How to Choose Composite Decking
The 7 key factors to consider before buying composite decking
Simplify shopping for composite decking by weighing the importance of 7 key issues, including budget, sunlight, moisture, appearance, building codes and the cost of extras. Some types will meet your needs and others won't.
Overview: Many options for composite lumber decking
Composite lumber decking, like Trex decking, is a great low-maintenance alternative to wood. The composite decking industry had some growing pains in the past decade, but the composite decking materials continue to improve and the number of quality products on the market increases each year. Ten years ago, there were only 10 choices, and now there are more than 50 different composite decking products available (one common brand is Trex 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 prices, like Trex decking, are two to three times more than pressure-treated wood but lasts two to three times longer.
The fact that 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.
Factor 1: Are you on a tight budget?
Composite decking, such as Trex decking, costs around $3.25 to $6 per lin. ft. Most lumberyards and home centers stock at least 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 variations in 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 a variety 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. Planning your deck design around these measurements can save you money and cut waste.
Factor 2: Is your deck used in the hot sun?
Dark-colored and very 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 heat reflected up to you can make you sizzle like the burger on your grill. Get composite samples in different colors and set them outside on your deck site. 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.
Factor 3: Is a “wood look” critical?
Higher-end composites have a superior grain and the most “woodlike” appearance and feel. Some of the priciest brands have 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.
Factor 4: How wet will it get?
Smooth-textured composites can get slippery. If your deck is going to be used near a pool, or if you live in a climate where ice is an issue and the deck is going to be used as a main entry to the house, search for a style with a pronounced texture.
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. For example, tongue-and-groove systems eliminate gaps and allow you to 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. Hidden fastener systems are pricier than systems that install with face screws, but the end result is much much cleaner.
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. Also, be sure you know what kind of fastener spacing is required so you don’t encounter any surprises during inspection.
Factor 7: Are you including all the extras in your budget?
You won’t need to pop for specialized tools because composite planks install using the same basic tools as any wood deck. But the decking itself is only a piece of your overall budget. Each system requires either 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.