If you spent long, leisurely days this summer on your wood deck, then you probably don’t want to face the reality that depending on where you live, colder months may be ahead and your deck might not get as much use. But now’s the time to take action to keep your wood deck attractive and safe through the fall and winter, no matter where you live.
Here are six key steps to take to transition your wood deck into the cooler seasons:
1. Inspect Your Deck Surroundings
Have a good look at the trees and bushes surrounding your deck as the season transitions from summer to fall, says Phil Kelly, chief operating officer for McHale Landscape Design and a member of the National Association of Landscape Professionals.
Look for any tree branches hanging above your deck or thick shrubs surrounding it. Kelly says you want air to be able to circulate over and around your deck to prevent moisture buildup that would lead to mold, mildew and rot — all detrimental to a wood deck.
Also, make sure your roof gutters above the deck are cleaned. If they get clogged with leaves and other debris, water won’t drain and will end up spilling over the gutter onto your deck.
Finally, look for any erosion around the footing of your deck.
2. Clean and Take a Good Look at Your Deck Surface
Remove, cover or store any freestanding furniture so you can clean the surface of your deck. Do the same with any portable grills, outdoor rugs, planters, umbrellas and bar carts, being careful to lift and not drag them to avoid scratching your deck surface.
Put fitted covers, which won’t blow away, over your furniture to prevent damage from moisture and changing weather conditions. Look for covers made of a two-layer material that has a waterproof layer on top and a softer material on the bottom that won’t scratch the furniture. “Don’t go cheap,” says Charlie Jourdain, manager of business development at Humboldt Redwood. “It’s not going to last, and it’s going to blow away.”
Remove any debris and leaves that might have accumulated on your wood deck over the summer. Clean the deck with a garden hose or pressure washer to remove dirt and stains. If there are stubborn stains, you can use a stiff-bristled brush and bucket of warm water mixed with a mild detergent. “Depending on the wood, you can also sand it to remove stains, but be careful,” Kelly says. “Do a test area first.”
Also look for any loose boards, and see if damage is limited to a single area or is more extensive. If you find leaves between the boards, use a plastic putty knife or squeegee with a flat, smooth rubber blade that won’t scratch your deck surface to get down between the deck boards to remove the debris. “Keep the space between deck boards clear to promote drainage and air circulation,” Jourdain says. “Moisture is one of the enemies of deck longevity.”
3. Visually Inspect Your Deck Overall
Pay attention to the structural components that keep the deck safe and secure, checking for any signs of decay (like a dark area or white deposit), mold or fastener corrosion under your deck. Look at your posts for signs of warping, look at the beams for any loose hardware and check the stability of the stair railings and the joists. “All along I’m looking for signs of rot or insect damage,” Kelly says.
Also have a look at the ledger (where the deck is connected to the house), which helps provide much of the deck’s strength. See if it’s pulling away from your home, and make sure connections are secure. “The vast majority of deck failures occur because the ledger was not connected correctly to the house,” Jourdain says. “Sometimes even if the ledger is connected properly, decay can happen in wood over time.”
Because safety is extremely important for decks, Jourdain says, it’s best to call a licensed home inspector or licensed contractor to look at the problem area and advise on the best solution. Jourdain also says homeowners can visit the North American Deck and Railing Association website for information on how to find a certified deck builder and inspector and other useful information.
Think about the deck utilities too. If you have a gas grill, inspect the gas line. Also check any lights that are included on your deck to see if the connections are secure and if any bulbs need to be replaced. A poorly lit deck is a safety hazard at night.
4. Look at Deck Hardware for Tightness and Corrosion
Closely inspect any hardware on deck stairs, railing posts and balusters, looking at fasteners for rust or corrosion. Many older wood decks have nails, and seasonal movement due to moisture and temperature changes can loosen the nails. “If nails have popped, carefully hammer them down or, better yet, replace them with deck screws,” Jourdain says.
For stairs, Jourdain says to grab the railings to see if they wiggle or there’s any looseness. “I would look at how the post is attached; maybe it’s bolted,” he says. “If you see the connection, you can tighten the bolt to secure the post if the wood [has] shrunk.”
Also walk up and down the stairs looking for any movement in the stair treads. “With stairs, what’s critical is the framing,” Kelly says. “You want to look where the stair stringers are fastened to the deck framing.”
If you find any areas of concern, it’s a good idea to consult with a building professional who has experience in deck construction.
5. Make Sure the Area Under Your Deck is Safe and Secure
Some decks are designed with storage space underneath; make sure the area is kept clean. In some locations, storing furniture or firewood under your deck is a hazard, so check with local building and fire codes. “Storing stuff under your deck means more accumulation of moisture, leaves and vermin,” Jourdain says.
If your deck is in an area that’s prone to water accumulation, adding gravel under a ground-level or raised deck will help promote proper drainage and mitigate moisture. Because gravel is a noncombustible material (unlike mulch or bark), it’s also a good idea to use it if your area is prone to wildfires.
Your best bet for making sure the area underneath is safe is to clean it regularly and inspect it frequently (and bring in a professional if you see any problem areas or if your home and deck experience a major weather event).
6. Keep the Deck Surface Clean Over Winter, and Plan Ahead
A weekly visit to your deck to check for the accumulation of any debris will help avoid problems that might otherwise build over the colder months.
If you’re in a milder climate, you still want to clean off leaves regularly. Jourdain says a buildup of leaves on a wood deck (especially after it rains) can lead to mildew and mold issues, plus it would mean more cleanup work in spring.
If you’re in a region with a cold climate, you need to pay attention to how much snow or ice ends up on the deck. Shoveling snow or chipping ice on a wood deck can cause damage, so take a conservative approach. “Let it melt naturally, unless weight is a concern,” Kelly says. “If you have to shovel snow, use a shovel with a rubber edge.”
When the weather warms up, you can consider a new seal for your wood deck that helps lock out moisture. How often you need to reseal your deck depends on the type of deck you have and the location of your deck on your property. Decks made from woods like ipe, mahogany and redwood may need to be resealed every one to three years, while other types of wood decks may need to be resealed every year and sometimes even twice a year.
There are many kinds of sealants on the market; some are a combination sealant and stain, and some are eco-friendly. Look for a product that acts as a water repellent, provides sunscreen for your deck and makes it mildew-resistant. (Kelly says he likes the products from Sansin, Penofin and Cabot). For any questions on the best treatment for the particular wood used for your deck, consult with your deck installer. “Plan now on selecting a quality finish to apply as soon as the spring weather cooperates,” Jourdain says.
Finally, fall is a great time to think about any deck enhancements you want to make. “It could be adding a retractable awning for shade or a pergola structure, or maybe even string lights,” Kelly says. “You can also break out any fall decor and rotate summer annuals to fall plants.”