I’ve never been a big fan of composite decking, for a variety of reasons that I’ll get into later, but I’ve always been particularly against using composite decking on older houses. I mean, you wouldn’t build an addition onto a 100-year old stone cabin and clad it aluminum siding, right? But to my eye, composite decks on older homes was roughly equivalent to that.
Still, I recently had cause to rethink my position–at least for a little while. The impetus for this occurred while I was shopping for lumber at one of the big box home improvement stores for a deck I’ll be building for a client this week. It’s a tedious process: you need to first check each decking board for obvious defects, then site along each edge to make sure it’s not warped. After 30 minutes, the pile of rejects was larger than the pile of keepers, and I found myself looking longingly at the composite decking planks, all of which were smooth and straight–no inspection required.
Even the big stores typically only carry what I think of as entry-level composite decking, which more closely resembles cardboard than wood. But there are composites in many different shades, many of which incorporate faux wood grains, so that, from a distance at least, a composite deck can look like the real thing. So I decided to give composite decking another look.
I’m still not a fan.
The best composite decking does look quite a bit like real wood. When it’s new. But composites fade. They also get scratched. Yes, wood also gets scratched, but it scratches differently. Plus, you can sand scratches out of wood. Not so with composites. So while a new composite deck can look like a wood deck, a five-year old composite deck will look like a composite deck trying to look like a wood deck.
Composite decking is also pricey, and in more ways than one. The decking planks themselves can cost more than five times as much as pressure-treated lumber, and two to three times more than outdoor lumber such as cedar or redwood. But a composite deck also needs more framing than a wood deck–typically you need joists every 12″ for composite decks versus every 16″ for wood. That adds up to more material, and more labor. And wooden decking, if it’s properly maintained, can be sanded or resurfaced to make an old deck look new again. This isn’t the case with composites–if you want a composite deck to look new again, you need to replace all of the decking.
Finally there’s the environmental impact. If composite decking truly lasted forever, as manufacturers first claimed, at least implicitly, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t, and when it fails and is replaced, the old decking ends up in a landfill (where it may well last forever). Composites also need to be cleaned with chemical solutions.
This doesn’t mean I’ll never look longingly at composites again. The truth is that I wish they were as good as initially advertised. Unfortunately, at this stage they’re just not.