A deck is a place to relax, entertain, and enjoy the outdoors. Spending hours, and in some cases days, cleaning and staining the deck isn’t for everyone. Low maintenance engineered decking has become very popular in the past decade with dozens of different manufacturers. There are two basic types of engineered wood generically referred to as composite boards, they are polymer or PVC and composite. If you’re having difficulty deciding between PVC vs composite decking, we’re here to help.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the key points in the debate over which is best, what PVC and composite decking are, and the differences between the two decking materials. We’ll also take a look at the pros and cons of plastic deck material and the advantages and disadvantages of composite decking. Our goal is to help you determine which is better for your deck project, composite or PVC.
PVC vs Composite Decking: Key Points
Building a deck, whether DIY or professionally constructed, can be an expensive undertaking. Selecting the best material for your deck can save you time, money, and improve your outdoor enjoyment.
Capped or uncapped engineered lumber has many advantages, with capped lumber easily outlasting wood decking and being almost maintenance-free. Check out the comparison chart for which engineered product is best for your project.
|Capped PVC vs Capped Composite Decking|
|Capped PVC||Capped Composite|
|Durability||Resistant to mold, moisture, and insects, won’t warp or rot, is scratch, stain, fade, and UV resistant||Resistant to mold, insects, and moisture, won’t rot or warp, is stain, scratch, and UV resistant – organic material makes it less durable than PVC|
|Average Lifespan||Lifetime or 50-year warranty||25 to 30-year warranty|
|Heat Resistance||Lightweight and sheds heat well||Dense material retains heat longer|
|UV Protection||UV protected and more resistant to fading||UV protected but organic material can cause fading, with darker colors more prone to lightening|
|Color Options||Dozens of solid, multi-tonal, or streak options within the gray, brown, black, and white hue spectrum||More limited color choice than PVC|
|Maintenance||Low maintenance, hose down or clean with soap and water with soft-bristle brush annually or as required||Low maintenance, use soap, water, and a soft-bristle brush to clean annually or as needed|
|Cost||$4 to $12 per linear foot||$3 to $10 per linear foot|
What Is PVC Decking?
PVC decking is made by extruding polyvinyl chloride through specialized dies before it hardens. The PVC may be colored prior to going through molds where it is shaped like a deck board, and the wood grain texture embedded or embossed. Some manufacturers wrap and fuse a wood-colored and grained surface to a generic PVC plank of recycled material, resulting in a crosscut profile of different colors.
Although often referred to as a composite board, PVC or plastic deck boards have no organic material in them. They may be 100% recycled plastic, 100% virgin plastic, or a combination of both. PVC planks are available with grooved or ungrooved edge profiles, and with hollow or solid foam cores – making them lighter in weight than other decking options. Planks commonly are available in 8’, 12’, 16’, and 20’ lengths, but can be specially ordered in other lengths.
Pro Note: PVC deck boards are not vinyl decking, although many use the terms interchangeably. PVC deck boards are made of 100% plastic, while vinyl decking isn’t plastic, it is a roll-out type membrane used to protect plywood or wooden deck boards from moisture. It is heat-sealed or glued into place and has no real structure strength by itself.
What Is Composite Decking?
Composite lumber is made of different materials mixed or blended together, resulting in a solid color throughout. The boards commonly have organic material such as wood fibers or sawdust – wood flour – combined with high-density polyethylene, polypropylene, or PVC. Much of the material used in the manufacture of composite wood is pre- or post-consumer recycled material.
The raw materials are melted and mixed in an extruder and forced through a die that shapes it into deck boards and embosses it with a wood grain. Capped decking has a finish fused to the surface during manufacture that offers additional protection that uncapped composite lumber lacks.
Planks are available with grooved or flat edges, solid or hollow cores, and lengths of 8’, 12’, 16’, and 20’. Other lengths are available from most manufacturers.
What Is the Difference Between PVC and Composite Decking?
The main difference between PVC and composite decking is the composition. PVC is 100% plastic while composite boards are a blend of organic and inorganic material. Other differences range from negligible to significant depending upon the attributes or factors being compared.
Both PVC and composite decking are available in capped and uncapped boards, with uncapped being more pocket-friendly. Capped decking means the planks have a protective surface melded to either the top surface or fully wrapping the board during the manufacturing process. Capped has a harder, more durable surface, and is less vulnerable to staining or the growth of mold and mildew.
Here are eighteen key factors in the PVC versus composite decking comparison:
Aesthetics / Appearance
In general, aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder. Some people like the look and feel of PVC and others that of composite. PVC commonly has a linear more aggressive wood grain pattern which may look more synthetic in appearance compared to the softer, more wood-like grain in composite boards.
Capped PVC and composite decking both have the appearance and feel of wood grain, plus, some have a multi-tonal coloring to simulate real wood. Different manufacturers offer a variety of grain patterns, textures, and multi-tonal streaking, so there are some PVC patterns that are similar to composite and vice versa.
Durability factors in many of the attributes used in this comparison between PVC and composite decking. Although both types of decking are highly durable compared to solid wood, PVC is more durable. Both will outlast wood in the same environment, require less upkeep, and retain their color longer.
The main reason PVC is more durable than composite is that it is 100% plastic and thus, non-organic. The organic material in composite wood affects its longevity and durability. This also is the reason PVC is less vulnerable to damage by patio furniture, pets, mold, mildew, and environmental factors.
The lifespan of decking greatly depends on the quality of material used and its installation, plus the lifespan of the deck frame itself. Environmental factors also can affect lifespan. PVC is less susceptible to environmental issues and is more durable, so will outlast comparable quality composite decking.
Manufacturer’s warranties are a good indication of lifespan. PVC has a limited lifetime to lifetime structural warranty while composite decking is limited to between 25 and 30-years. PVC also has a 50-year warranty against stains and fading, compared to composite wood’s 30-years.
Color Options / Color Palette
Color choices for PVC and composite lumber vary with manufacturers. What is commonly available in the building supply store is what is commonly requested and thus carried, not the overall color selection. Most manufacturers offer an assortment of colors, textures, and grain patterns, so it’s best to check what different manufacturers have, and then search for a local supplier.
Most wood tones will complement any house exterior, but other colors are available that may prove more aesthetically appealing. Whether you select a solid color, multi-tonal, or streaked, you’ll find a wider color pallet with PVC than composite. However, both materials are available in hues of brown, gray, black, and white, with others available by special orders.
Heat Resistance / Absorption
Darker colors absorb more heat than lighter colors, and dense material will retain the heat longer. Therefore, PVC will dissipate heat more quickly than composite wood of the same color because it is less dense. That doesn’t mean that it won’t feel hot underfoot at 100°F, it just won’t feel as hot as composite wood.
Heat resistance has improved in recent years, especially with capped deck boards. Many manufacturers use synthetic material in the cap that reduces heat absorption in both PVC and composite wood.
Additionally, a number of manufacturers have issued warnings that Low-E glass next to decks can reflect solar radiation and increase the temperature of nearby deck boards above the ambient temperature of the rest of the deck.
Scratches, whether small or large, can detract from the finish of a deck. In wood decks, they are often more noticeable as they reveal fresh wood, but can be sanded out and touched up, or left to fade. If you do manage to scratch composite and PVC planks the subsurface material is the same color, so they don’t stand out as much.
Additionally, both capped PVC and composite boards are highly scratch resistant under ‘normal’ use. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be marked, it just means they are less likely to mark. Dragging heavy planters or sharp items across the planks may leave marks, the same as it would on other materials.
PVC is harder to scratch than composite planks, and any catches or sharp edges raised by scratches can be lightly sanded to smooth out. Unlike wood though, you won’t get splinters from those scratches.
Capped composite and PVC, like most decking, are more slippery when wet than when dry. They are commonly slicker than aged natural wood but less so than smooth tile or concrete. However, slipping on composite or PVC is less likely to result in a splinter than wood decking.
Some high-end composite and most PVC boards have a textured surface that emulates wood grain. The texture increases traction and grip, thus decreasing slip potential. The embossed finish may feel rough on the fingertips, but when used near pools, spas, or in wet climates, it provides more traction than many other deck materials.
Moisture and Mold Resistance
The composition of engineered wood determines its resistance to moisture and mold. PVC decking whether capped or uncapped contains no organic material. It doesn’t absorb moisture, nor does it contain material that will produce mold. This means PVC decking is highly resistant to mold and moisture.
Composite decking contains wood material that is organic, so uncapped boards are more susceptible to both moisture and mold. However, composite planks that are fully wrapped in a polymer coating, aka fully capped, will be much more resistant than boards with only a top cap. Fully capped composite boards are almost as resistant to moisture and mold as PVC, provided they have no exposed core material.
Stain resistance is linked to moisture resistance. The more impervious to moisture material is, the less likely it is to stain. Additionally, the longer a material sits on a surface, the more difficult it will be to remove, thus, cleaning a deck regularly will minimize stain potential from leaf tannins and pollens, as well as other materials.
PVC is less susceptible to stains as it contains no organic material and is highly resistant to moisture. Polymer capped composite decking is also resistant to stains too, for the same reason. However, uncapped composite is more likely to stain, especially if the spill or material sits and soaks in. Many composite manufacturers offer a touch-up paint just in case too.
Most composite and PVC decking is available in 1” (0.94”) thicknesses and of varying widths depending on the manufacturer. Some offer specialty shaped planks too, such as ‘L’ shaped edging for capping the rim board and bull-nosed stair boards. Different widths improve design possibilities and decrease the necessity to rip planks to fit deck widths.
Ripping deck boards expose the inside strata to the elements and can weaken boards and affect their span potential. To prevent the necessity and allow for spacing on a variety of deck dimensions, both composite and plastic deck material are available in widths of 3-1/2”, 5-1/2”, and 7-1/4”. Multi-width deck boards allow for layout variations and accommodate different spacing allowances.
The weight of wood decking varies with species, moisture content, and grain density. Similarly, the weight of composite and PVC planking varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, it is usually consistent from board to board, which isn’t the case with solid wood deck boards.
Composite decking is denser than PVC and averages around 2-1/3lbs per linear foot, making it 40% to 50% heavier than equally sized timber decking. Plastic deck boards average around 1.58lbs per linear foot, making them about the same weight as the average pressure-treated S-P-F deck board. Grooved edge decking will weigh less, as some material weight has been removed.
Most composite and plastic decking can span joists perpendicular at 16” centers, and diagonally at 12” centers. However, always check the manufacturer’s specs and the local building code. Different products may also require special fasteners, some of which need special tools to install too.
The structure of the plank affects the end grain look, so many installers trim the deck with a picture frame to hide board ends. Some manufacturers offer end caps that close and finish PVC planks and color match paint to touch up exposed ends of composite boards. Installation is similar to wood decking and can be done using special nails, screws, or clips to fasten the boards into place.
Ultraviolet rays can damage both PVC and composite decking and cause the material to break down and the color to fade. Lighter colors will show less color change than dark wood tones, but both can soften or lighten with exposure to the sun. Uncapped decking will fade significantly more than capped products too.
Many manufacturers offer UV protection to prevent fading. Capped decking has UV protection embedded into the polymer coating which greatly improves the protection and resistance to fading. Both capped composite and PVC decking have excellent colorfast properties with UV protection.
Both composite and plastic deck boards contain recycled material, however, some PVC boards contain 100% recycled plastic. The question of sustainability comes at the end of the decking’s lifespan. Presently, capped composite boards last between 25 and 30-years, while PVC has a lifespan of 50-years.
Composite boards commonly contain polymers, high-density polyethylene or polypropylene, and wood fiber or powder, while PVC is 100% plastic. What that means is that PVC is 100% recyclable and composite will likely end up in the landfill. It is possible that processes will change in the future and recycling options improve, but presently, that isn’t the case.
Shrinkage and Expansion
Shrinkage and expansion of different materials have to be taken into account when designing and building decks. Temperature variations are the main reason many decking products expand and contract. It should be noted though, that while wood decking tends to expand laterally, expanding and shrinking the gap between boards, both plastic and composite planks tend to expand laterally.
Due to the longitudinal expansion and contraction of engineered decking, different manufacturers recommend specific types of fasteners. Additionally, there are different building and finishing strategies employed to allow boards to move without bending or warping, or damaging the deck structure.
The wood material in composite boards makes it less likely to expand or shrink more than a couple of millimeters. PVC decking, however, can change length 4 to 10 times more depending upon the manufacturer.
For more than a decade, manufacturers have been offering both uncapped and capped engineered decking. Capped decking is essentially the uncapped product with a hard protective non-organic polymer shell bonded to it during the manufacturing process.
The polymer shell may only be on the top face, or it may wrap the whole board. The cap improves durability and resistance to scratches, fading, insects, and moisture while decreasing staining and mold potential.
Capped boards are more expensive, will last significantly longer, and carry a better warranty than uncapped planks. PVC boards that are capped, whether top or fully wrapped, will outlast capped composite boards.
Composite decking that is fully protected is better protected and will outlast those that are only capped on the top surface. The key issue is the organic material in the composite decking is still exposed unless fully wrapped. Additionally, any cuts or fastening holes will expose unprotected organic material to moisture issues.
PVC and composite deck boards require less maintenance than wood decking and capped decking needs even less. For both decking products, hosing off the deck surface and using a soft-bristle brush to remove pollen, dirt, leaves, and other debris when necessary, or a couple of times a year will keep the surface looking like new. It is also important to keep the gaps between planks clear too.
Spills should be cleaned up quickly and washed with soapy water and a soft-bristle brush. Don’t use abrasive pads or cloths to clean the decking. Uncapped composite boards are more susceptible to the growth of mold and mildew due to the exposed organic material, and may require more maintenance than uncapped PVC boards, or capped PVC or composite planks.
The cost of decking depends on the length, quality, color, finish, and manufacturer of the product. It also depends on whether it’s capped or uncapped. The cost of uncapped decking is between 30% and 50% less than capped boards of the same brand and parameters, but it won’t last as long, so the overall cost to life span is also a factor. Decking that will last 30 to 50 years may sound great, but the deck frame may only last 20 years, so that is also something to consider.
PVC decking is commonly more expensive than composite but is usually warrantied for 50-years instead of 30. Currently, PVC costs range from $4 to $12 per linear foot, and composite $3 to $10, depending on quality, whether it’s capped, plus other factors. Fastening hardware is another cost to consider too. Some brands require special fasteners and tools which can make less expensive products more expensive overall.
PVC Decking Pros and Cons
The amount of sunlight, moisture, temperature fluctuations, and amount and type of use all impact how well a deck will stand up over time. When choosing a decking material, look for characteristics that will minimize maintenance and maximize enjoyment and improve the aesthetics of your home and yard.
- Resists insects, moisture, mold, UV, fading, and scratching
- Good range of color and textures available
- Durable, low maintenance, and lightweight
- No painting, sealing, or staining required
- Often contains recycled material
- 100% recyclable and often contains recycled material
- Some products are less wood-like than others
- Uncapped boards susceptible to fading and UV damage
- Difficult to repair damaged boards
- Rubber tires or chair feet protectors can cause discoloration
Composite Decking Advantages and Disadvantages
Composite decking contains organic material and reacts differently to climate issues than PVC. The difference between capped and uncapped composite boards is also much greater too. So, select a product that suits the environmental conditions and enhances your home and yard.
- Looks more like natural wood than PVC
- Less expensive than PVC
- Capped boards are resistant to moisture, insects, mold, scratches, UV, and fading
- Good range of color options
- May contain recycled material
- Low maintenance, durable, and long-lasting
- Heavier and denser
- Can fade over time, especially darker tones
- Susceptible to moisture and mold
- Not recyclable
Which Is Better, Composite or PVC Decking?
The choice of which is better, composite or PVC decking, depends on whether it is capped or uncapped, and may be more a matter of personal preference, availability, or budget. The main highlights for composite wood are it commonly looks more like wood, can be more slip-resistant, and expands or shrinks less than PVC. The polymer cap on composite boards improves its longevity, scratch resistance, and decreases its susceptibility to moisture and mold.
The key highlights of PVC are it lasts longer, is 100% recyclable, resistant to mold, mildew, and moisture, and is lighter weight than composite. Capped PVC is more resistant to scratches, resists fading, many brands are slip-resistant, and they’re easier to clean and maintain. Some brands offer realistic wood tone and grain in higher-end products, so for the budget-conscious, you get what you pay for.
The durability of composite and PVC is similar for capped products, but PVC has a longer life span. Color choice is greater for one or the other depending on the manufacturer, with PVC currently having more choices overall. Both PVC and composite are easy to install and last longer than wood. Regardless of material, capped is better than uncapped.
The decision for durability, longevity, and value for your dollar when choosing PVC or composite decking may come down to aesthetics and budget. The easiest choice is capped versus uncapped decking. Capped PVC will outlast and outperform capped composite in most areas, but the quality and longevity do come with a higher price point. Hopefully, you have a better understanding of which is better, PVC or composite, for your project.