SYNTHETIC DECKS: No Maintenance, Low Maintenance, Mo’ Maintenance – What care will your synthetic deck need?


Have you noticed that none of the synthetic decking manufacturers promise “No Maintenance” anymore?  The most they’ll claim now is “Low Maintenance”.  But what does “low” mean?  Will you have to scrub your new deck once a month or just hose it off once a year?  And why can’t you have “No Maintenance” anyway?  Are you confused?

There is a variety of answers here because there is a variety of decking products on the market.  Let’s start out simply.  What can happen to a deck that requires maintenance?  There are several threats:

Color Fading has almost disappeared (pardon the expression).  The sun’s Ultra-violet rays can bleach the color from wood and from the earlier, “first generation” composite decking.  But almost all manufacturers now make decking that is color-fast (2nd and especially 3rd generation).  Short of a manufacturing defect (and these do occur), any synthetic decking you install today will hold its color fairly well. You will not have to re-stain it ever.  Here’s the fading you can expect:

Mold or Mildew can grow on any surface.  Mildew spores are everywhere, and all they need, (beyond air) is reasonable temperature, a food source, and moisture.  Mold spores like the same temperature you like.  And they are not picky about their diet either.  Tiny amounts of almost any dead organic matter will do: dirt, wood fibers, paper, even paint.  Composite decking is composed of plastic and wood fibers, and when those wood fibers get wet, they provide a feast for mold.

Newer decking is all plastic, which, by itself, does not feed mold.  Still, wet dirt or pollen, etc. will entice mold to grow even on plastic decks.  So mold is a threat to any shaded deck that gets moisture.  Happily, the sun’s ultra-violet rays kill mold, so a deck in full sun all day can expect no mold.

Stains come from red wine, steak dropped from the grill, and wet oak leaves.  The sooner you remove the source, the better.  The porous wood fibers of composite decking soak up stains and are hard to clean.  Newer decking has a hard, all plastic coating that most stains cannot penetrate.

Someone drags a metal chair or drops a knife, or the umbrella table blows over – numerous things can scratch a deck.  Light scratches on wood can be fixed:  just sand, re-treat, and wipe off.  On synthetic decking, though, sanding just damages the decking further.  (One manufacturer claims that a stiff wire brush or a soldering iron will disguise a scratch. I’m skeptical.)  The hard coatings on all-plastic decking resist light scratches.  Deep gouges, from the sharp leg of a heavy grill, however, will deeply damage any decking.  Correct Deck® offers a “Care Kit” for its CX decking that includes an epoxy filler for “deep scratches”.  Otherwise, your only fix is to replace the deck board.

The introduction of Procell® several years ago dramatically changed synthetic decking.  Composed almost entirely of PVC plastic, Procell (now called Azek®) claims to resist stains, mildew and scratches.  It does.  Red wine does not penetrate it, minor events do not scratch it, and since it lacks an inherent food source, mildew has trouble getting started.  All the major manufacturers now offer plastic or plastic coated decking that greatly lowers maintenance.  Probably the most durable – hardest and most resistant – is Correct Deck CX®.  Its polypropolene plastic coating is harder than the polyethelene used by other manufacturers.  But its shiny, “all plastic” look has limited appeal.  Trex Transcend®, TimberTech® XLM, and Azek®’s ArborTM and HarvestTM series have more natural looking grain patterns and are more popular.

They all resist stains, mildew, and scratches fairly well.  So, drop a hamburger, spill red wine, or squirt some mustard on the deck.  If you clean it with soap and water within a day or so, it will leave no permanent stain.  Undoubtedly, there are some substances that will stain even hard plastic decking – perhaps concentrated rust, acidic leaves, droppings from a flock of birds who just consumed an entire blueberry patch.  These may need special attention.  And if you regularly grill on your deck, I’d advise using a non-rubber “grill mat” underneath to catch greasy drips.  In shady, moist sites, mildew can still grow, but you can blast it away with a strong garden hose.  If mildew grows unchecked for several months, you may have to lightly scrub your plastic deck with a mildewcide.

Are you afraid that “plastic” decking will be shiny and ugly?  Don’t be.  The newer, 3rd generation synthetic decking looks quite good.  The best has random dark streaks that mimic real wood, or a life-like texture that looks like well-painted wood.

Click to enlarge

In summary, then, to avoid the maintenance that wood requires, you have two choices.

1. Older composite decking (“2nd generation”) is reasonably color-fast and eliminates the yearly treatments of preservative that wood requires.  But composites are vulnerable to stains, scratches, and mildew.  Read the detailed instructions from two manufacturers to understand what care is required: Trex care:  (Select “Other Trex Products”) and TimberTech care.

Among composites, there are several popular decking choices:

OR

2. Newer plastic decking (“3rd generation”) lowers maintenance further.  It resists stains, scratches and mildew.  But it is not “maintenance-free”:  at the very least you’ll have to wash the dirt, pollen, etc. off once or twice a year.  And it costs more than the older composites.  Plastic decking materials can cost 40% to 90% more than composites, but with the same framing lumber and the same labor costs, the net cost difference will be under 20%, and in some instances, only 10%.  The most popular of these 3rd Generation products are:

(In a moment of cowardice, I ordered these alphabetically.)

Two of these manufactures have specific warranties against stains and fading: Trex Transcend and Fiberon Horizon. Nice.

Do you feel better now?

At Archadeck of Suburban Boston, we offer professional design and build services for clients west and north of Boston.  Over the past 21 years we have designed and built over 700 projects, including more than 100 low maintenance decks.  We have enhanced the depth of our expertise by limiting our work to decks, porches, and sunrooms.  To view some of these projects, visit our website.  To learn how we treat our clients, check us on Angie’s List or read about us in a recent article in Remodeling Magazine.  For a free design consultation and a relaxed and rewarding experience, contact us via e-mail, subboston@archadeck.net or by phone, 781-273-3500.

© 2010 Advantage Design & Constr., Inc.

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Categories: Composite decking, Deck care, Deck maintenance, Decking, Low Maintenance, Plastic decking, PVC deckingTags: , , , , , , , ,

9 comments

  1. You know, you give so many reasons why anyone in her/his right mind should want a synthetic/plastic/composite deck. Who wouldn’t want to just kick back, wash it once in a while, save money, and have those blow-out BBQs with greasy burgers and wine (?!) Why would you want wood after all if the others look so much like the real thing and are so much easier and less expensive to maintain, unless you’re a purist?

  2. the no maintenance decks are totally maintenance free for a long period ? so you never have to put a water seal on these products?

    • Joe,
      You should never “water seal” or stain any synthetic, “low maintenance” decking. You’ll probably need to sweep and hose off these decks to clear off debris. True composite decks (second generation decking composed of wood fibers and plastic) are vulnerable to mold in shady sites. Those may require occasional cleaning with a bleach solution to kill the mold. Plastic decking (like Azek, TimberTech XLM, Fiberon Horizon, Trex Transcends,…) are truly “extremely low maintenance.” The warranties vary from 20 years to life.
      – Jim Finlay

  3. How do I get dog nail scratches off my plastic deck? Is this possible?

  4. I put a hole in my deck the size of a quater by shoveling. How can I repair this

    • Amber: If the hole does penetrate all the way through your decking, all you can do is replace that board. If your decking is wood, you my be able to sand out a scratch. Almost any type of damage to synthetic decking leaves you two options: replace the board or just live with it.

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