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Which Composite decking is the best?

Trex Havana gold decking and Reveal railing with lights.

I am updating this post on 12-1-16:
     I am leaving my previous version of this post intact at the end of this update so you can read my old thoughts if you like. I get a lot of hits on this post and am asked a lot of these same questions regularly when doing bids, but my answers have been changing lately. Since the composite decking industry changes so rapidly, I have to update it every so often to stay current. However, if you see the frequency of how often I write a new blog post, you will know that blogging is not at the top of my to do list 🙂 Anyway, here are my current thoughts in a nutshell: The best composite decking on the market in our opinion is Trex Transcends. That’s saying a lot from a former Timbertech only deck company!

In 2013 Azek (pvc deck manufacturer) and Timbertech combined to become CPG Building Products. Ever since then it has been a downward spiral in customer support and quality of product, in our opinion. First were the shortages in material availability, then we realized their L.E.D. deck lights are cheap Chinese crap (we refuse to install them now and still get call backs regularly to replace the ones we installed on past projects from years past), then came the quality issues such as messed up textures on boards, colors varying from one batch to another, customer service has dropped off, we have had reports from customers not being treated well when calling in for warranty claims, boards appeared to swell or warp on one job (hopefully it was an isolated issue!), and now for some reason the gaps that are set by the hidden fasteners have shrunk to 1/16″ instead of the 3/16″. The Legacy series is their top of the line brand and it does look fantastic, but its smooth surface shows scratches more than any other line. At this point I would prefer to only sell Trex, but some people just prefer the look of Timbertech so we still install both. As far as the Azek PVC decking, we have never been big fans of PVC in general because it can be squeaky when walked on, it smells bad when installed in the summer, it becomes discolored if you put a rubber mat on it, it looks more fake than plastic capped composite, and to top it off, it is more expensive. With that said, I know some people swear by it and that’s fine, to each his own. We will install it if a customer requests it, its just not our preference.

The reason we like Trex so much more is because we just have less issues with it and the customer support is better, it also seems to be more scratch resistant to us. We love their railings, and their lighting system is a million times better than Timbertech’s. We love the look of the product and it just does what it is supposed to do. If ever there is an issue, Trex jumps on it and fixes it immediately, no problem. The other thing to mention here is that all composite companies have switched to a plastic capped board. That means the core is a mixture of wood flour and plastic but the surface of the board is basically pure plastic that is bonded to the outside of the board to give a colorfast, scratch resistant, and more vibrant, realistic looking product. It is a major improvement over the original composite technology and comes with a 25 year fade and stain warranty in addition to the regular 25 year warranty.

Now, to be completely forthcoming, if you do any research about Trex, you will undoubtedly read about the major product defect they had at their Nevada facility from 2003 to 2006ish. As a company they started off manufacturing in Virginia and then at some point opened a new West coast facility. Unfortunately the new facility made some changes to the composition of the board as far as wood type/ quality control and the end result was a product that started failing. This only happened at the new facility but it happened to everything they made for about three years. They have had to replace many decks, have been the subject of class action lawsuits, and almost went bankrupt. They never had the issue on the east coast though, so they stayed king there and managed to stay afloat. They got a new CEO, dropped the non plastic capped deck board in favor of the capped board and have now emerged on the other side as the industry leader in composite decking again. We never installed any of the recalled boards so we didn’t get burned the way some companies did, maybe that is why were have been willing to trust their brand sooner than some. We have also toured both factories and are convinced they have made the necessary changes to their manufacturing process. They are also well aware that if anything like that were to happen again they would be toast as a company.

The last thing I want to share about Timbertech vs. Trex is purely anecdotal. I don’t want to get into trouble by Timbertech, because this story I’m about to tell happened on a ripped piece of decking that I broke in half to throw away, it did not happen in a real World situation on someone’s deck. I am putting this out there because it does seem to speak to strength of the bond between the plastic cap and composite core of the boards. In the summer of 2015 I had a long piece of Timbertech terrain decking that was about two inches wide, with both sides of the board having been ripped off. I broke it in half to fit in the dumpster and was shocked when the cap just peeled off like a piece of tape. It was a long piece too, I was able to completely remove it from both halves of the board. I tried to do the same thing to a Trex Transcend board but couldn’t, the cap just breaks right where you break the board. Whether or not this will ever be an issue, I don’t know. I sure hope not, we have installed more Timbertech decks than anything else. However, that is changing now, as I trust Trex more and therefore promote and install it more. To illustrate what I am describing here, see the image below. The board on the right is a rip of Timbertech Terrain, the board on the left is a rip of Trex Transcends. You can see how the cap can peel right off of the Timbertech board, but the Trex cap stays bonded to the core.

Trex wins

Results of our experiment breaking ripped deck boards in half. Note how the cap can peel off the Timbertech board on the right.

 

The following version of this post is from February 2012:

Wow, when I first wrote this blog back in either ’09 or 10 the products offered by Timbertech were quite different. They have dropped the Valueplank and created the Reliaboard, they now have a plastic capped surface on the Earthwood series, there are several new colors, and there is more to offer in the railing department too. I was just looking at how many clicks I get on this article and I realized I better update it so it has current information. Timbertech is a very innovative company and is constantly coming up with new products. For your information, I am currently updating this in February 2012. Whenever I talk to someone interested in getting a new deck built people usually have a lot of questions about composites. Many people are interested in a long lasting maintenance free deck, but composites are a fairly new technology so there are still questions to be asked.

This article isn’t meant to be a complete guide to all composites, there are too many to list and new ones are coming out all the time. Rather it is just our opinion gained from our experience in installing composite decks and from the research we have done.

After checking out the prices, appearance, track record, and innovation of various composite companies, we at Deck Masters, llc have come to the conclusion that Timbertech is the best overall composite decking manufacturer.

We like their product for a variety of reasons. First, they have a few levels of different price ranges and appearances to their decking products. The entry level is the Reliaboard, it comes in the two colors of Cedar and Grey, cannot be used with their hidden fasteners and runs approximately (to my company specifically, we do get a contractor’s discount FYI) $2.10 a foot as of 2/20/2012. Next up is the Twin Finish board, it comes in the same two colors as well as Redwood but can be used with the hidden fasteners and runs about $2.70 a foot. New for 2013 is the Terrain series. This is a low cost plastic capped board that is actually the same price as the Twin finish. It will probably put the Twin finish series out of commission eventually. Now that you can get a plastic capped deck board for the same cost as the non-capped twin finish, why bother? The way they have made it lower in cost is by removing some material from the bottom of the board, but it is still rated for installation on 16″ joist spacing. The next level is the Earthwood Evolution series, it is the most realistic looking and beautiful composite and comes in Pacific Rosewood, Pacific Walnut, and Pacific Teak. There are intentional color variations in this series that make the boards look like exotic hardwoods and the boards are capped with pure plastic so they are very stain and fade resistant. So much so that the Evolution series is actually the first composite by Timbertech to come with a fade and stain warantee. Plastic capped composites are being made by all the major manufacturers now and it seems to be the way of the future, it is a little more expensive but the added scratch resistance, fade resistance, and stain resistance is well worth it. This series runs about $3.19 a linear foot. Actually, new for 2012 Timbertech has added three new colors to the Evolution series but they are solid colors instead of streaked, so they aren’t imitating exotic hardwoods in appearance. The new colors are slate, brick, and brownstone. They are made in colors to compliment the original colors of redwood, cedar, and grey and can be used in combination for a nice border. The other main category we will cover here is their pure PVC decking which they refer to as their XLM series.

While PVC decking is not a true composite because it has no actual wood fiber content, it is included here because it is a decent product and is often used in place of composite material. Update 8-20-12: We have recently had reports of XLM turning chalky or dark in color and having to be replaced by Timbertech. The good news is that they pay for both new material and sometimes labor, the bad news of course is that this means the product isn’t as stable as we thought. With this information in mind we no longer recommend PVC decking, XLM or any other company. We will still install it if requested, but we think the Earthwood Evolutions line is better.

So why use PVC instead of a composite board?

That’s a good question. In the early days of composite manufacturing there were mistakes that were made and lessons learned. One problem was that boards would “delaminate” or come apart after being used for a few years. This was caused by problems in the manufacturing process such as unequal moisture contents in the wood being used, the wrong types or amounts of plastics being used, or inconsistent ingredients in general.

Fortunately those days seem to be a thing of the past. Some companies went out of business and some had to replace some people’s decks, but now everyone seems to have their manufacturing process down and problems like those are much less likely. There are still occasionally reports of small warranty claims that come in from every company, but no single composite decking company we know of is prone to issues any more than any other company.  One of the responses to those early problems however was to go with an all PVC board so that there is no chance of it coming apart.

PVC decking tends to look more like plastic and less like wood, so that is a drawback for some customers, but it is very long lasting, stain resistant, and scratch resistant. Invariably when presented with this option, people ask me which is better, Earthwood Evolutions or XLM? In terms of durability they are about the same except that you can’t leave a rubber mat on the XLM because it does something weird and the moisture that gets trapped underneath turns it white. The white can be cleaned off though. In terms of appearance, I personally think the Tigerwood and Pecan colors in the Legacy series are the most attractive colors. The legacy series is Timbertech’s most recent line added in 2014. One other thing to note is that Consumer reports came out with a review of the XLM series in 2010 and said it was slippery when wet, so while I have not noticed it to be a problem myself, I want to note that report. Also, Timbertech and Azek are now the same company and are moving towards a standardized line of PVC boards so the difference between the two is going away. Keeping this article up to date is difficult as so much changes every year in the industry in terms of products offered.

Azek PVC vs. Timbertech PVC (Both are now owned by the same company)

 

Back to our discussion on true composites though, there is still the issue of inconsistent moisture or wood content in the composite deck boards being made. You hear a lot about using recycled materials in composite and how this is good for the environment. We agree that recycling is an important part of the solution for taking care of the planet, but what we choose to make out of the recycled materials is another question altogether.

In other words, given the issues that plagued some composite companies early on, does it really make sense to use recycled plastic in an outdoor building product instead of virgin plastic that is more consistent? We agree with Timbertech and the answer is, in general, no. Timbertech products are made with about 78% virgin plastic because it makes a better more long lasting product. It might feel good to install a recycled material deck, but if it has to be replaced in ten years neither the homeowner nor the Earth benefits from the added materials and resources being used. A deck board gets more abuse than any other part of a home. It gets walked on, rained on, blasted with sun, and even frozen, so this isn’t the best place for using a potentially inconsistent product. Timbertech uses a maximum of 22% recycled plastic both to keep the cost of the product down and to meet green standards. (Updated as of 4-8-13)

This brings up another point as well, what about the wood fibers used in the manufacturing of the boards? Again, many companies advertise and use all recycled wood for their composite decking. This is another potential mistake because the content of the recycled wood is less consistent and therefore more prone to problems. Timbertech gets around this by using a minimum of 70% pure maple with about 30% oak, coming from the end cuts from hardwood furniture manufacturers so that they can monitor exactly the type of wood being used and the moisture content of that wood. This is wood that was headed for the recycling plant anyway, they just get it before it gets co-mingled with everything else. As a result of taking these measures in their manufacturing process, Timbertech is able to offer a 25 year warantee on all its decking products. No one has a longer warranty in the industry and this is one of the reasons we feel confident using their product. One more thing to note is that there are two other categories of decking made by Timbertech, one is the Docksider board which is extra thick for docks and the other is the Floorizon board. We don’t recommend the Floorizon board for use in this area but the Docksider board is great if you need a dock.

The final reason we think Timbertech is the best composite board out there is their hidden fastener system. Most companies require you to use a third party hidden fastener system in order to fasten their boards, Timbertech is the only company that designed their own Concealock fastener to be used exclusively with their own product and it is the best made hands down. It is stainless steel, powder coated brown or black to make it virtually invisible, and installs quickly and securely. In short, Timbertech is a great innovative company that makes some of the best composite and PVC decking on the market.

We hope this has been informative and will help anyone who reads it understand some of the qualities to look for when choosing a composite decking material. Good luck if you are planning a new deck and don’t hesitate to call us if you would like a quote!


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