Overview: Many options for composite decking
Composite decking is a great low-maintenance alternative
to wood. The industry had some growing pains in the
past decade, but the materials continue to improve and the
number of quality products on the market increases each
year. Ten years ago, there were only 10 choices, and now
there are more than 50 different composite decking products
You'll also find cellular PVC and plastic lumber (HDPE—high-density polyethylene) decking, both of which install
similarly to composites. We'll focus on composites in this
article, but much of this information applies to PVC and
plastic as well. The biggest frustration you'll encounter is
choosing among all the styles, colors and brands. This article
will help you narrow down your options and simplify
In a Nutshell
Choose composite decking based on your budget; style
and color preferences; fastener choice; and site and code
Quality composite decking costs two to three times more
than pressure-treated wood but lasts two to three times
The fact that your local home center carries a product
doesn't mean it's been approved for use where you live or
for every application. Check with local building officials
before you buy.
Each system has different fastening and installation
requirements. If you don't follow the manufacturer's
installation instructions, the warranty will be void.
Factor 1: Are you on a tight budget?
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Composite decking, wood railing
Installing a wood rather than composite railing reduces deck costs.
Composite decking costs $3 to $7 per sq. ft. ($1.50 to $5 per lin. ft.). Most lumberyards
and home centers stock at least one or two brands and can special order
others. Most brands of the basic composites are similar and will perform
just fine. The differences come down to variations in design, colors, mix
of plastic and wood, installation systems and texture. If you're OK with a limited
palette of colors; a simple, repetitive grain pattern; and a smooth or
combed finish, you'll find a variety of low maintenance, lower-cost products
that meet your needs.
Composite decking usually comes in 12-, 16- and 20-ft. planks, and railing
components in 12- and 16-ft. increments. Planning your deck design around
these measurements can save you money and cut waste. You can also keep
your costs down by using a system that installs with face screws (rather than
hidden fasteners) and building rails from wood.
Factor 2: Is your deck used in the hot sun?
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Composites heat up
Dark, solid composites absorb more heat than lighter types.
Dark-colored and very dense composites
can really heat up in the sun. If
you're sitting in a deck chair on top of
all that plastic, the heat reflected up to
you can make you sizzle like the burger
on your grill. Get composite samples
in different colors and set them outside
on your deck site. If they're hot enough
to fry an egg after a day in the hot sun,
consider a lighter color or a different
Factor 3: Is a “wood look” critical?
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Fine decking details
More expensive composites brands have finer details, more colors and more features.
Higher-end composites have a superior grain and the most “woodlike”
appearance and feel. Some of the priciest brands have subtle shadings and
individual “grain” variations so that no one board is an exact replica of another.
Some manufacturers buff each board at the factory to remove any “plastic”
sheen. High-end composites also have a wider range of colors and matching
add-ons such as railings, balusters, posts, post caps, skirts and decorative
trim. These add-ons give your deck a beautiful look, but they don't come
cheap. They can easily be triple the cost of the decking boards.
Factor 4: How wet will it get?
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Composite decks subject to frequent wetting can get slippery if they don't have a texture.
Smooth-textured composites can get
slippery. If your deck is going to be
used near a pool, or if you live in a climate
where ice is an issue and the deck
is going to be used as a main entry to
the house, search for a style with a pronounced
Factor 5: Are hidden fasteners important?
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Hidden vs. exposed fasteners
Hidden fasteners are more expensive but result in a cleaner appearance.
Many people couldn't care less if they see the fasteners when they look at their
deck. But if it bothers you, choose a system that works with hidden fasteners. For
example, tongue-and-groove systems eliminate gaps and allow you to hide the
screws and drive fewer of them. Clip systems work with grooved decking that's
lightweight and has a thinner profile than face-screw styles. However, these systems
can have open ends that collect leaves and dirt if you don't install end caps
or a special trim piece or use an installation design that covers them. Hidden fastener
systems are pricier than systems that install with face screws. The hidden
fasteners themselves can bump up the price by 30 percent.
Three Types of Composite Fasteners
Examples of two types of hidden fasteners and a tidy-looking exposed fastener.
Factor 6: Are you sure materials meet building codes?
Call your local building officials to
make sure the material you're considering
is approved in your city.
Some composite systems have limitations
on the materials for use as
stairs or require specific framing in
certain applications. Also, be sure
you know what kind of fastener
spacing is required so you don't
encounter any surprises during
Factor 7: Are you including all the extras in your budget?
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Composite deck details like trim boards, railings and hidden fasteners increase the cost.
You won't need to pop for specialized tools
because composite planks install using the
same basic tools as any wood deck. But the
decking itself is only a piece of your overall
budget. Each system requires either hidden
fasteners or deck screws (for best results, use
screws specifically for composite material).
In addition, depending on the system, you
may need end caps, reinforcement pieces,
special trim or skirt pieces, and add-ons like
railings, posts and post caps. Research the
installation and the add-ons so you have a
complete picture of the costs before you buy
Learn More About Deck Materials Online
Synthetic decking materials are
required to have a valid Evaluation
Service Report (ESR) to be considered
approved for use by many local
building departments. ESR reports
are issued by a nonprofit code-compliance
testing agency. They show
the results of tests for moisture
absorption, abrasion resistance, fastener
spacing, allowable spans and
stresses and more. Visit decks.com
, or type the ESR number
for each product (ask the manufacturer
or check the product literature) into your Web browser.