Take a trip to the grocery store and the question of the day is "Paper or plastic?"
For homeowners thinking about adding a deck to their outdoor space — or replacing an existing one — the question becomes "Composite, plastic, vinyl or wood?"
Once upon a time, decks were largely square or rectangular platform structures made of hard wood, with redwood being the preferred building material because of its durability.
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Decks have evolved big time, said Dennis Edge, a contractor services sales associate at Home Depot in Modesto. The structures come in a variety of materials, shapes and sizes. Homeowners can choose multilevel decks equipped with railings to improve the overall look and add a touch of safety. Do-it-yourself deck designers can include planter boxes, built-in benches and lighting.
Using those kinds of decking accents and accessories, "you create a more stylish area that's even better for entertaining," said John Grosche, a product manager for Malibu Low Voltage Landscape Lighting, a division of Intermatic. Malibu has a line of lighting products made specifically for decks.
As Memorial Day approaches and kicks off another season of outdoor living, customers have been inquiring about deck designs and materials options, Edge said. For some families, the economic downturn hasn't thwarted their plans to improve their back yards with decks, said Home Depot supervisor John Mordinoia.
In fact, rather than spend money on pricey vacations and trips, folks are putting the money into their homes to create oases in their own back yards.
Deck designers can select utilitarian accents or opt for "decorative, elaborate fixtures that are like art," Grosche said. "It adds to the deck's attractiveness and really expands how the space can be used."
The biggest change in residential decks other than the expanded choice in styles and accessories is the expanded selection of materials, according to Edge. Composite decking has become increasingly popular.
Composite decking is made of ground-up plastic and wood fibers that are compressed under high heat.
Before composite materials emerged, "it was common to use redwood because it resisted decay," said Edge.
But wood has its drawbacks. It deteriorates over time, especially when the wood isn't properly maintained. It also can warp and expand. And a wood deck that hasn't been properly sanded can splinter.
Composite decking, on the other hand, does not deteriorate as rapidly, requires no sanding or staining and feels softer and smoother under foot. Composite decking also can be manipulated during installation so that it curves and bends, giving users additional design options.
Several composite manufacturers, including Trex, TimberTech and Veranda, tout the no-splinters advantage by showing in their brochures pictures of people on decks shoeless, and even lying down on their composite decks sans beach towel.
And unlike wood, composite decking comes in a variety of colors so that homeowners can create a custom deck that matches their home. Composite deck manufacturers have created styles that simulate the look of wood grain. Trex has a line called Brasilia that looks like exotic tropical hardwood.
The biggest selling point with composite decking: it requires far less maintenance than wood, said Edge. Composite decks can be cleaned with soap and water or commercial cleaners made for composite materials.
Redwood decks can last about 10 to 15 years — and that's with annual maintenance that includes pressure washing, sanding and staining. Many composite deck manufacturers back their products with a 25-year warranty.
For some consumers, the drawback of opting for composite is cost. "It's more expensive upfront," said Edge, "as much as 30 percent more than wood."
The savings come over time because composite decks last longer and require less maintenance. Composite decking manufacturers estimate that over 10 years, it costs just under $3,000 to maintain wood (pressure washing, sanding, staining or painting) compared to $1,650 for composite.
Planning, research key
Homeowners considering adding a deck to their landscape need to do some homework, said Edge. Keep in mind the following:
Consider the amount of space needed for your deck and its placement. Ample space means more possibilities, including multilevel decks with areas carved out for different functions such as dining, lounging or planter boxes for contained gardening.
Do you want the deck to be attached to the house, or do you want it to be free-standing, like a gazebo?
Regardless of size, a deck needs adequate framing and foundation. Don't skimp on that construction aspect, Edge warns.
"One of the biggest mistakes I've seen is with deck builders who try to save money on the foundation," he said. Lack of support, combined with too many people, can cause a collapse.
Remember to use the proper screws for your deck material. For example, composite decks use a different type of screw than wood decks, so the metal and materials will not have an adverse reaction such as rusting.
A final note: while people with a bit more do-it-yourself knowhow probably can tackle building their own simple deck, others should consider hiring a contractor. When screening contractors, check their licensing status with the Contractors State Licensing Board, www.cslb.ca.gov or 800-321-2752.
"The bottom line," said Edge, "is if you do it right from the start, you won't have headaches later on."
Bee staff writer Donna Birch can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2309.