Is One Deck Board Going to Be Cooler Than Another?

 

Is one composite deck board cooler than another?

Is one composite deck board cooler than another?

This question comes up frequently on the DeckAdvisor.com blog so I thought it would make sense to address the issue as a separate topic. My own clients ask me if one deck board is going to be cooler than another quite a bit, too.

No independent lab or authority does temperate testing that compares Brand X board versus Brand Y board to determine the heat they absorb under normal summer sunlight so unfortunately, there is no quantitative scientific data to fall back on. I may try to do some testing myself on the major brands and publish the results in Professional Deck Builder magazine in the future–we shall see.

First, let’s set a reasonable expectation for what dictates “too hot to walk on” with bare feet. I don’t know what the answer is but I can tell you that a toddler is probably going to have a lower tolerance than a 35 year old who walks on the beach frequently. Personally, I have walked on many surfaces with bare feet that were uncomfortable from sand, to wood, to concrete because it was just plain hot outside! People seem to forget that when it’s 105 degrees at 2PM and the sun is blasting, it’s not really a pleasant time to be outside–regardless of what you are walking or sitting on. A modern man made deck surface seems to be held to a higher standard than other products for some reason that I can’t quite put my finger on.

A deck’s surface temperature is a factor of the heat the deck boards absorb and retain. Much of this absorption is relative to the board’s color. A dark color will absorb more than a light color–it’s physics. For example, under the same conditions, Trex Vintage Lantern (perhaps the darkest deck board color going) is going to feel hotter under foot than Trex Rope Swing (a tan, sand color). This is not to say Rope Swing will be cool to the touch, but comparatively, it will be cooler than Vintage Lantern. Heck, if you painted a plain old pressure treated deck board the same color as Vintage Lantern, I bet it would be pretty darn hot too!

No man made deck boards are designed from the ground up to be remain cool in the heat. It’s just not something that the manufacturer’s focus on at this point.

So…the definitive is answer I can give you is this:

When the sun is blasting your deck (or patio, or driveway, or lawn) it’s probably going to be hot and not pleasant. Lighter colors are usually a little cooler than darker colors.

 

 

 

Goodbye Wood Deck Framing… Hello Steel Deck Framing

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Chances are if you have a deck in your backyard–even if it’s a newer synthetic deck–the underlying support framing is pressure treated wood.

Pressure treated lumber is cheap, readily available and using it is a no brainer for the average contractor. “I’m going to build a deck, I’m going to use pressure treated wood” they automatically think to themselves. I’ve built hundreds of decks using pressure treated lumber, but I started getting increasingly frustrated by it.

The wood being harvested these days from forests is “new growth” wood for the most part. This means the trees are relatively young before they are cut down. There are barely growth rings on lumber we get these days (you know the number of rings a tree has is an indicator of its age, right?) and the more growth rings, the denser the board and the stronger and straighter it will be.

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You can visibly see the growth rings in this tree however this is a young tree. The rings would be much denser in an older tree.

Older lumber was much denser than the lumber we get today and was generally of a higher quality. Trees can only grow so fast and demand is high, so we get what we can get at this point.

Aside from the wood being “young”, the pressure treating process has been changed significantly in the last 10 years and chemistry used in the treating process has been cleaned up to meet environmental concerns. The lumber mills will tell you the new processes are better than the old ones, but ask any carpenter and they’ll all agree the new lumber is terrible. Not a little worse…Absolutely terrible in comparison.

I got tired of dealing with the unpredictable characteristics of pressure treated lumber. Sometimes it comes soaking wet, sometimes it’s dry as a bone. Sometimes the boards shrink a little when they dry out. Sometimes they don’t shrink at all. Despite our best efforts to frame a precise pressure-treated frame, we simply cannot control what the wood will do as it seasons or dries out in it’s final position as part of deck.

Pressure Treated Framing Moves at will

Look at how the deck boards are ridging at the intersection (Click the photo to Zoom in). This is not sloppy craftsmanship but the result of three different underlying framing members shrinking and crowning different amounts. This was glass flat upon completion of the job, but the wood does what the wood wants to do!

This unpredictability means that a deck can develop dips and dives, and deck boards attached to the framing move out of plane creating raised and ugly joints. It’s frustrating to see a beautiful deck compromised by the irregularity of inconsistent framing lumber six months down the road.

In a quest to always provide the best product to my customers, I’ve completely abandoned pressure treated lumber in all of our new deck projects in lieu of light gauge steel framing (LGS). Just a few of the benefits of steel deck framing are:

  • Lighter in weight but stronger than wood
  • Wildly increased joist spans mean less beams and less footings. This is a really big deal on raised decks with patios underneath.
  • More design flexibility. If I need a longer span I can change the parameters of joist from gauge, flange width, and web depth. With wood, we are stuck with 2×8 through 2x12s.
  • Perfect material. Every joist is made by a machine so there are no inconsistences from joist to joist like wood. Sometimes two wood  2x10s can measure up to a half inch differently!
  • Perfectly flat, level and square decks. The consistency of the material means that everything is extremely precise.
  • No shrinking, warping, twisting or shape changing.
  • Very little waste. All the steel is delivered to the job site pre-cut so it just has to be assembled.
  • When completed, it’s nearly impossible to tell the framing is not wood.
Steel Deck Framing in New Jersey

This multi-level deck is looks different now, but look at the photo below to see it when it’s finished and  it looks no different from what you’d expect.

Steel Deck framing provides a glass smooth deck surface

This deck surface is not just flat. It’s perfectly flat and will stay that way forever unlike wood which wouldn’t start or stay this flat.

This is a steel framed deck. Can you tell?

 

 

More and more leading deck builders across the country are abandoning wood in favor of steel framing because there are very few downsides to using steel. The main roadblocks to getting started with steel for most contractors are:
  • Lack of knowledge or understanding of steel framing methods, materials and techniques
  • Resistance to change because they are comfortable in their old ways
  • Cost. Most think it’s more expensive than it is or too labor intensive. It can be more expensive and it can be more labor intensive in some circumstances but not all. Usually the minimal cost difference is well worth the value of the finished product.
  • It’s not locally available. Nonsense! Light Gauge Steel framing is available everywhere. If there’s a commercial building in your town, you can bet it’s got LGS in it.

This is a steel frame deck, too.

Building a Pergola…Is there a Better Way than Wood?

Wood Pergola with Stone Bases in Bergen County, NJ

Wood pergolas are traditional, but maintenance can be difficult.

 

Here’s a contractor asking a question to other contractors about replacing a wood pergola with a low maintenance alternative. This guy is a legitimate “all around” contractor, and he doesn’t even know, so you’re probably wondering too:

Gotta replace a rotted Pergola and wondered if there are any worthwhile alternative materials besides wood? Its rather large………probably 30 ft wide and 12 ft long and the rafters are attached to the house into pockets in the brick. Its supported by 3 round synthetic columns with 2 doubled 2 x 8’s for the beam. The rafters are 2 x 8 around 12 ft long. Cedar would be my lumber choice, but my customer wants to be informed about any synthetic alternatives that wont rot. It is painted to match the house color. I have read some about fiberglass Pergolas, but not sure about the details and availability. I dont think PVC(Azek or something similar) would be strong enough to span 12 ft like that. Any suggestions?

Wood Pergolas

Wood is the traditional choice for pergolas. Depending on your locale, the most common lumber species used are either cedar or redwood. The benefit of using wood to build a pergola is that it’s typically much less expensive than synthetic options and it’s relatively easy to customize on site. With wood, you can really do anything you could image design-wise.

The major downside of wood is that it requires maintenance in the form of both cleaning and staining or painting. Staining or painting a wood pergola is tedious work at best and it borders on something that even professional painters don’t like to do because it’s so time consuming to do. Unlike a deck with one surface to clean and finish, nearly every side of every piece of wood has to be addressed with a pergola so it’s slow going. Really slow going.

Vinyl

Vinyl pergola in Ramsey New Jersey

A vinyl pergola installed over a deck.

Vinyl pergolas are popular these days because they look good, are extremely easy to maintain, and are cost effective relative to custom fabricating a wood pergola. Vinyl pergolas come in kit form and are assembled quickly much like an erector set. Most kits come in a variety of sizes and are expandable or even customizable if need be.

Maintenance is simple,  just like a vinyl fence. Powerwash it with a good detergent as needed and you’re done.

The downside to vinyl is that you can have whatever color you like as long as it’s white. Color options for vinyl pergolas are limited to white and buff or almond for the most part. If you want a custom color, look for fiberglass models.

Fiberglass

Fiberglass can be painted to nearly any color.

Fiberglass pergolas are similar in all aspects to vinyl pergolas except they must be painted either before, during, or after installation. This is a benefit for some people as they’d like to match a color on there home or simulate a darker stained wood color in lieu of the standard white that vinyl provides.

Fiberglass pergola kits are typically more expensive than vinyl kits and are considered to be an upgrade from vinyl.

Pergolas are great outdoor structures and add a lot of character to any yard. My company, Bergen Decks, installs a fair amount of pergolas as they are becoming requested more and more by homeowners.

In fact, I was interviewed on a television show called HouseSmarts to discuss pergolas and popular options, so rather than read, you can watch! Check out the interview on YouTube here.

No Maintenance Decking

So you’re in the market for a new deck and you want to install a decking product with no maintenance.

STOP RIGHT THERE…

All rights reserved by TheMuseCalliope

All exterior building products require maintenance of some sort of another.

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “NO MAINTENANCE” decking or railing. Even the most expensive, super duper top of the line synthetic products require cleaning to keep them looking good.

I have come across many poor souls who have called me to replace a composite deck that’s not that old because it looks like hell. Mostly because they completely neglected it for it’s entire life, but in some cases, they were told by whoever they bought it from that it was “maintenance free”. This bothers me deeply. To me, it’s akin to a car dealer telling a little old lady to buy a car because “this one never needs gas.”

There are plenty of dealers and contractors out there that use the words “maintenance free” way too freely. It’s a complete lie.

Whether it be decking or railing or siding, you have to perform some kind of routine maintenance on them. In many cases, it’s just cleaning.

Typically, the more you pay for a deck or rail product, the better it will perform long term. This means less frequent cleanings and when you finally do go to clean it, it will be require a lot less elbow grease.

The original composites (which are still on the market today) are probably the highest “low maintenance” product you can install while the newer, much more expensive PVC boards are the lowest maintenance option at the moment.

Let’s face it. Birds will poop on anything. They don’t discriminate. So until someone invents a self-cleaning deck board or railing system, you’re going to have to go out there and clean up the poop!

PVC Deck Boards or Capped Composite?

Here’s a very common question I saw on a construction forum I frequent. This was asked by an electrical contractor with no experience with decking, so he’s probably a lot like you.

I am having a deck built in January (Design, deposit, etc is already done). Right now I am slated to have Timbertech XLM Sandridge (color chosen due to some performance issues with the darker colors) decking and White Radiance Rail. From what I have read here, I went with a Timbertech Premier contractor. I just got a call from the deck contractor today about the new Timbertech Earthwood products. He wanted to let me know about it in case I wanted to change from Timbertech XLM Sandridge decking. It sounded like he thought the new Earthwood Evolutions was a better product. He mentioned that it withstood the manufacturer’s tests of scratching, fading, and spills better than all of the other lines. What are your thoughts?

— electronics4lif

As of this writing, there are three major manufacturers producing “mainstream” capped composite deck boards:

  • Fiberon Horizons (Fiberon was the first to market with this technology)
  • Trex Transcends
  • TimberTech Earthwood Evolutions

A capped composite board is a two-part deckboard with a traditional composite (wood flour and plastic mixed together) core and a very thin veneer (usually about 1/16″ thick) of PVC-like material wrapped over the core that is the surface you see when you look at the deck. Manufacturers are using this technology to produce less expensive, better performing deck boards, however their methods are all slightly different. Prior to the capped composite boards coming to market, you were either going to get a true composite board or a 100% PVC board.  Traditionally, composite was less expensive but always has performance issues, while PVC was more expensive, but had some color limitations due to PVC blending technologies. Here’s a video where I explain the different types of synthetic deck boards.

Fiberon was the first company to get capped composite off the ground and into the market with any gusto. Horizons has been proving itself as a solid, reliable board for a few years now and it has been embraced by many top deck contractors I know around the country. Fiberon fully encapsulates or wraps the board with capstock which is important. The less water that gets into the wood particles under the capstock, the better for long term performance. Unfortunately, the cap is compromised when Fiberon cuts the groove into the board. It’s not a deal breaker, but it would be nice to see the capstock seal as much of the board as possible.

Trex saw the success of Fiberon’s Horizon line and introduced Transcends to the marketplace as their capstock product. While Transcends has a very nice deep grain in the cap, there are some things about Transcends that worries me as a deck builder. The cap does not encapsulate the entire board leaving the entire underside exposed to moisture. Also, the cap does not seem to be laminated as well as other manufacturers are doing it. In fact, I have seen boards come right off the truck with the capstock delaminating and peeling off. Trex has been successful marketing Transcends, but as we’ve seen before with Trex’s products, they have had major quality control issues that have spawned serious warranty issues for thousands of homeowners. While I know one or two reputable deck builders that swear by Transcends, I know 20 or more that won’t touch the stuff.

TimberTech, as usual, waited in the wings to see if the capstock concept was going to take off before investing in it. In 2011, TimberTech replaced their hugely successful Earthwoods line of composite decking with a capped composite called Earthwoods Evolutions. Evolutions is a fully encapsulated board whether it’s a square-edged board or a grooved board which I like. They also nailed the aesthetic producing boards that are pleasing to the eye. The board is too new to make a judgement of performance on, but based on TimberTech’s history with rolling out new products and the testing they do, I feel good about Earthwood Evolutions.

So, which is better? PVC deck products like TimberTech XLM, Azek Deck, Fiberon Professional or the capstock brethren I detailed above?

The answer is: It depends.

I’ve installed miles and miles of PVC decking over the last few years because if I had to choose between a true composite (watch my video) and PVC, PVC wins every time because it out performed composite in every category even though it was more expensive. Now that capped composites are proving themselves, it really boils down to aesthetics and cost. PVC still has the edge in terms of aesthetics over capped composites, but capped composites are slightly less expensive and may have even better cap technology than some of the original PVC capped products.

What? Capped composites “may have even better cap technology”? Did he just say that? Yes…I did.

All deck products evolve just like computer technology so new product lines are usually always better (at least historically) than the ones they replaced. For instance, the cap technology in some of TimberTech’s earlier XLM lines has remained unchanged for at least three years now. I’m pretty sure the chemical technology in the cap of Earthwoods Evolutions is more advanced because it’s newer. Every manufacturer learns from each generation of decking they produce and build on it. They learn what works and what doesn’t.

This is not to say PVC is obsolete, because it’s not. Capstock technology has virtually assured the disappearance of plain old composite decking by providing a nice aesthetic with much, much, much better long term performance.

Radius Decks and Why Curves are Expensive

 

Image courtesy of Matt Breyer, Breyer Construction and Landscape

Deck manufacturers love to use decks with curves in them (ie, a radius) in their advertisements because they look so damn cool. A deck with a curve or multiple curves in its framing is just plain sexy. Radius decks are far from typical and they just scream out “my deck is SO much better than yours.”

Often, new clients come to me at my Bergen County, New Jersey deck building company,  and, because they are savvy deck buyers, they’ll have some preconceived ideas about what features they’d like to include in their new deck.  One of the first things I hear commonly is  “we’d like to put some curves into the deck” and they’ll pull out one of those really cool ads from a magazine and say “can you build it kind of like this?” By this point, I’m just thrilled that these nice folks have at least put a little thought into the upcoming project, but then I have to drop the bomb. You know, the kind of bomb that knocks a customer off their feet…

I’ll be the first deck contractor to tell you that radius decks are awesome. They literally become showcase decks for the client and the deck builder (and sometimes the manufacturer). The only hitch is that radius decks are much more complex to design and build than a normal, angular deck. This complexity raises the cost to the client to the point where, all of a sudden, putting that radius into the design isn’t really that important anymore for most clients. Just like how a car company always puts the fully optioned car in their ads with the big shiny 18″ wheels that cost extra, deck manufacturers do the same thing in their ads.

So why are radius decks so expensive? I mean, it’s still framing and decking and railing, right?

The short answer is sort of. When a client wants a radius deck project they’ve purchased a one way ticket into a very expensive theme park I’ve nicknamed  “Customland”.

I think this is the door that takes you to "Customland."

First off, decks designed with radii (plural of radius) require a lot more foundation work (ie, footings) and a lot more rough framing work compared to an angular deck. This equates to more labor and materials and slows down the deck’s construction considerably. I don’t care if you hire Norm Abram himself to build a radius deck, believe you me, there is going to be a lot of head scratching and figuring going during the layout and framing process. Whereas an angular deck could be framed in three days, a similar radius deck might take five or six and could require double the materials with lots of waste. In Customland, this is par for the course so be prepared.

This set of curved stair treads takes significantly longer to build than a straight set of stairs. Image courtesy of Breyer Construction and Landscape

Secondly, installing the decking and trim boards gets tricky. Really tricky. Really, really tricky. In fact, many times, it’s trial and error for even the best deck contractors. Synthetic deck and trim boards must be heated in order for it to bend (wood presents its own issues we won’t get into) to follow the curves of the framing. This is not a scientific process by any means. Even the day’s weather can wreak havoc on the best methods. The tighter the radius, the more difficult the bending gets. It’s not uncommon for a deck builder to ruin many expensive boards just to get one that is just right. In Customland you really can’t worry about throwing out $500 in product  to get one good one.

And last but not least, the railings. Without getting into the math of a radius, I can tell you that every simple curve has an equivalent numerical radius. With this number in hand, the deck builder must build, or most likely order, custom railings to match the radius. Most premium synthetic railing systems can be special ordered (“special order” is the most frequently used word in Customland by the way) directly from the manufacturer to fit the shape of the deck. These railings are much more costly than a similar straight railing, they are more difficult to install, and because the deck contractor only gets one crack at making the cuts on site, the pucker factor is 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. One “oopsy” and that $600 railing section gets chucked into to the dumpster and it’ll take another 3 weeks to get a new one. In Customland, that “oopsy” is usually built into the cost of the project.

You might be able to take the risk out of the equation for the deck builder by offering to pay time and materials on a complex project. This way, you will only pay for the actual time and materials invested into the project. Otherwise, most deck contractors, myself included, will charge a very hefty premium due to all of the risk they assume by building a radius deck. They have no idea if they’ll make the bends on the first shot or on the tenth shot, so you’ll be charged for all 1o boards and the time it takes to bend them even if they get it right on the third board.

By now, you’re probably completely discouraged about asking your contractor about a radius deck, but you shouldn’t be. You should just be aware that introducing curves into your deck project will add a significant cost. That being said, if you pony up the money to build a radius deck, it’s safe to say that you will probably have the coolest deck in your town.

5 Ways to Become an Expert Deck Buyer

First, let me make the assumption that you will be hiring a competent deck contractor to complete your project. Our goal here is not to create another DIY “How to build a deck on a Saturday with three buddies and a 24-pack”. Instead, we want to empower you with knowledge that will help you get a high quality, enduring deck project built by a reputable deck builder.

  1. DO A LITTLE HOMEWORK: I would much rather meet with a prospective client that has done at least some cursory research about decks. I don’t expect you to know too much, but it’s extremely helpful if you can lead me, the deck designer and builder, down the right path so I have an idea of what you think you want to do. Photos are great. Maybe you saw a picture online of a staircase style or shape you liked. Benches, custom railing designs, pergolas and shade structures are SO much easier for me to integrate into your custom design if I know what style you like.

    Please...Share your budget with your Deck Contractor

  2. ONLY DO A “LITTLE” HOMEWORK: The worst thing I encounter in meeting new clients is the person who has done so much online research about decks that they’ve literally become drunk on completely inaccurate or outdated information. The internet is a great resource, but it can be dangerous in that so much of the information is just bad. The lay person usually doesn’t have the overall knowledge of the big picture to process all of this data. Plus, you are hiring me because I am an expert. When you use your the lawyer or accountant, do you argue with his professional opinion? You are paying me because I spend a lot of time educating myself. Get your money’s worth and heed my advice.
  3. COME UP WITH A BUDGET: I’ve got some news for you. Believe it or not, you are going to have to pay to have us build your project. Yes…I know. It’s unfathomable to think I have to charge you, but I do. But seriously, homeowners tend to guard the budget they have set for a project like gold bullion. This is simply ridiculous and it wastes a lot of time–both yours and mine. In order for me to design your deck project efficiently, I need to know if you are in the market for a Ford or a Ferrari. I can design anything you want, but what’s the point if you have $15,000 set aside for the project, but I designed you a $75,000 deck you fell in love with but can’t pay for? If you tell me your budget, I’m going to give the most bang for your buck. Think about it. Do you really think that reputable deck contractors get to where they are by ripping people off?
  4. ESTABLISH A SCOPE OF WORK: You may not be in the market for a true custom designed deck. Heck, most people still hire us to build “rectangles” with one set of steps. We love those jobs because they will always be our bread and butter. If you are in the market for simple deck or a “rectangle” as we call them, you might be calling anyone and everyone you can find to give you a price. While that is the topic of an entirely different story, you need to make sure you are asking everyone “bidding” (I hate that word…it just lacks value) to include the exact same materials and methods. Here’s why. A deck builder like me is going to do things the right way, using the best methods, and is probably going to do things a plain ol’ contractor never even thought of doing. Write it out. We want X decking, Y railing, this kind of framing, this many footings, etc… This way you’ll have an apples to apples comparison.
  5. PRETEND YOU ARE GOING ON A DATE: Hiring a contractor is kind of like going on a blind date of sorts. The first time you meet the contractor, you have to remember it’s his first time meeting you too. An established deck contractor is not living and dying based on hiring or not hiring them for your project, so it’s important that you make a good impression so that they will want to work on your project. I’ll tell you a little secret…sometimes we (contractors) get such a bad vibe from a prospective client during the first meeting that we wouldn’t  take the project if you paid us double for it. I could write pages about things people have said to me (probably unaware of how tactless their comments were in their defense). Be cordial. Be honest. And…be respectful. You’d be surprised how far that will get you.

What is DeckAdvisor.com?

PVC Deck in Ramsey, New Jersey

Building a modern deck these days isn’t easy. Most “carpenters” think building a deck is simple. Sure, nailing 2×10’s together is not rocket science, but there is so much more to designing and building a deck these days! Your average carpenter really has no clue because ignorance is bliss. There are thousands of decking and railing products on the market right now. How the heck are you, the consumer, supposed to decide what to install? I can tell you this much, your average general contractor probably knows less than you do about alternative deck and rail products like composites and PVC and taking an uninformed recommendation can be a very costly mistake. I can’t tell you how many times this happens.

How do I know? Because I see these guys at the supply house asking incredibly stupid (basic) questions about products they are trying to BS their way through signing a contract with some unsuspecting client. Do you really want to write a check to contractor that can’t even pronounce the name of the product properly? It pains me to witness this and I see it all the time.

The team of professional deck builders at DeckAdvisor.com are experts in deck building industry. We specialize in designing and building custom decks using the most cutting edge products and techniques. We aren’t installing kitchens one day, painting the next day, or installing doors like some contractors who may build the odd deck here or there. We take deck building seriously–it’s our livelihood. Probably more seriously than we should (but that’s really good for you!)

Let’s put it to you this way….

If you had a brain tumor, you'd hire a brain surgeon, right?

If you had a brain tumor, would you go to a general practitioner or a brain surgeon who has performed the surgery you need hundreds of times and is experienced? Well, what we realized a long time ago is that a majority of the issues we hear about are directly related to homeowners unknowingly putting their trust (and money) in a contractor was ignorant. We don’t want that to happen ever again. You don’t deserve it.

DeckAdvisor.com is committed to providing you, the consumer, with real information about design, decking products, code compliance, and deck construction techniques that will help you make an informed decision when selecting a deck contractor and your decking and railing products.

Feel free to ask us questions. We’ll do our best to give you an answer with no agendas attached other than making sure your best interests are served.