Wood's not the only word when you're building a deck

About 80 percent of homeowners who install decks use wood, according to Consumer Reports. But the latest tests show that synthetic planks can offer lasting good looks with less upkeep. Some stains can trim the work required to maintain wood.

Consumer Reports recently published the results of its one-year exposure tests of wood, composite, plastic and aluminum decking. They found that some synthetic decking didn't make the grade for rigidity, and some tonier wood products looked the worse for wear.

CHOOSING DECKING MATERIAL -- Consumers can save hundreds by replacing decking themselves, as the material alone can be expensive. Consumer Reports looked at the pros and cons of each common decking material. All prices are per

100 square feet.

Many people prefer wood, but it tends to change color, crack and absorb stains if it isn't restained. Prices vary depending on the type -- pricier options include cedar, redwood and tropical hardwoods.

Iron Woods Ipe, $800, and Thompsonized Southern Yellow Pine, $225, stood out in tests because both were slightly better than cedar at keeping their original color.

Composite, which blends ground-up wood and plastic, has the look of wood without the need to stain. Composite decking is improving with added ultraviolet and mildew inhibitors. However, some brands offer far less resistance to slipping, stains and mildew. Symmatrix, $525, Verdanda, $425, and Tamko Evergrain, $525, scored highest overall in Consumer Reports tests.

Plastic is best for resisting the elements without staining, but some can look cheap, some are slippery, and all sagged more than wood in the tests. For toughness with easy upkeep, consider Eon, $600, and Azek, $625. These brands resisted color change, staining, mildew and slipperiness.

Aluminum stood out for its toughness, rigidity, slip resistance and color, which should last indefinitely. The material's textured finish added traction in the tests. LockDry, $700, aced all tests, but the metallic look isn't for everyone, and the product is pricey.

STAINS FOR WOOD DECKING -- Wood decks need to be stained every one to three years. Flood Solid Color Deck & Siding, $21, was top-rated in Consumer Reports tests. After three years of exposure to the outdoors, its opaque finish looked and protected best. Other opaque finishes that performed well include McCloskey Storm Coat Deck & Siding 7953, $16, and Thompson's Water Seal Deck & House, $20.

For a semitransparent finish, consider Sikkens Cetol SRD 1708902, $27, and True Value Woodsman UV 7338872, $20, which performed comparably, although Sikkens only requires one coat. These are especially good choices for pre-2004 decks that typically used lumber treated with toxic chemicals, because semipermanent stains tend to seal as they penetrate and are less likely to flake as they age.

Cracks, dirt, and mildew are obvious tip-offs that it's time to refinish a deck. But signs of an unsafe deck often are less obvious.

If a deck was built before 2004, it's probably made of chromated copper arsenate lumber. Regular refinishing helps seal in the toxic arsenic that this decking contains. If the finish is flaking, Consumer Reports suggests calling a pro equipped to safely refinish it, removing the old finish, dust and debris.

SAFETY FIRST -- Here are other critical safety checks Consumer Reports recommends to make on any deck:

Be sure railings and banisters aren't loose.

Check that all steps are securely anchored to the risers.

Check the structure, looking for rot and insect damage beneath the deck platform.

Help prevent mildew and the slip hazard it causes by regularly cleaning away leaves and other yard waste.

Hammer down nails and tighten screws and bolts as needed.

Safeguard children and pets by keeping the spaces between the railing balustrades to 4 inches or less.

Prevent fires by putting a nonflammable pad between a grill and the decking, and keeping heaters and fire pits from contacting the deck.

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