Decks North Pole AK
North Pole, AK
If you're planning to build a new deck or replace one this summer, you'll have a number of options when it comes to decking materials. Pressure-treated lumber remains the most widely available and least expensive material for deck builders. But environmentally friendly alternatives "naturally rot-resistant wood species, wood composites, plastics and aluminum" are growing in availability and popularity.
These materials are attractive decking alternatives not only due to their greener pedigree, but also because they offer durability and low maintenance. Better still, alternatives to pressure-treated lumber can be a smart choice financially. After all, pressure-treated lumber might be half the price and last 15 years, but if an environmentally friendly decking material lasts 30 years or longer, why not go green?
So before you build, check out the following options. You just may decide a green deck is in your future.
Wood composite decking is made from recycled plastic and wood waste materials, making it an environmentally friendly option.
Real, P.C. Wood
Long before the chemical industry attempted to create decking lumber that would last more than a few years, Mother Nature already had the problem solved. Plenty of untreated wood species "both foreign and domestic" can last as long as or longer than pressure-treated lumber.
However, the way humans harvest and regenerate the trees from which that lumber is milled has become a problem politically, environmentally and economically. But there are solutions.
Right now, cambara is the species we're selling for decking, says Bob Provencher of Maine Coast Lumber in York, Maine, which distributes throughout New England. It's very rot resistant, good looking and not on anyone's list of endangered species.
According to Provencher, cambara looks and performs a lot like the much more expensive, and environmentally questionable, mahoganies. It costs about $28 for a 16-foot length of standard (5/4-by-6-inch) decking lumber, which is roughly twice what you'd pay for the same pressure treated lumber. But knot-free, straight-grained cambara contains no man-made toxins, and so far, it's being harvested in South America in an environmentally conscientious manner.
That's the key to using imported lumber on a decking project: knowing what happens to it between the forest and your backyard.
Provencher, who has been in the lumber business for more than 20 years, says that in the past many tropical species started out as politically correct but became questionable due to overharvesting, labor problems, local political despotism and a host of other issues peculiar to the international lumber trade. This happened to Spanish cedar, an inexpensive decking wood, about 10 years ago, and a Brazilian hardwood called ip, which was popular until just a few years ago. Now both species are controversial accusations of slave labor have tainted ip and because of that, as well as overharvesting, they are less desirable and more expensive than cambara.
For customers who are less concerned about the high-end look of richly colored, straight-grained tropical species like cambara, Provencher recommends domestic, naturally rot-resistant species. White cedar makes a perfectly good decking lumber, he says of a species common in Appalachian states from the Carolinas northward. It too is nearly twice as expensive as pressure treated and does contain knots, sap pockets, wavy grain and some variations in color. But once screwed down, it is a stable wood and has served generations of house carpenters well. It's also free of the politically incorrect label and has acceptable counterparts on the West Coast (western red cedar) and in the South (juniper or cypress).
Keeping track of acceptable and unacceptable green decking woods is a full-time job for groups like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. For decades, CITES has worked with trade groups and consumers, monitoring the trade of lumber, as well as wild fauna and flora, between countries. You can check their website for information. In addition, you can make sure you purchase only from retailers that sell certified lumber, such as lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), a nonprofit organization that encourages responsible management of the world's forests.
Wood and plastic seem unlikely partners in an environmentally friendly building project. But when that plastic comes from domestic recycling programs (milk containers, plastic grocery bags and the like) and the wood comes from what would otherwise be a lumber mill's waste byproducts, composites become a smart green option for decking materials.
This category has really gone crazy, says Maureen Murray, spokeswoman for Trex Co., a Virginia-based pioneer in the manufacture and use of wood composites. According to Murray, a 30 percent annual increase in sales has been the trend, and the material's popularity appears to have plenty of room to grow impressive for a building product in its infancy just 10 years ago.
Still, progress isn't cheap. Wood composites today are usually around 75 to 85 percent more expensive than pressure-treated deck lumber, or about $26 for that 5/4-by-6-inch by 16-foot decking plank. But Murray says customers are still opting for composites, and for more than just environmental concerns. It's really a matter of people's lifestyles, she says.
Wood composites last 25 years or more. They require far less maintenance than naturally rot-resistant wood or pressure-treated lumber; essentially, a power washing every year or two will suffice. They're water-, moisture- and insect-resistant, free of knots, will not splinter or crack, and can maintain their even, knot-free coloring for years. Touchups and preservatives aren't required.
More than 20 companies offer some variation on the wood composite theme. Correct Building Products of Biddeford, Maine, for instance, uses polypropylene plastic in its composite for CorrectDeck. Most others use polyethylene. Using polypropylene makes it more durable and stronger, says Martin Grohman, president of Correct Building Products, which has been a leader in innovative composites, developing items such as molded deck railings, a wood-grain appearance in decking and improved color options.
Composite manufacturers point out the growing list of innovations, including slip-proof surfaces, less heat retention in the boards (which means decks are cooler on hot, sunny days) and more variety in colors. So before you buy, it may be useful to visit the websites of several manufacturers to find the style or product that will work best for you.
Deck builders who aren't squeamish about the production methods used to create what's underfoot will welcome two non-wood alternatives plastic and aluminum decking materials. After all, once installed, these materials present no toxic impact to the local environment and have an expected life span of 50 years or more. It's arguable that the production of aluminum and plastics may not be good for the local manufacturing environment, but if the finished products are manufactured in accordance with federal, state and local environmental laws, why not consider synthetic materials green?
The popularity of aluminum has really taken off in the past year or two, says Tim Osby, an owner of AridDek of Gainesville, Ga. In addition to the material's durability, the chance to create a watertight decking surface is a big attraction, Osby says. Also, being a fireproof surface has proven to be an important characteristic among customers living in wildfire-prone areas of California.
Of course, the cost of aluminum decking is significantly higher than any wood-based option. Wood composites are priced at roughly $3.25 per square foot, while aluminum decking costs around $6.50 per square foot. Installation costs shouldn't be much more than a wood deck because aluminum extrusions can be cut, drilled and nailed in much the same way wood products are worked. Aluminum is available in a variety of colors and comes with a textured surface to minimize poor footing.
Plastic decking also promises a long life for your deck, with minimal maintenance. However, sorting out which type of plastic decking material is best for your project may take some time.
Plastic decking comes in high-density polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride or vinyl, or with various amounts of these materials in the finished product. Some plastic lumbers are made from pure virgin plastic, others use only recycled plastic and still others use some combination of the two. Each manufacturer says its formulation will result in the best deck possible, and unless you're a chemical engineer, it's difficult to discuss the pros and cons of any particular formulation. Additionally, most plastic decking has been around for less than 15 years and its long-term performance in real-life conditions is still being observed.
Ultimately, then, it's important to remember that many plastics do, over time, sustain at least surface damage from the sun's ultraviolet rays combined with foot traffic and other degrading factors. Therefore, it's important to pay attention to the warranty offer, especially when the product costs between $5 and $7 per square foot. Warranties range from 10-year unconditional to lifetime conditional.
Finding plastic decking also might be difficult in your area. The industry is still mostly small, privately owned companies, says John Robinson, product manager for The Plastic Lumber Co. in Akron, Ohio. Many companies like Plastic Lumber ship factory-direct to customers outside their immediate distribution area. Alternatively, some lumberyards can order plastic lumber for you, although most national chain hardware/lumber distributors don't deal with solid plastic lumber.
When evaluating environmentally friendly alternatives for your deck, there are many issues to consider, both pros and cons. But by assessing your needs first, setting a budget and asking lots of questions, you can make the right selection for your home.
Ken Textor wrote about efficient irrigation systems in the March/April 2005 issue.