large empty cedar deck weathered image via Ricks FencingThere are few things more disheartening for a homeowner than emerging into the spring thaw and witnessing the devastation winter has wrought upon your outdoor living space. Excess moisture and changing temperatures are hard on a wood deck, and poor maintenance during the cold months can leave you staring in dismay at ugly stains, rotting wood and rampant mold and mildew growth.

Unfortunately, when it comes to wood decking, poor maintenance can also pose a safety hazard. Dry rot, weakened ledger connections and failing footings can all contribute to deck collapse. Not to get all doom and gloom, but deck collapses have injured 900 people and killed 20 in the last 15 years.

Decking professionals estimate that half of the decks in the United States are either poorly constructed or in a state of advanced decay. One hard winter may be all that is needed to push some of these aging decks over the edge.

In order to keep your deck healthy during the winter months, winterizing your deck should become a regular part of your fall home maintenance.

Here’s a checklist of tasks for how to winterize a wood deck:

Remove dirt, debris, mold and mildew.

You can’t prevent your hardwood or cedar deck from taking a beating once the rain and snow set in, but you can at least start with a clean slate.

  • Sweep all leaves and other yard debris from the surface of your decking material to prevent staining. Wet leaves can leach tannin into the wood, which leaves a tea-colored stain, and decomposing organic matter can spread rot to your deck boards.
  • Dislodge any debris that has become wedged between boards, as you want maximum air circulation throughout your entire deck to allow moisture to evaporate as quickly as possible.
  • Scrub out any mold or mildew you find, as it will only worsen over the winter. A product such as a deck brightener can help arrest mildew in its tracks.

Winterize a Wood Deck :: Large cedar deck refinished image via Ricks Fencing

Move planters and furniture off your deck. This is an important step many homeowners fail to take. Just because your outdoor furniture withstands rough weather doesn’t mean it should languish on your deck all winter long. Water can pool beneath planters and cause staining as well as mold, mildew and rot, while any metal that remains in extended contact with the deck surface can leave rust stains.

Perform a deck safety inspection.

Just as you regularly change the batteries in your smoke detectors, you should also inspect your deck for safety issues. Things to look for include:

  • Stability. Give your deck the hula hoop test. Plant your feet and make a hula hoop motion, trying to move the deck with your feet and hips. If it starts to sway, call in a professional for a more thorough inspection.
  • Dry rot. Dry rot is usually most prevalent where fasteners enter the wood or where two pieces of wood overlap. It is caused by a fungus, which usually appears as brown, white or yellow-colored spots. To test for dry rot, pierce the suspect area with a pick or screwdriver; if the wood is spongy or breaks off in chunks, there may be rot present.
  • Stair and handrail strength. Test the strength of any stairs or handrails. Loose rails or weak stairs are a safety issue that should be addressed as soon as possible.
  • Ledger connection. Check the ledger joist, where your deck connects to the house. The bolts should be tightened annually. If you notice loose or missing bolts, decay, or any signs that the ledger is pulling away for your home, immediate attention is needed.
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These are just a few of the things to look for when performing a safety inspection. If you have an older deck, or have reason to suspect a safety issue, I recommend bringing in a professional perform this task for you. Ask your local decking contractor whether they offer a free decking material safety evaluation.

Be prepared for snow.

Another thing to keep in mind during the winter is snow removal. Whether you plan on using your deck or not, it’s best to remove snow before it melts and sends all that moisture seeping into the wood. The safest method of snow removal is to use a large outdoor broom with stiff bristles. If you must use a snow shovel, stick to a plastic one and shovel lengthwise in the direction of the deck boards to avoid gouging the surface. Be especially careful with a composite deck, as shoveling can chip the decking material. Avoid using salt or other ice melters on a wood deck.

By performing these maintenance tasks, you can prep your deck to withstand the harsh winter and prevent any unpleasant surprises this spring.


Note from the hosts: Dave Nichols writes about cedar deck maintenance and construction, as well as other home improvement issues, for the Rick’s Fencing & Decking Blog. We hope to incorporate more material from Dave & @RicksFencing in the future. Thanks Dave.

For more on preparing for Winter (often performed in the Fall) and Winterizing or for more on decking check out those top level categories here at Building Moxie. ~jb