What to Know About Plastic Decking and Tiles

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Tired of refinishing your moldy old wooden deck? Plastic decking is easy to install, requires no finishing and is extremely low maintenance.

There’s no denying traditional wooden decks are beautiful, especially when they’re well-built and meticulously maintained. Trouble is, warding off mold, mildew and keeping the finish looking like new is a big pain. That’s where plastic decking and deck tiles come in.

First appearing on the construction scene in the early 2000s, PVC plastic decking is slowly growing in popularity. Back in 2010, it made up only 10 percent of the decking market. Since then, demand has steadily increased. Learn all about this low-maintenance, easy-to-install decking material, then decide for yourself if it makes sense in your situation.

What Is Plastic Decking?

Plastic decking is an alternative to wood and composite deck boards, made of 100 percent polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC). It’s the third most commonly produced plastic in the world, with roughly 40 million tons produced annually.

Much of this PVC is molded into rigid pipes for housing electrical cables, but a growing amount is used for other aspects of home construction — like decking. When mixed with a certain percentage of softening chemicals called plasticizers, PVC becomes slightly flexible yet still reasonably hard and strong. That makes it ideal for molding into board-like shapes and tiles for decking material.

How Does Plastic Decking Differ From Composite Decking, Like Trex?

Composite decking came into use in the late ’90s, the answer to homeowners growing tired of frequently refinishing their wood decks and replacing rotted, mold-vulnerable boards. Composites, made of a 50/50 blend of plastic and wood fibers, changed all that.

Less than a decade later, several companies began dispensing with the wood fibers in composites, leading to the first fully plastic deck boards. Unlike its composite predecessors, plastic decking has zero organic material, completely eliminating the risk of mold, mildew and lichen growth.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Plastic Decking?

Pros:

  • Highly resistant to insects, mold and mildew;
  • 100 percent recyclable;
  • Almost no maintenance required;
  • Easy to clean;
  • No finish or refinishing needed.

Cons:

  • Wide temperature swings (hot summers, cold winters) can sometimes cause plastic decking to crack and expand over time, creating instability;
  • Direct sunlight on plastic decks makes them hot and uncomfortable to walk on in bare feet;
  • Plastic decks can sometimes fade and degrade in appearance over time;
  • They lack the classic good looks of a well-maintained wooden deck.

How Much Does Plastic Decking Cost and Where Can You Buy It?

Plastic decking varies in cost depending on the width and thickness you choose. Most plastic deck board products run between $10 and $15 per square foot. Plastic deck tiles, while much less common than boards, can be less expensive, going as low as $4 per square foot. You can find plastic decking products in many building supply stores, including The Home Depot and Lowe’s.

Plastic Decking Installation

Different plastic deck board products utilize different installation methods. Some come with compact rigid plastic clips designed to be screwed to the underlying joists, to hold the boards in place invisibly. Others are clipless and simply require direct connection to joists with deck screws. In this case, using a deck screw installation tool will help you fasten the boards almost invisibly.

Deck tiles are installed differently. They need to be fully supported by a continuous existing surface, like a completed wooden deck or concrete patio slab.

Regardless of how you install them, you’ll need a drill or impact driver, deck screws and a circular saw for cutting boards to length. During installation, make sure to space boards 1/4-in. to 1/8-in. apart, to allow for seasonal expansion and contraction.

Maintenance and Cleaning Tips

The main benefit of plastic decking is that it’s extremely low maintenance. Other than occasional sweeping and washing, there will be little maintenance needed if the deck was built properly. After many years of use, you may need to replace boards or tiles if they’ve become brittle and cracked after repeated seasonal cycles of expansion and contraction. You may also want to replace any boards or tiles faded by sun exposure.

Beyond this, make sure the integrity of the joists beneath the plastic boards remains sound. If you’re building a new deck, make sure to use joists of sufficient width and strength. If these fail, your entire deck will need to be rebuilt. Also, use rot-resistant pressure-treated or earth-contact-grade boards for the joists.

And finally, don’t build your deck right against the wall of your house. This can lead to trapped moisture and rot, which is why leaving a small gap between your deck joists and the wall of your house is essential.