New Materials in Pool and Spa Decking

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Deckopen 0110Most inground pools are surrounded in some fashion of concrete, but wood-style decking is increasingly popular around inset spas, both to create easy access and to help hide the skirt, which many feel is the spa's least attractive feature. And of course, wooden decking has long been a good way of dressing up an aboveground pool.

Over the last couple of decades, however, manufacturers of wood alternatives - materials that look like wood but offer superior performance and better green credentials - have steadily been improving their products. These include composite materials made of sawdust and plastic, cellular PVC and other innovative man-made concoctions.

There are so many new materials that builders need to exercise caution in choosing the ones they adopt, because while they all look good on day one, time is the test of a deck board.

In fact, it's very difficult even for a manufacturer to know how a brand-new material will react to the infinite variety of environments over the expected life span of a deck, says Kim Katwijk, owner, Deck Builders, Olympia, Wash.

"Any time you introduce a product into the market," he says, "you do as much testing as you can, but it always comes to a point where further testing and the need to get it to market start to clash, and testing always loses out.

"Then they throw it out there and the whole world tests it, and sometimes there's trouble, but that's the nature of the beast. As a professional deck builder, you're looking for a company that has the integrity to stand behind its products and say, if they've made a mistake, 'Look, this is our fault. We'll take care of it and pay the labor, even if it doesn't say that in the warranty.'

"I've had companies sell me products touted as mold-free that just grew mold like petri dishes. Those were ugly negotiations from the beginning."

With the number of composite materials on the market closing in on the century mark, the choice of which one to trust becomes a judicious one. Katwijk uses a variety of different products, but only after they've survived his test field intact or been recommended by other professional deck builders.

To gather firsthand research on decking products, Katwijk actually maintains two test fields, "one where I just expose it to the sunlight, and the other is a walkway, right by my back door. I have nine children, and they all go in and out, and they ride their bikes and skateboards on it, and if a product has a problem, it's going to show up right there at my house."

It's a matter of professional commitment, he adds. "I have to be sure the product will last. Because when it fails, they won't call the manufacturer, they're going to call me. There are a lot of builders that don't give a rip about a problem like that, they're just after the next buck, but if you're building your reputation as a customer-focused company, you've got to be right there saying, 'What's the problem? What's the issue?'

Greener Than Trees

Two big selling points for alternatives are their credentials as green products and their reduced maintenance demand. Almost any of these composite materials are going to be green in comparison with lumber made from felled forests, because a lot of them are using recycled materials.

Even the ones using virgin plastic and sawdust look good next to a nature's boards because the man-made material drastically reduces maintenance. A wood deck requires the repeated use of harsh chemicals and petroleum-based products, which produce a fair amount of waste in application and manufacturing and release chemicals into the atmosphere, whereas alternatives need only a good washing.

Beyond the environmental consideration, wood maintenance is very expensive and labor intensive over the life of the deck. Katwijk estimates that it takes over $1 per square foot per year to maintain a wood deck properly, whereas with most alternatives, this is reduced to the price of soap.

Twins

Along with improvements in stain- and mold-resistance, newer decking boards have achieved a look that much more closely resembles wood.

"At a home show recently," Katwijk says, "we had people coming up saying, is this real wood? And we were saying, 'No, this is cellular PVC, and this is a composite.' So the technology and the ability to rival wood are in hand."

This ability has impressed Kelli Shea Miller, an Atlanta-area homeowner. She recently had a deck built with a combination of wood and composite materials, and the two were close enough to provide a unified, overall look.

"I was looking to expand my deck, covering half with a screened-in porch and leaving the rest open," she says. "I knew I wanted real ipé hardwood to floor the screened-in portion, but with all the trees in my backyard and the red Georgia clay, I needed something low-maintenance for the rest. Horizon [from Fiberon] in the ipe color was the perfect match - its recycled content fit my environmental needs and its appearance allowed my covered space to flow perfectly to my open space.

"Since we were looking at a total deck redesign, I wanted invest in something that would keep looking great over the years, rather than need repeated sanding, staining and sealing, which frankly is a pain. I am very environmentally conscious, and the recycled components of composite made sense."

Miller says her guests don't even notice where the ipe hardwood ends and the Horizon composite begins if they're not paying attention, and that several friends have bent down to touch it to convince themselves it isn't real wood.

Bobby Parks, owner of Peachtree Decks and Porches, Atlanta, and the builder of this deck, says that the realistic wood look and the durability features have earned the product a place on his short list of decking materials.

"It excites homeowners and allows me to expand my portfolio - I have several decks in the works with this product right now."

Comments or thoughts on this article?Please e-mail [email protected].

Paving Over Decking

Vast 0110VAST Enterprises, a company in Hastings, Minn., has come up with a novel solution to the problem of degraded wood decking. The company produces a product called VAST Composite Deck Pavers, which can be laid over an existing deck for a very fast and easy renovation that turns a wood deck into a paver patio.

In essence, the VAST composite pavers are lighter, lower-profile versions of the company's landscape pavers, which are made almost entirely of recycled rubber and plastic instead of concrete.

Paul Ramacher, of Greenway Pavers in Minneapolis illustrates the technique: A recent client's home featured a backyard deck in poor condition, with splinters and popped screws in the wood walkway that made it uncomfortable and unsafe. Looking at solutions, the homeowner preferred a green, recycled product, and particularly liked the idea of reusing the existing deck instead of scrapping the wood deck and sending it to a landfill.

"There were only two steps up from the level of the pool to the deck, making the space more like a terrace or patio than a deck," says Ramacher. "That made it ideal for retrofitting with VAST Composite Deck Pavers. By installing the deck pavers on top of the deck, we were able to turn it into a patio."

The 620-square-foot installation of the VAST pavers went on directly over the top of the wooden boards, and VAST's grid system dramatically accelerated the installation - when the pavers are inserted into the grid, they are automatically spaced and aligned.

"VAST is available in six different colors," Ramacher says, "so we could choose a mix of colors and create a paver pattern that complements the house. It was especially important to harmonize the appearance of the new patio with the chimney, which is a prominent architectural feature on the back of the house," said Ramacher.

Of particular importance is the composite material's ability to withstand the frequent freeze-thaw cycles that persist through the northern winter and damage traditional pavers.

However, using the pavers over wooden decking is not the most common application Ramacher says. In most cases, they simply replace concrete pavers.

"Normally we float the VAST pavers on 3/4 inches of sand. Most of the work is in prepping the surface the same way you would for concrete pavers. Once you've done that, you just lay it in."

As for the target market, it's a little bit difficult to say at this stage. "It's hard to pigeonhole the best client for this. The closest category I could come up with is the green crowd - people who are very environmentally aware and very much into using recycled material. But it's really across the board. You do get some wealthy folks because it is a bit more expensive up front, but contractors tend to offset that in the ease of installation. An average deck takes less than a day."

- S.W.

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