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Composite Decking on Old Homes? No Thanks.

By: Brett Freeman , Contributing Writer
In: Uncategorized, Home Improvement Tips, Green Renovations, Garden And Lawncare

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.

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  1. 3 Responses  to “Composite Decking on Old Homes? No Thanks.”

  2. Sarah
    Apr 30, 2013
    I would also have to disagree, but I can't say that I wasn't skeptical at first with all of the different myths out there on the internet. Fortunately TimberTech helped answer all of my questions that I had. Now they have a website to help out, http://timbertech.com/straighttalk/. When I was shopping around I was so undecided, but once TimberTech took the time to explain everything to me, I knew what I wanted to go with. I am so happy with my choices of going with their composite decking. It has been a few years since I had their decking installed and it still looks great. As long as composite decking is installed and properly taken care of it will last a long time, which makes the price worth it.
  3. Norm M.
    Aug 29, 2011
    Sorry Brett, I disagree. We have installed two composite decks; one on our 50 year old Lake Erie cottage and the other on our condo home in Westerville, OH. Both are "almost" in perfect condition. The cottage deck is 10 years old and needs pressure washing WITH WATER ever year. Our next door neighbor at the lake used to scrub and wash his wood deck annually and finally replaced the decking with composite last summer (the wood surface was rotting away - guess he did not use the proper annual sealer as well ??) The cottage deck has suffered scratching from our large dog scrambling to chase balls thrown from the deck. That had to stop. And it gets a green slippery surface each spring that has to be pressure washed (a couple of hours) Dut other wise is maintenance free. The condo deck is inside a screened porch and still looks brand new. Both decks were installed with fasteners that do not show nails through the surface (really looks great and no snags, nail popps, or splinters on either deck) You could not give me a wooden deck even "for free". The maintenance and deterioration on a wooden deck are too much for me to deal with. You should take another look at the composite decking of 2010 you may be surprised on how good it looks and trouble free it makes outdoor living. Norm M. (erie_guy) Port Clinton, OH
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    Not all advances in building materials and technology are aesthetically pleasing or blend in with older architecture's charm and natural materials. Nor are many new building materials green and they may have a high environmental cost. They may be cheap and easier to install but no matter how real they look, they don't have the warmth or character and may not be very eco-friendly. We do many old architectural restorations and do substitute for example copper for cast iron components. But in this instance we are using a material that is very green, 100% recyclable, has warmth, is aesthetically pleasing, has extremely long life and very low environmental cost. Whereas replacing with plastic is still just plastic.