Ask the Contractor: Year-round deck care provides hours of enjoyment

We just moved to Cottonwood from Ohio and are thrilled with the outdoor living. Our home has a large deck and we would appreciate comments on how to maintain our deck for longevity. We love reading your column and hope you answer our question.

— Sid and Mary, Cottonwood, Arizona

An outdoor deck is most certainly a place to relax and entertain and also represents a substantial investment of money. Decks can provide outdoor pleasure for many years when you take basic steps to protect the deck from the ravages of sun, weather, insects, animals and just plain old-fashioned usage.

It’s easy to think a wood deck should be relatively impervious to the elements, for a few years, at least. The truth is, decks take a lot of punishment during a single season. The flat surface of a deck responds to the elements somewhat differently than a wooden wall. Water dwells on the wood longer, and sunlight can be more concentrated and damaging because there’s no overhead protection. Foot and pet traffic, as well as moisture problems caused by landscape plants and other objects sitting on the deck and obstructing good air flow, can make your deck age prematurely, too.

Over time, nails can partially work their way out of deck floorboards. Boards may warp or crack, dirt and dead leaves can accumulate between the boards and bird droppings, dirt and pollution and household pet eliminations from cats and dogs stain and discolor the finish.

Because decks are exposed to the elements all year round, Joe Branson of Branson and Branson Inc. and Doug Thompson of Thompson’s Remodeling Specialists both say, “It’s a good idea to establish routine upkeep to protect your deck and prevent expensive repairs.”

Here’s a simple maintenance schedule:

Late spring: Wash the Deck

An unwashed deck is an invitation to mold and mildew, which can cause rot. Here’s how to wash your deck:

-- Remove all debris from between deck boards.

-- Thoroughly sweep the deck.

-- Choose an appropriate cleanser.

Wood deck: Use a standard deck cleaner and follow its directions. Some require the decking to be wet first. Some don’t.

Composite deck: Use a cleaner specifically formulated for composite material. Attack grease and oil stains with a commercial degreaser and detergents.

-- Clean the deck. Choose a cloudy day when the decking is cool and the sun won’t evaporate the cleaner.

Wood deck: Use a paint roller, a garden sprayer, or a stiff-bristled brush broom to apply the cleaner. Don’t let it pool. Don’t let the deck dry until you’ve scrubbed it clean. Then let it soak according to manufacturer’s instructions (usually about 10 minutes). Rinse thoroughly with clean water.

Composite deck: Scrub with a soft brush. Do not use a pressure washer — it can permanently damage the decking and will void any warranty.

-- Let deck dry. Wait two days before sealing.

Sealers and stains are readily available and here are some finish options:

Clear a sealer that lets the wood’s natural grain and color show through

Toner adds a bit of color but fully reveals the grain and provides some protection against sunlight (ultraviolet or UV light)

Semi-transparent stain tints the wood, but allows some grain show

Solid stain and opaque color seals weathering damage and completely covers the grain

You should expect to reapply clear sealers and toners annually. Reapply stain finishes as needed (every other year is a good routine) using the same or a slightly darker color. Here are sealer application helpful hints:

-- Lightly sand the deck. Use a pole sander equipped with 80-grit paper to remove any furriness caused by washing.

-- Apply the sealer or stain. Use a roller to apply the sealer to the decking, covering three or four boards at a time.

Deck sealants aren’t required or recommended for composite decks, although some composite decking can be stained to restore its color. Be sure the product is intended for composites. Don’t expect the same density of color that you would achieve with wood

Midsummer: Inspect and Repair Your Deck

When the weather is warm and dry, it’s a good time to give your deck’s structure a close inspection. Pay particular attention to any areas within 6 inches of the ground or close to sources of water, such as downspouts and planters.

-- Look for signs of rot.

-- Inspect the ledger. Using a flashlight underneath your deck, pay special attention to the ledger — that all-important piece of framing that attaches the deck to the house. A damaged ledger is the cause of 90 percent of all deck collapses.

The ledger should be attached with lag screws, not just nails. The flashing — the metal cap that covers the top of the ledger and prevents moisture from getting behind the siding — should be free of rust and holes.

-- Check remaining joists, posts and beams. Check all the hardware underneath, especially joist hangers, and replace any that are seriously rusted.

-- Check for cracks or rotten decking boards. Not all cracks are a structural threat, but they’ll get worse with time. If you find damage, replace the piece.

-- Check the railing. Give it a good shake to be sure posts are not moveable or wobbly or damaged.

Early fall: Preventive Measures

Fall is also a good time to wash and seal your deck if you didn’t get a chance to in the spring. The point is to do it when temperatures are mild.

Remember the main enemies of wooden decks are sun and water. The main defense is wood sealer or deck stain.

You can keep your wood or composite deck looking good longer by getting a jump on potential problems. Sweep your deck frequently. Don’t let leaves, especially wet leaves accumulate on the deck. Keep the gaps between the deck’s floorboards free of accumulated debris. Clean food stains, bird droppings and pet droppings off the deck ASAP. If you have potted plants on your deck, elevate them to allow airflow underneath, or move them periodically.

Happy decking and welcome to the fine County of Yavapai. Always honored to assist.

Remember to tune in to YCCA’s Hammer Time every Saturday and Sunday morning at 7 a.m. on KQNA 1130 AM/99.9 FM or 95.5 FM or on the web at kqna.com. Listen to Sandy and Mike talk about the construction industry; meet your local community partners and so much more.