For decades, if you mentioned that you were building a new deck, everyone would assume you meant cedar. The classic wood has a hard-won reputation for durability and beauty. Not much can compare to the natural warmth and charm of genuine Western Red Cedar.
But in recent years, there has been a big push for using newer composite decking products instead of wood. After all, the new products are being hailed as maintenance-free, environmentally friendly and virtually indestructible. Who wouldn’t want that kind of deck?
Yet composite materials do not always live up to their own hype. Here are some important considerations to weigh before choosing to use something other than cedar.
Mold & Mildew: The Untold Story
There are contractors who build decks, and then there are contractors who care for decks. When you’re building something you’re going to have to live with for years, it’s important to talk to both. Professionals who maintain composite decks will tell you they can be prime candidates for mold and mildew – both on the surface and in the composition of the product as well.
Not only will mildew growth make the deck surface look unattractive, it also makes the surface extremely slick and dangerous to walk on. To counter it, manufacturers often recommend soaking the deck in bleach. However, bleach is highly corrosive to wood fibers and may jeopardize both the color and integrity of the deck over time. And bleach cannot prevent regrowth of the mold and mildew.
Tread Softly, Please
To compensate for the “slippery when wet” factor, some composite decking manufacturers have added ridged surfaces or brushed grain. While this can improve the slickness associated with moisture and mildew, ironically it also provides a better grip for the mold and mildew making it more difficult to remove. Traffic patterns will wear more noticeably with composite decking products and dents and scratches cannot be sanded out. Areas on stairs, around furniture and near doors see much more activity. Be careful about choosing a material that will wear more quickly.
Stains That Stay
You’ve been there: Cooking some steaks on the barbecue when some grease splatters on the deck. If your deck has been coated correctly, such a mess cleans up fairly easily. But composite decking is often left raw, and stains often seem to set permanently. Once oil has bonded with the decking materials, it can be difficult if not impossible to remove.
That Sinking Feeling
Composites are significantly heavier than regular wood, and have been known to sag between joists. This can result in a bowed, unsightly appearance. Part of the problem is that composite decks are typically built on wooden supports. The rate of expansion and contraction is different for composites than it is for wood. As a result, changes in temperature and humidity will affect them differently, which can lead to sagging.
Sure is Hot Out Here
Many home owners comment about how much more heat their composite deck retains. Wood is a naturally good insulator, keeping a deck cool. Composites do not breathe as well, and therefore tend to lock in heat. Many plastic based products become too hot for you to enjoy the deck in the summer.
That may not be a factor typically considered when building a deck. But if you live in a warmer part of the country, shaving a few degrees off the outdoor temperature can make a big difference as to how enjoyable your new deck will be.
Saving the Planet, One Deck at a Time
One of the biggest selling points used for composite materials is that they are earth friendly. They consume fewer trees and recycle plastic. That sounds great on the surface. However, the environmental issues are a little more complex than they might appear. Creating plastic in the first place requires far more energy usage than it takes to harvest a tree. Plastic also comes from non-renewable resources, while trees are replanted and grow back. In fact, America grows 30% more wood each year than it harvest and has more forestland today than 100 years ago. What’s more, wood is entirely biodegradable. At the end of its life cycle, it can be absorbed by the earth without negative impact. But plastic based products sit in landfills for years and years without breaking down.
In addition to being renewable and biodegradable, Cedar does not require treatment with toxic chemicals because it is naturally resistant to rot and insects, and its own natural preservatives help protect it in harsh weather. In other words, Western Red Cedar is ultimately more earth-friendly than composites.
Looks Aren’t Everything, But They Help
Let’s be honest: composite decking isn’t exactly pretty and no one will mistake such artificial products for the natural products whose appearance they try to imitate. Anything made up of wood fibers and plastic will need some serious help to look decent. And even though it often comes in a variety of shades, composite decking remains more of a paint grade product.
That is one of the primary selling points of cedar that remains true to this day. No substitute product has been able to capture the look and feel of genuine western red cedar. Any survey of homeowners will show that cedar still remains the hands-down favorite when it comes to appearances.
Fads will come and go. Yet when you closely examine the options, you discover there is still much in favor of sticking with a classic such as cedar, a building material with centuries of proven performance.
This article has been supplied courtesy of the Western Red Cedar Lumber Association.