Composite products lead the way in decking trends.

Decks are a perfect way to enjoy the outdoors and expand your living area. They range from the basic 12-by-12-square foot deck, perhaps sporting a grill bump-out, to sprawling multi-tiered decks with custom seating, architectural elements and built-in lighting.

One of the most important and challenging decisions homeowners face when installing or remodeling a deck is which material to use, says David Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Design and Construction. Although pressure-treated lumber and natural wood such as cedar remain leaders, other materials are steadily winning consumers over.

"The biggest decking trend over the past 10 years has been composite material, and it continues to build," Reynolds says. "There are constantly new colors, new products and new brands coming out to reach this market."

Composite products, usually made of plastic and wood bonded together, typically have the look and feel of natural wood without the splintering or rotting. They're environmentally appealing because the plastic is often reclaimed post-consumer plastic, which means it doesn't end up in a landfill. Composite decking also comes in a large variety of colors and textures, Reynolds says. And some composites can even be shaped into visually appealing wavy or circular patterns.

On the downside, some composites are prone to permanently fading, Reynolds notes, and many homeowners have been unpleasantly surprised by the color changes. "Be sure to ask your contractor about this before you decide on a composite material or a particular brand," he warns.

But to some homeowners, composites are most appealing because of their low maintenance requirements. Unlike wood, which needs regular staining or sealing, composite material doesn't. However, be sure to clean off dirt and grime promptly. "Dirt can make the material fade faster as it gets baked in," Reynolds says. "Remember, they're not no-maintenance, they're low-maintenance. Nothing is no-maintenance. You can clean them with a power washer or even a hose with a strong nozzle."

Vinyl decking, sometimes called PVC, is another option, Reynolds says. "But with vinyl, you're very limited in color options because you can get only white, almond or a few other colors," he says. Like composites, vinyl is low-maintenance, requiring only occasional power washing, he says. "Over time, though, PVC may show dirt and become harder to clean - it can get dirty looking," he cautions.

If you opt to stick with pressure-treated lumber or natural wood, be sure to follow the manufacturer's cleaning and maintenance guidelines. One of the best things you can do for a new wood deck, Reynolds says, is to let it dry out and weather through one winter before staining or sealing it. Although that may seem counterintuitive, Reynolds says it's actually the best way to ultimately achieve a great-looking finish.  When it's ready to finish, choose a product carefully. "You don't want to go cheap on this," Reynolds says. "Do your research and talk to your local experts who will stand by what they are telling you. Some applications last three to five years, and that's what you want to look for."

In recent years, concerns have arisen about using pressure-treated lumber for decking. Some studies have shown that arsenic infused during the preservation process could eventually leach out from the wood, posing a health hazard, particularly to young children. Arsenic has now been phased out of the preservation process, however. But if you have a deck built of pressure-treated lumber that dates back several years, it may be time to upgrade to safer materials, Reynolds says. "The preservative mixture has been changed to a safer standard now," he says.

A final word of caution from Reynolds: "Hire a contractor or at least consult one when you're building a deck," he says. "We've seen a lot of problems where a deck may pass code, but the flashing hasn't been done correctly. It becomes vulnerable to water and may become so rotted that your deck could actually collapse."

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If you have questions about building or remodeling, call Rochester Area Builders at (507) 282-7698.

Copyright 2007 Rochester Area Builders, Inc. No part of the Remodel It Right Handbook articles may be reproduced or printed without written permission from Rochester Area Builders, 108 Elton Hills Lane NW, Rochester, MN 55901. Phone (507) 282-7698.

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