Wednesday, August 16, 2017  



Decking and the Environment


by Lorraine Horbaly

As beautiful spring and summer unfolds before us and beckons us outdoors, we look forward to getting back on the deck for cookouts, parties, happy hours, reading and relaxing. It is time to start clearing away what winter has left behind. It’s when you start cleaning that deck that you realize it has seen better days. Maybe it’s time to replace it, or maybe it’s time to get serious about building the deck you’ve always wanted. In either event, if you’re looking at decking options, you will be forgiven if you feel overwhelmed, because the choices seem endless. Hopefully, a quick look at the options will help you to make the decision that’s right for you.

I think most of us would agree that the three most important considerations when choosing decking are cost, durability and maintenance. I would maintain that the fourth consideration is the impact that decking materials have on the environment. Believe it or not, decking is one of those products that can be “green” without costing a lot of extra “green”! That’s because companies big and small are changing the way they manufacture. Why would they do that? Because new technologies are enabling them to produce decking economically and do it without harming the environment. Talk about a win/win!

So since “green” decking materials is now more mainstream, it’s good to have a working knowledge of the lingo.
Recycled, recyclable and renewable: what’s the difference? Recycled means a product is made from materials that have been repurposed, such as plastic and wood. Recyclable means a material is able to be recycled at the end of its
life. Renewable means a material is able to be sustained or renewed because of new growth.

With that as background, let’s simplify a bit and divide decking materials into three categories: exotic hardwoods, pressure-treated wood and what is known as alternative decking materials. All have advantages and disadvantages based on the four considerations named above. So let’s have a look in the order of the four considerations.

Exotic Hardwoods

Exotic Hardwoods are generally the most expensive decking option. However, they have a lot going for them. These woods are imported from Brazil and South Central America and include such species as Ipe, Cumaru, Tigerwood and Massaranduba. They are extremely hard and dense, making them quite durable. In terms of maintenance, they can be left untreated and you won’t have to do much more than hose them down or power wash. However, the wood will change color if unsealed, and may be more susceptible to the elements, sun, rain, salt air. Environmentally, exotic hardwoods are superior. They do not need to be treated with chemicals because they are naturally resistant to rot, mold and insects, including termites. They are also natural and renewable. The forest industry plants more trees than are harvested every year. Some woods are known as “rapidly renewable” which means that they grow like crazy – like bamboo and lyptus. Wood is beautiful and has the least negative impact on the environment. A product I discovered at a recent builder trade show is Ipanema Decking which offers woods certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as sustainable, and which are about 30% less expensive than Ipe.

Pressure-treated wood

Pressure-treated wood is the least expensive decking option and is manufactured in the U.S., often using southern yellow pine. The wood is treated with chemicals as a preservative and as an insect and termite preventative. Pressure-treated wood is less durable and requires more regular maintenance in terms of staining, painting and sealing to retain appearance and performance than the other options. This adds cost and work. Environmental concerns relate to the initial chemical treatment and also to the chemicals used on a regular basis in preserving the deck after it’s installed. The chemicals most often used are hazardous both to the environment and potentially to human health. For example, during installation, it is important not to breathe the sawdust when the boards are cut. After the deck is installed, exposure to bare skin should be minimized. However, not all pressure-treated lumber is created equal. There are chemicals used in pressure treating that are relatively safe and that are compliant with ISO standards and which are EPA certified. Also, there are deck stains, paints and sealers that are safe for people and the environment. Of course, wood is a renewable product.

Alternative Decking

Alternative Decking Materials are the option whose prices fall between the exotic hardwoods and pressure-treated lumber. If you choose to use one of these brands, you’ll find that prices for the products within it vary greatly. As for durability and maintenance, when properly installed these products are long lasting and require no special treatment to maintain appearance and performance. Environmentally, some of these products are recycled, and some are recyclable. None is renewable. The recycled products are better for the environment because they are made from waste materials that would otherwise show up in landfills such as plastic and rubber tires. Recyclable materials are typically made from petroleum-based materials. They really only have environmental benefit at the end of their lives because they can be recycled.

Some good recycled decking comes from Trex, Timber Tech, Choice Deck, Fiberon and Kleer. Azek decking is recyclable. Many of these brands are available locally at Northern Neck Building Supply in Montross.


Pavers are not traditionally used for decking but I recently met with the owner of a family-owned business based in Wisconsin called Vast Pavers. They have developed a product which is new and very versatile. These pavers are made almost entirely from recycled materials, are extremely durable, require no maintenance to speak of and are surprisingly affordable. They can be used for decking, driveways, flat roofs, sidewalks and patios, among other applications. They are ideal for resurfacing existing patios, decks and walkways. I was so impressed that we’re using their product to resurface a patio. Installation is simple and fast. You can get information from their website VASTpavers.com. The product is being sold through Azek and is available in stores in our area, including Northern Neck Building Supply in Montross.

Odds and Ends in Decking

If you choose the wood products, there are preservative coatings that are durable, protect against sun and rain, decay, termites and other wood-boring insects and, at the same time, are non-toxic. One such product is Preserve ACQ from Viance. You can get information at treatedwood.com.

Depending upon the system you use, the fasteners will vary. The hidden ones are very nice, but often are more costly. In any case, be sure the fasteners are coated to prevent corrosion and discoloring.

Railng sytems usually come part and parcel with the decking materials. The alternative decking materials have rail systems that are compatible with the decking and have many or most of the durability and maintenance advantages.
Deck lighting is being incorporated with greater frequency into the decking post and rails. It’s usually low voltage. You can also purchase rope LED lighting at a very affordable cost and install it with the post and rail system. Subtle lighting adds ambience and detail which gives your night-time deck experience a whole new dimension. Safety issues at stairs are also solved with this type of lighting.

Finding a good contractor can make the difference between a beautiful, durable deck and one which fades before your eyes in short order. Even the best of materials can be compromised by poor installation. If you’re going to tackle the building and installation of the deck yourself, I’d advise that you do your homework and take your time to ensure your hard work pays off.

A second story deck often has an area below it that could be used for additional outdoor living space if it is protected. For not a great deal of cost, capturing this living space can add value and enjoyment to your home. Trex has partnered with a great company called Rain Escape. Timber Tech has partnered with Dry Space. Rain Escape only works at the time of deck installation and is a unique and effective product. Dry Space can be installed at any time and under existing decks. Both systems can be tied into gutters which will take water away from your house.

Outdoor living is enjoyable and renewing to the human spirit. A well designed deck which is durable, easy to maintain and protects the environment can only add to that enjoyment. Happy summer!