Decking Options

Looking Good for the Long Term

If you have decided to add a porch you need to consider your decking options.

This article will restrict itself to decking, not cement, or brick or tile or any of your other options that would typically be used at grade. So we are talking about some kind of planking that is secured to a support structure.

Deck flooring is a lot like wood flooring, except that flooring leads the cushy indoor life. A deck floor has to shed rain, survive the snow, and thrive under the harsh glare of the sun.

Any kind of porch should be considered in the context of your overall house design.  A good looking porch or patio isn't really good looking if it doesn't fit in with the rest of your house.

In regards to the materials we have lots of options:

We will take a quick look at all of these, but the details will follow in other articles.

Wood

Wood is the veteran. Our grandfathers used it. It has stood the test of time.

Wood has several advantages:

  • Strong
  • Light
  • Easy to shape, saw, nail and fasten
  • Will not elongate
  • Cool to the touch
  • Easy to stain or paint

But it has some disadvantages:

  • Warps
  • Splinters
  • Rots
  • Prone to allow mold growth on its surface

If you have been around enough old houses, you have probably experienced some rotten porches where people have broken through the floorboards. This usually only happens if water was able to collect and seep into the wood. Of course termites and other insects can have the same effect.

There are three basic ways to avoid this problem. One is to keep your porch dry and the water drained away. A second is to use only treated lumber. The lumber is essentially treated under pressure with toxins that permeates the wood. A third solution is to use wood that naturally resists rotting, such as Ipe decking, a wood from the rainforests of the Amazon.

Just a quick word on treated lumber. It is relatively cheap. I have it on my porch. Yet there is a price to pay. If you were to remove the porch later, the waste lumber is considered a hazardous material in some localities. That means dollars to remove.

There are some woods that naturally resist rotting. None are perfect. All natural materials will rot eventually, but these have natural antimicrobial ingredients that deter the bacteria that cause the breakdown of wood. I provide a comparison of the different woods used  in a follow on article.

All wood will have this advantage over the competition: When the sun has been out for a couple of hours you can still walk out on your porch barefoot without getting a hotfoot. The other materials will tend to absorb more heat, so that the pleasures of a sit out on the deck can be somewhat marred.

Wood is also a better do-it-yourself alternative. The other materials will require fasteners and tools that the average handyman isn’t familiar with. That doesn’t mean he can’t learn, but it may be a little bit more intimidating for him or her.

With most wood you will need to stain, seal it or paint it. I don’t recommend the paint option, if you are averse to maintenance. A deck surface will need to be repainted every year. I did considerable research before settling on an opaque stain. It is supposed to last longer than paint, but it didn’t. Rain and shoes and snow shovels is just too rough for a paint to handle and an opaque stain is just a fancy word for paint, because it doesn’t penetrate the wood. Your normal, transparent stain will penetrate, so a little abrasion on the surface won’t wear it away. It will, however, need a sealant of some kind, and the sealant will have a short life and need to be reapplied every year, in some cases, or every few years. The duration depending on the wood and the sealant.

Let me backtrack a little bit. The fact that wood can be painted means that you can blend that porch into the color scheme of your house. I have seen too many houses where the exterior colors were well chosen, but then they tacked on a wood deck with no attempt to confirm that it would look good with the rest of the house design.

At least with wood they have the option of painting it. The other options are less accepting of paint. You can also choose a colored stain, so you can have the best of both worlds, a color that blends, with the advantages of a stain. Now, on to the alternatives.

Aluminum

Aluminum decking developed a bad reputation because it deserved it. It makes a weird pinging sound when you walk on it, and its hot under the sun. However, properly constructed, it is maintenance free, so lets take a second look at it.

The current generation of aluminum decking comes coated with a thick layer of polyurea. I don’t know what polyurea is but I know what it does. It coats the aluminum to eliminate that pinging and reduces its hotfoot factor. While I won’t say that it is as good as wood, it is now worth considering, and if maintenance is your primary consideration this might be the choice for you.

Vinyl

Vinyl is an option that most are familiar with because of vinyl siding and vinyl fencing. Vinyl is a decent option, but its reputation is marred by a host of vinyl variations that have serious problems. Vinyl decking from pure virgin vinyl will tend to last. However, other vinyl products on the market have failed the test of time.

Even the best vinyl will have two weaknesses. It expands and contracts with temperature, and it becomes brittle when it is cold. The expansion requires special fastener systems that allow it to expand, and for long boards this expansion can be several inches.

The brittleness problem is one that is especially acute with decking. No one walks on their siding in winter, but they will walk on their deck. While they probably won’t go crashing through just from a stroll, if they were to drop something heavy they might find that they need to replace one of the boards.

I have a vinyl handrail on my deck. I put it up myself because my money never stays in my bank account long enough for me to hire a contractor. It has a few imperfections, but for the most part I am pleased with the rail. I may have to paint my wood decking every year, but the handrail remains beautiful without my intervention. So, while I have my reservations on its use as a porch flooring I am quite willing to admit it has its place on the porch.

Composite Wood

Finally, lets discuss the plastic-wood composites that came out about 20 years ago. Trex is the big name in the industry, but there are quite a few manufacturers of similar products. The basic idea is you mix up a bunch of polyethylene with sawdust. The wood fibers provide tensile strength to the composite and reduce the expansion factor. Polyethylene is what Tupperware and milk bottles are made of. The wood also protects the plastic from the sun, so it is less prone to UV degradation.

If you pick up a composite board you will notice two things. It is much heavier than wood, and it is floppier. It bows a lot more because it is relatively weak. Properly supported it can do its job as decking, but don’t try to use it for a structural supporting role.

The composite wood comes with the color built into it, typically a tannish gray. It should retain this color, but sometimes it doesn’t, and once it changes there isn’t any going back. Since it is polyethylene paint does not want to stick to it.

Flooring

While it should last forever, some boards have a problem with mold. The wood fiber that is mixed with the plastic is the culprit. The fiber on the surface acts as a conduit for moisture, which can penetrate the board. This wet fiber then serves as a banquet for mold. Of course regular wood has this problem too, but with wood you expected maintenance. When you end up with a splotchy mold on your composite you feel a little cheated.

The composite wood is also expensive. With a choice between paying high dollars for an expensive wood and high dollars for an expensive composite, I would go with the expensive wood.

So that is the nutshell version of your decking choices.

If any of you have stories to tell about your decking or porch projects I would love to share them with other readers. Just use the comment form below. I moderate these and include them as either a permanent or rotating part of this site. If any one feels like I missed the mark, or you are hungry for more information, the comment form is also your best bet and I would love to hear how I can improve my service to you. 


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