Coming Clean Coming Clean


Got a dirty deck? You can swab it yourself or call in people with the real scour power

August 23, 2008|By ROB KASPER

There are, I discovered, two ways to clean and seal a wood deck. There is the approach I have taken when tackling the task. That would be cleaning the deck with a garden hose and sealing it with a paint roller. Then there is the mode professionals such as Jim Yeiser and Phil Muth employ. They clean the wood with a power washer, then apply the sealant with a mist emitted by a power spray.

My method costs less, about $75, compared to theirs, which costs about $460 for an average deck. Their results look much better.

"We do get a fair amount of business from guys who said, 'I did my deck once and I am never going to do that again,' " Muth said. He told me this one brilliant morning this week as we watched members of his Pride Services Group crew get ready to seal the deck of a townhouse in Owings Mills. Muth is the owner of the deck-care business and Yeiser is the manager of the 15-year-old enterprise.

Right away, it was apparent to me that the pros approach their deck work with much more patience and preparation than I have demonstrated.

The Pride Services crew had cleaned this deck several days earlier. The workers had used a power washer capable of shooting water out at a pressure of 3,500 pounds per square inch. This is a pressure level only pros use.

The power washer rinsed off the coating of Dr. Dave's Deck Soap, a mixture of lye-based detergents that Muth had named in honor of the former employee who created the potion. Then they let the washed deck dry for two rainless days. The arid period is important, Muth said, because the wood has to be dry to accept the sealant. Before applying sealant, they measure the amount of moisture on the deck with a tool called a moisture meter.

By contrast, when I washed the deck of a beach house last summer, I used a jug of cleaning solution that screwed onto the end of a garden hose. After I finished cleaning the deck, I was itching to seal it and waited only one day for the deck to dry. My moisture meter was my bare big toe, which I rubbed on the surface of the wood.

Some people are wary of having a power washer clean their deck, Yeiser said. They are worried that the high pressure will damage the wood, causing it to look fuzzy.

Pressure washers can damage wood if they are held too close to deck or if the psi - pressure per square inch - is too high. For most woods 1,500 to 2,500 psi should be sufficient.

Yeiser and Muth acknowledged that when inexperienced operators get their hands on a power washer, bad things can happen. Once, for instance, Muth recalled that he was summoned to clean up behind a crew of men who had rented a power washer and drained several beers as they attempted to clean a number of decks in their neighborhood. One reveler had carved an obscenity into the wood of a deck with the power washer. It would not come out.

But when a power washer is in the hands of a pro, it can take the dusky gray color out of a dirty deck - the "sunburn," as Muth calls it.

Yeiser later demonstrated the correct way to use a power washer when he cleaned some soiled planks at the company's Catonsville headquarters. The results were impressive. Indeed, after the crew had washed the Owings Mills deck, it looked like it had new lumber.

Before the pros applied a drop of sealant, they cloaked the worksite in a ton of plastic sheeting. The plastic prevented the sealant from damaging adjoining property or vegetation. "I tell my crew plastic is cheap, but replacing siding is expensive," Yeiser said.

What type of sealant you apply to your deck is, I learned, a matter of taste, expense and environmental regulations. Most sealants do the minimal job of repelling water, Muth said. But more expensive sealants tend to hold their good looks longer, he added.

The tint of sealants ranges from light to dark. The lighter tints help keep the wood cooler and easier to walk on in bare feet, Muth said. On the other hand, he added, the darker the tint, the more protection it offers the wood against the ultraviolet rays of the sun.

These wood preservatives contain volatile organic compounds - gases that at dangerous levels can, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, damage the environment. Recently, manufacturers cut back on the amount of volatile organic compounds in deck sealants, Muth said.

After an hour or so of prep work, crew member Osmin Martinez was ready to apply sealant. He used an electric sprayer that sent a fine mist of sealant with a linseed-oil base onto the deck. In its bucket, the cedar-tinted sealant looked like orange juice. But on the wood, it had a much lighter hue, closer to honey.

One of the fine points of applying sealant, Muth said, is using a nozzle that sends out a small particles of spray. If you use a paint roller, the sealant goes on in a heavier dose and doesn't penetrate as deeply into the wood, he said. The roller also misses the sides of the floorboards, he added.

I, of course, had applied my most recent coat of deck sealant with a roller.

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