Wood Decks, Protective
Homeowners are spending more money on decks than on any other part of their homes. Wood is still the material of choice used in those decks. Protecting your wood deck with the proper stain is necessary to perserve is beauty and lifespan.
By Susan M. Brimo-Cox
It’s reported that in 1998, homeowners across the United States spent $713 million on new decks and porches — more than was spent on new kitchens, roofs and siding. While the use of composite materials has inched up to 6 percent of the deck surfacing market, wood is still the material of choice.
“Decks conjure up images of backyard barbeques, sipping cool fruity drinks while lying back in the sun, and family picnics. They have become an American icon for relaxation and the place where many people spend the majority of their leisure time,” reports Alex Campbell, assistant manager of Technical Services and Support at Samuel Cabot Inc. “However, decking structures are not without the need of the work required for periodic maintenance and repair,” he adds. “As with all the systems and components of a home, homeowner’s should periodically inspect their decks to ensure that they are properly protected from the elements and remain structurally sound.”
|Often times the use of mild stripper on previously treated deck surfaces will remove old finished and provide better overall coloring and treatment with a new wood finish.
Wood decks in the United States are made predominantly of pressure-treated pine, redwood and cedar. While each of these woods offer various benefits, “all wood needs care and maintenance,” says Patrice Costello, supervisor of Technical Service at the Flood Co. “Protecting wood from ultraviolet rays, water and moisture prolongs the life of a deck. Protective coatings on wood can act much like a sunscreen protects our skin,” she observes.
Rick Mendenhall, manager of Wolman Wood Care Products’ Contractor Program, agrees and uses pressure-treated pine as an example. Used a lot on the East Coast and in the Midwest, “pressure-treated wood has a guarantee that it won’t rot or sustain termite damage, but [pressure treating] doesn’t protect it from moisture,” he explains. “Once you remove the bark from a tree, it has no natural protection.”
The first telltale sign of premature aging of wood is the graying of the surface.
“Untreated wood exposed to the elements will become degraded by the worst nature has to offer: rain, sleet, snow, UV rays from sunlight, wind sheer, etc. All of these elements hasten the decaying process of an exterior surface.
ecomposition of extractives and lignin at the surface of the wood is readily seen has a ‘graying’ of the wood,” Campbell says. “The cracking, checking and splintering of the wood follow graying and the erosion of the surface layer of wood fibers. Ultimately, without protection, the structure and the wood investment are lost.”
Dirt and debris also cause problems. They can be abrasive and erode the surface of the deck. Some debris, such as leaves, can cause staining of the wood if not removed.
For a variety of contractors, the deck maintenance headaches of homeowners are becoming a gold mine. “What contractors are offering is convenience,” explains Jake Clark, president and owner of Armstrong-Clark Co. “With wives working and husbands working, more people are looking for others to take care of housecleaning, lawn and garden services, and exterior painting. Deck maintenance fits right in, and at a fraction of the cost of housecleaning and exterior painting.” Doing the math, he says, brings the point home. “Say it costs $400 to do a deck. That works out to $7.70 a week to maintain something that’s very expensive, especially redwood or cedar, which can cost $5,000 to $15,000 or more.”
“It’s turning into a service environment,” Mendenhall says. “People don’t mind paying someone to perform the service. For painting contractors looking for add-on jobs, deck maintenance is a good fit. Lawn care and termite service contractors also are adding deck services.”
“Deck programs are highly profitable for contractors who choose to focus on maintenance programs,” Costello reports. For homeowners, “it’s like any investment. Decks are not inexpensive to build and they need maintenance,” she says. And even among the do-it-yourselfers, available time to maintain a deck is dwindling. That’s good news for the contractors. “Busy lifestyles could be what’s driving this trend. It may be easier [for a homeowner] to hire a contractor to do the work,” Costello adds.
Most people want to keep their deck as a nice outdoor living space. Homeowners who don’t have the time, ability or expertise to handle deck maintenance on their own are “looking for an expert they can believe in and who can make their decks look good,” observes Rod Marsh, sales manager at Napier Environmental Technologies Inc. “Professional painting contractors, because of their knowledge, can fill that role. In terms of paint and stain removal, contractors are usually familiar with the safe use of caustic products and have experience with equipment, such as pressure washers.” But contractors also need to understand the specific characteristics of the different types of wood used for decks and their individual cleaning and maintenance needs, he says.
There is a lot for the contractor to keep in mind when sizing up a deck maintenance project. The scope of the job will vary based on what the deck is made of-pressure-treated pine, western cedar, redwood or another species-as well as the condition of the deck and what the customer envisions as the end result.
“When a contractor first arrives on the jobsite, there is a wealth of observations and information he should gather. Painting contractors should obtain the age of the deck, the species of wood used to construct the deck (noting if a variety of species were used), and a history of the coatings applied to the deck previously. Contractors should also observe the state of old coatings, whether any wood appears soft or rotten, and whether boards have become unfastened or loosened from the supporting structure. If wood appears brittle, soft and/or has extensive cracking/checking replacement may be the best alternative,” recommends Campbell.
Talking with customers is important. “Ask your customers what look they are interested in. What do they expect of the finish? Do they want to see the wood grain? Some people pay a lot of money for a certain wood and they don’t want to cover it up with a stain,” Costello says. In talking with your customers you’ll learn if they need education about protective finishes-the different types and their advantages and disadvantages-and the importance of a good cleaning before the protective finish is applied.
“Some homeowners don’t understand why it’s important to clean the deck before treating it,” says Mendenhall. But, he says, it makes sense to them if you explain it in a way they understand, such as, “If you’re going to wax your car, don’t you wash it first?”
“I sit down with my customers and talk to them. I break it down into simple terms and why it is important to perform maintenance every year,” reports Jack Scialabba, owner of Jax Painting Co. in Senora, Calif. “I give my customers a lot of literature about various products and I explain the process I’ll use.”
“I give customers an option,” says Jim Hamilton, owner of Deck Doctor Restoration in San Diego. “Some customers want protection, others want esthetics. Some may need their deck cleaned and a ‘patch’ application in high traffic areas. Some need the whole job done [stripping and refinishing]. I typically give two prices — one estimate for power washing and applying a refresh coating, and a second estimate to strip the deck so all areas have a uniform look when it is refinished.”
The concept behind protective finishes for decks is that the coating is sacrificed to save the integrity of the wood. “In a sense, the coatings themselves will break down slowly over time with exposure to the elements rather than a homeowner’s wood investment. When the costs involved in periodic recoating are weighed against wood replacement, the benefit of maintaining the deck becomes clear,” observes Campbell.
“It’s important [for contractors] to test different products,” says Mendenhall. “Some products work well in some areas of the country, but not others. A product that works well in Florida doesn’t necessarily work in western Pennsylvania.” The environment, climate and weather elements are different, he explains.
|Wood preservatives show off the natural beauty of wood grains and colors.
Hamilton says he uses a variety of products based on the application and customer preferences, but he tests them, too. Hamilton says he applies a variety of products to his own deck and observes how they hold up. “I keep track of water resistance, the impact of full sun exposure and the effects of foot traffic. Test products yourself in your area,” he recommends.
“Manufacturers offer technical information about their products and often offer samples,” reports Costello. Contractors need to be able to educate their customers about wood penetrating finishes and surface coating or film-building products, she says, and product guarantee information is important, too.
Knowing the expected lifespan of products helps John Sindelar, president of Shake Savers Inc. in Cleveland, who offers various estimates based on what protective finish will be used, and gives comparative estimates his customer can understand. “I give a per year cost, which also helps me counter competing bids that may be less expensive.” This method helps him show how a competing bid may not be less expensive over time if the customer has to have the coating reapplied annually and the product Sindelar would apply lasts longer. “Since decks are an investment and an expense, we want customers to make the best decision,” Sindelar says.
Clark says the old saying “don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle” is right on point for contractors selling deck maintenance programs, but he says it takes some skill. “If you perform the maintenance in the spring, tie in a fall waterproofing. But be sure to come back once a year to check on the condition of the deck. Annual maintenance is less expensive to do. If a homeowner goes two to three years, not only has more damage likely occurred to the deck, but it’ll cost more to re-do it. Ideally, you need to retreat a deck before it needs it.”
|Wood maintained decks are a constant invitation to outdoor entertainment year round.
Scialabba says he prefers to treat decks in the fall, right before they have to endure winter’s worst, but he won’t turn work down if a customer wants him to do the work in the spring. “I’ll do a deck in the spring of the year, but, after the sun has baked the deck all summer, I’ll make an appointment to do a water test on the deck in September or October to see if a light waterproofing needs to be applied.”
“With deck care programs, customers need to know when you’ll be back, what you’ll do and how much it will cost. These things are crucial to the relationship,” Marsh points out. “If a contractor doesn’t set up a maintenance schedule, it’s likely the customer will believe he doesn’t need one — much to his detriment. Then the customer will go to someone else.”
Setting up a maintenance schedule does not mean you have to have a signed contract that locks your customer in for years at a time. In fact, it appears most contractors don’t use contracts for their deck maintenance programs. “I dropped having contracts because they scared customers away,” reports Hamilton. “Now I just work with an estimate sheet and a guarantee and I’ve not had any problems.”
The important thing is to develop a database of customers and keep in touch with them. Scialabba calls repeat-customers when it’s time to maintain their deck. Hamilton says he typically doesn’t increase prices year-to-year for his repeat customers — it’s their “return customer discount.” Other contractors use other methods to stay in regular contact, including newsletters. Coating manufacturers often provide brochures, door hangers, postcards and yard signs for contractors using their products.
Your goal is to educate prospects and repeat-customers and for them to rely on you as a problem-solver. You want the customer to know as much as possible so they can help identify problems. It makes your job easier and helps them save money in the long run.
Contractor certification programs may give you an edge up in this area, reports Marsh. “Many manufacturers offer training programs, which lend more credibility to the contractor,” he says.
But Sindelar sums it up best: “If you have all the customers in the world thinking you’re looking out for them, you’ll have all the customers in the world looking out for you — and telling all their friends.”