Outdoor Floors: Keeping up your home’s patio, porch or deck

View the article in Atlanta Home Improvement Magazine here (PDF).

by Kathy Kidwell and Carrie Whitney

Inside a home the material covering the ground is maintained regularly and withstands average daily wear and tear in a consistent environment—generally the same temperature all day, every day. But outside, the material covering the ground is maintained less often, yet withstands much harsher climactic conditions—from summer’s humid, sunny weather to winter’s freezing-cold, wet conditions. Because of the constantly changing climate, homeowners try to choose the most durable materials for their outdoor floors; however, no matter how durable they are, there are steps that need to be taken to maintain and update the aesthetics and strength of patios, porches and decks. Here, we’ve compiled a list of projects that home-improvement experts recommend for the DIY and professional upkeep of and updates for your outdoor floors.

Clean it up and treat it right

Pick a nice, warm day this spring to go outside and begin the spruce-up project for your outdoor living areas. First, sweep the surfaces and pick up any debris. Then, do a careful inspection to determine if the winter weather has caused any cracks, loosened boards, etc. After you perform the needed repairs, it’s time for a cleaning. “It is good practice to visually inspect outdoor structures and floors once each year to be assured that the structure remains in safe condition. Cleaning frequency of outdoor floors is directly related to its micro-environment,” says Rick Goldstein, registered architect and co-owner of MOSAIC Group Architects and Remodelers Inc. “In general, if an outdoor floor is in bright sunlight with no trees overhanging, it will require less maintenance than if it is in constant shade with a full canopy of trees overhead. Shade tends to promote the growth of mildew in the moist Southern climate here in Atlanta.”

Whether your outdoor floor requires major or minimal cleaning, it is important to note that different types of surfaces require different cleaning solutions, and using the wrong type of solution may result in damage. For stone surfaces, such as pavers or flagstone, a high-powered pressure wash is recommended. “Make sure these areas are free of algae and a good masonry sealer has been used to protect surfaces from water,” says H. Dale Contant, president of Atlanta Design & Build. “If necessary, a light 20-percent muriatic acid and water solution can be used.” Additional maintenance and in-depth cleaning can be performed as needed—for paver surfaces, refer to the “Peak Paving Performance” sidebar for more information.

Wood decks require a different approach. The experts at Thompson’s WaterSeal recommend first testing the deck to determine if it’s time to re-treat/seal it. This test can be done by simply splashing a bit of water on the surface; if the water beads, then the surface doesn’t need immediate added protection and can simply be rinsed with a garden hose for a quick, easy cleaning. If the water absorbs into the wood and
darkens it, however, a special cleaning solution is required. A common wood-cleaning solution is made from sodium percarbonate, also known as oxygenated bleach. Oxygenated bleaches are a great choice for cleaning wood, as they are a highly effective solution that won’t harm any nearby plants—or you (they don’t burn the skin). Be sure to rinse your deck after applying any cleaning chemicals. If chemicals are left to dry on the deck, they can resurface over time and break down the wood’s finish. Be sure to apply a waterproofer after your deck treatment is complete.

“Lightly wash [your wood deck] each year, and depending on wear and exposure to the elements, re-stain it every 2-3 years,” Goldstein says. “Remember that wood needs to dry out sufficiently prior to the application of a stain or sealer. Otherwise, the stain will not penetrate deeply into the already saturated wood fibers.”

For decks made from composite or vinyl material, cleaning is easier. “Homeowners can simply use soap and water,” says Patti Pellock, senior marketing manager with CertainTeed Corporation. “Many homeowners choose to use a pressurized hose to clean the surface in a timely matter.”

However, always take care when using a pressure hose or washer. “DIY deck cleaning using a pressure washer is the No. 1 way most decks are damaged,” Goldstein says. “Wood decking is a soft and relatively delicate material. Using the wrong nozzle or too high of a pressure will damage the wood. It is best to use a wood cleaner with a stiff bristle broom to clean a deck, then hose it off with a garden hose.”

Warren Gaylord, sales manager of Gulf Synthetics LLC, agrees. “Oftentimes, both professionals and non-professionals alike think that the closer the water jet is to the surface, the better. This only causes further damage. You don’t actually do this with your car, do you?”

Safety first

While evaluating your deck, be sure to examine the substructure. “One test I use the first time I go onto a deck is to jump in place gently in different areas, feeling for excessive bounce or movement,” Gaylord says. “This tells me if the deck is structurally sound.”

In Georgia, sun is a major culprit in deck wear and tear. “Because the support joists are in the shade and out of direct contact with the sun’s damaging rays, they have a much longer lifespan than the deck boards on top of the deck,” Contant says.

When inspecting, look for splits, cracks and holes, and test several areas for wood decay. “A tool as simple as a car key can help you determine rot by pressing it against any suspectsections of the lumber. If the key goes slightly or all the way in like an ignition, watch out,” Gaylord says.

Another item on your inspection checklist should be the fasteners—nails, screws or anchor bolts. “Nails will eventually raise up on their own, commonly referred to as ‘popping up,’” says Jeff Butler with RainAway Deck Drain Systems. “A good screw will support the board better and longer without popping up.” He recommends removing nails and replacing them with a quality deck screw, such as the ones made by DeckMate.

Once your deck is cleaned and inspected for safety, there’s only one task you have left to complete—enjoy the great outdoors!