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How to Choose Composite Decking

Simplify shopping for composite decking by weighing the importance of seven key issues, among them budget, sunlight, moisture, building codes and the cost of extras.

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composite deckingFamily Handyman

Many Options for Composite Lumber Decking

Composite lumber decking is a great low-maintenance alternative to wood. The composite decking industry endured some growing pains early on, but materials continue to improve and the number of quality products on the market increases each year. Ten years ago, there were 10 choices. Now there are more than 50 composite decking products available. One common brand is Trex decking.

You’ll also find cellular PVC and plastic lumber (high-density polyethylene, or HDPE) decking that installs much the same as composite. We’ll focus on composite deck boards in this article, but much of this information applies to PVC and plastic as well. The biggest frustration you’ll encounter is choosing the best composite lumber decking among all the styles, colors and brands. This article will help you narrow your options and simplify your shopping for the best prices.

It may be low-maintenance, but it still needs to be cleaned. Learn the best way for how to clean Trex decking.

Here’s How to Install Hidden Deck Fasteners:

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Composite Decking In a Nutshell

Choose composite lumber decking based on your budget; style and color preferences; fastener choice; and site and code requirements. Quality composite decking, like Trex decking, is two to three times costlier than pressure-treated wood but lasts two to three times longer.

Be aware: Just because your local home center carries a product doesn’t mean it’s been approved for use where you live, or for every application. Check with local building officials before you buy. Each system has different fastening and installation requirements. If you ignore the manufacturer’s installation instructions, you’ll void the warranty. Here’s why composite decking makes sense for deck rebuilds.

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composite deck wood railingsFamily Handyman

Factor 1: Are You on a Tight Budget?

Installing a wood rather than composite railing reduces deck costs. But wood is loads more maintenance. Composite decking, such as Trex decking, costs $3 to $7 per sq. ft. ($1.50 to $5 per lin. ft.). Most lumberyards and home centers stock one or two brands and can special order others. Most brands of the basic composites are similar and will perform just fine. The differences come down to design, colors, mix of plastic and wood, installation systems and texture.

If you’re OK with a limited palette of colors; a simple, repetitive grain pattern; and a smooth or combed finish, you’ll find plenty of low maintenance, lower-cost products that meet your needs. Composite lumber decking usually comes in 12-, 16- and 20-ft. planks, and railing components in 12- and 16-ft. increments.

Pro tip: Planning your deck design around these measurements can save you money and cut waste.

You can also keep your costs down by using a system that installs with face screws (rather than hidden fasteners) and building rails from wood.

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fried egg on dark composite deckFamily Handyman

Factor 2: Is Your Deck in the Hot Sun?

Dark-colored and dense composite decking boards can really heat up in the sun. If you’re sitting in a deck chair on top of all that plastic, the reflected heat can make you sizzle like the burger on your grill. Get composite samples in different colors and set them outside on your deck site.

Pro tip: If they’re hot enough to fry an egg after a day in the hot sun, consider a lighter color or a different composite material.

Here are 52 Handy Hints to help you survive the dog days of summer.

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composite deckFamily Handyman

Factor 3: Is a Wood Look Critical?

Higher-end composites have a superior grain and the most wood-like appearance and feel. Some of the priciest deck material brands feature subtle shadings and individual grain variations so that no one board is an exact replica of another. Some manufacturers buff each board at the factory to remove any plastic sheen.

High-end composites like Trex decking also have a wider range of colors and matching add-ons such as railings, balusters, posts, post caps, skirts and decorative trim. These add-ons give your deck a beautiful look, but they don’t come cheap. They can easily be triple the cost of the decking boards.

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Composite deckingFamily Handyman

Factor 4: How Wet Will it Get?

Smooth-textured composites can be slippery. If your deck is near a pool, or if you live where ice is an issue and the deck is the main entry to the house, choose a style with a pronounced texture. Plus, learn saltwater vs. chlorine pool: Which is better?

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composite deck with hidden screwsFamily Handyman

Factor 5: Are Hidden Fasteners Important?

Many people couldn’t care less if they see the fasteners when they look at their deck. But if it bothers you, choose a system that works with hidden fasteners. Tongue-and-groove systems eliminate gaps, hide the screws and drive fewer of them.

Clip systems work with grooved decking that’s lightweight and has a thinner profile than face-screw styles. However, these systems can have open ends that collect leaves and dirt if you don’t install end caps or a special trim piece, or use an installation design that covers them. Hidden fastener systems are pricier than systems that install with face screws. The hidden fasteners themselves can bump up the price by 30 percent.

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Man building a deckleezsnow/Getty Images

Factor 6: Are you sure materials meet building codes?

Call your local building officials to make sure the material you’re considering is approved in your city. Some composite systems have limitations on the materials for use as stairs, or require specific framing in certain applications. Be sure you know what kind of fastener spacing is required so you don’t encounter any surprises during inspection. These are five common building code violations.

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composite deckFamily Handyman

Factor 7: Are You Including All the Extras in Your Budget?

You won’t need to pop for specialized tools because composite planks can be installed with the same basic tools as any wood deck. But the decking itself is only a piece of your overall budget. Each system requires hidden fasteners or deck screws. For best results, use screws specifically for composite material.

In addition, depending on the system, you may need end caps, reinforcement pieces, special trim or skirt pieces, and add-ons like railings, posts and post caps. Research the installation and the add-ons so you have a complete picture of the costs before you buy the decking.

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deck tilesFamily Handyman

Learn More About Deck Materials

Synthetic decking materials must have a valid Evaluation Service Report (ESR) to be considered approved for use by many local building departments. ESR reports are issued by a nonprofit code-compliance testing agency. They show test results for moisture absorption, abrasion resistance, fastener spacing, allowable spans and stresses and more. Visit decks.com or icc-es.org, or type the ESR number for each product (ask the manufacturer or check the product literature).

Next, check out these 15 modern deck building tips and shortcuts.