Oxygen bleach is a powerful cleaner that is just about as green as you can be. It is commonly available as a powder. The chemical makeup of the purest oxygen bleach is simply hydrogen peroxide and soda ash. When you mix this type of oxygen bleach with water to make a deck-cleaning solution, all you create is more water, oxygen and soda ash.

The oxygen bubbles in the solution do most of the work done by the pressure washer. The solution soaks into the dry wood, and the oxygen ions deep-clean the wood by breaking apart dirt, algae and mildew molecules. The solution is not toxic to you or the plants, bushes or trees around your deck. You can't say that about chlorine bleach.

The con of using a green cleaner is time and elbow grease. You will have to do some additional mechanical agitation using a scrub brush on a pole to get your deck squeaky clean. However, you will be pleased to discover the wood will not be fuzzy, and there will be hardly any erosion of the soft spring wood.

My advice to you is to use oxygen bleach to clean the deck and have your husband help you with the scrub brush. If he must use his pressure washer, have him insert the 35-degree tip and just use the machine to do the final rinse. But if I were your helper, I would simply use a garden hose with a regular nozzle.

Expert home builder and remodeling contractor Tim Carter has 20 years of hands-on experience in the home industry. He is a licensed master plumber, master carpenter, master roof cutter and real estate broker. If you have a question, go to askthebuilder.com and click on "Ask Tim."

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