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Thursday, June 29, 2006 02:54 am

The great debate

Whether to pick vinyl or wood

Dear Gene: We live in a condominium with a deck that has wood railings that are in need of replacement or repair. The condo association wants us to replace the wood railings with vinyl, which is supposedly maintenance-free. What are the pros and cons of wood versus vinyl? — M.E.

Vinyl isn’t maintenance-free, of course, but it comes close to being that. Vinyl is currently used for a long list of building products, most of which require little care except occasional cleaning. The big virtue of vinyl is that the color goes all the way through — it has no surface finish such as paint or stain. It can be painted, but that is seldom necessary unless a color change is wanted. Unlike wood, it doesn’t rot or splinter and is resistant to insect attacks. It is also highly resistant to water and sunlight, both of which are anathema to wood.

A disadvantage of vinyl, which I don’t consider a serious failing, is that it can become brittle in cold weather and a sharp impact while it is cold can cause it to crack. I have used many vinyl products and have never had this happen.

Pressure treating has made some wood a more durable outdoor material, giving resistance to rot and insects, but even treated wood can crack, splinter, and eventually rot. It also needs regular cleaning and finishing to help keep it in good condition. However, wood has superior structural strength. Where strength is important, vinyl is often reinforced with aluminum or other metals.

Price comparison is difficult because so many systems are available, but, in general, treated-wood railings are less expensive than vinyl railings.

Dear Gene: Can pressure-treated wood be stained? — E.T.

Treated wood can and should be stained to help protect it against the effects of moisture and sun. Stains can be bought at any home center or paint store; Wolman, Cabot, and Olympic are just three of the many brands available.

Two basic types of stain are generally used: solid color (opaque), which is much like paint, and semitransparent, which is more lightly pigmented and allows some of the grain pattern to show through.

Anyone planning to stain a deck or other outdoor structure should check an article titled “Deck Treatments” in the July 2006 issue of Consumer Reports magazine. The article rates a variety of stains on their performance in tests conducted by the magazine.

It is best to clean a deck before staining it. Use one of the special deck cleaners sold at home centers and paint stores.

Dear Gene: Last fall we had terrible rainstorms, and a lot of water came down our chimney and into the brick fireplace. Since then a powdery substance has formed on the surface of the fireplace bricks. We have brushed some of it off, but we don’t know how to get the rest off. What is this stuff, and what can we do about it? — L.G.W.

The white substance is called efflorescence; it consists of harmless minerals brought to the surface of he bricks by moisture. Efflorescence is also common in concrete.

The only real solution is to stop the water penetration. If you don’t have a chimney cap, you should install one.

There are chemical treatments to remove the powdery substance, but some are dangerous to apply and can do more harm than good. Some experts advise against using these treatments on bricks except in extreme cases. For more information, go to the Web site www.redlandbrick.com/techinfo.html.

My advice is to continue dry-brushing and vacuuming the bricks and let some time pass. It is possible that the bricks will eventually stop leaching minerals.

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