Hit the Deck! How to Clean Decking

by Michael Franco
"A pressure washer sprayer is cleaning a weathered treated wood deck railing. The wood on the left has been  cleaned, the right is dirty and weathered, showing the contrast. The background are blurred trees."

For all the hours of entertainment and relaxation our decks deliver, they ask remarkably little in return in the way of maintenance.

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Keeping your deck clean can repay its tireless service in being the outdoor stage you love — both in terms of aesthetic appeal and increasing its longevity.

When Is It Deck-Cleaning Time?

About that: When do you know it's time to clean your deck? To be clear, we're not talking about the normal sweeping and removing of debris from the deck surface, which you should do on a regular daily or weekly basis. Here, we are referring to undertaking a serious cleaning project involving hoses, soap and other spiffing-up tools.

In general, you should give your deck a good scrub about once a year. Linking it to a season makes sense so that it stays part of your home maintenance schedule. If you use your deck the most in summer, then cleaning it in the spring makes sense. If your deck tends to broil in the hot months, though, and you use it more in the fall, late summer would be a good time to wash it down. If you plan to reseal your deck after cleaning it, you'll want to make sure that you find a stretch of dry weather where the temperatures will hover between 60 to 70 degrees.

Cleaning a Wood Deck

In general, wood decks will need more cleaning and maintenance than those made from composite materials like Trex. Still, an annual cleaning will suffice unless your deck gets extensive debris from trees, nuts or animal droppings.

If your deck is in really rough shape, you may want to power wash it first. However, be careful when undertaking this step. Power washers can easily rip the wood fibers apart, leading to a gouged, splintery deck instead of a squeaky-clean deck. If you decide to power wash, use a wide stream on the nozzle and stay far enough away from the deck surface to avoid marking it. It's also possible to use something known as a "fireman's nozzle" on a garden hose. This will give you a stream that is stronger than normal, but not intense enough to cause damage.

If your deck is in decent shape and is just up for its annual refresh, then you can skip the power washing and go right to cleaning. To do so, you'll first want to wet the deck using a garden hose. Then, apply a cleaning solution to the deck surface using a stiff-bristle scrubbing brush with a pole extender. You can use a commercial cleaner designed for wood decks, or you can simply make your own cleaning solution.

One option for a homemade deck cleaner is simply adding a half-cup of white vinegar and a quarter-cup of baking soda to a gallon of warm water. Alternatively, you can fill your gallon of water with two tablespoons of ammonia-free dishwashing liquid, one quart of oxygen bleach (or oxygen laundry cleaner) and one pint of rubbing alcohol. If you go with the second formula, it is essential that you use ammonia-free dish soap, as mixing ammonia and bleach can create highly toxic fumes.

Apply the cleanser with the brush, scrubbing back and forth along the wood grain. When you are finished, use your garden hose to rinse the deck, let the surface dry, and proceed with sealing it if you haven't done so in a while. It is recommended to seal your deck every one to two years.

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Cleaning a Composite Deck

If your deck is made from composite materials, congratulations! You won't have to worry about splinters, sealing or many other maintenance tasks associated with wood decks. You don't get off the hook for cleaning, though. In fact, it's recommended that you clean your composite decking twice a year to avoid slippery patches that can be caused by mold or mildew build-up if your deck is in a shady, moist location.

The steps for cleaning a composite deck are virtually the same as cleaning a wood deck. You have a little more latitude with the power washer, here, because you don't have to worry about wood fibers splintering. In fact, a good power wash is all that is usually needed to get a composite deck clean. Just be sure to use a pressure washer that delivers nothing higher than 3100 psi.

If you decide to soap up your deck and give it a good scrub instead, you can again use a commercial cleaning solution, or you can make your own cleanser at home. In this case, though, you'll want to avoid any kind of bleach because it can discolor or damage your decking boards. Instead, go with the vinegar and baking soda formulation above, or try a simple mix of two tablespoons of dishwashing liquid to every gallon of water.

Now that your deck is clean, why not celebrate with a barbecue with the neighbors?

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