Pier Review

The days are long gone when a few tool-savvy friends could help a do-it-yourselfer put in a wooden or metal pier. We've compiled a list of questions you can use when you sit down with a contractor to discuss adding a dock.

Q. Do I really need it?
A. Ask yourself this question before any major addition. Your answer will prompt other vital questions about how you intend to use the dock. As a swim platform? For boating? For twilight cocktails? Carefully consider needs―and finances. If all you want is a place to watch sunsets, save your greenbacks and build a deck on dry land.

Q. Am I getting advice from people who know the rules?
A. Dock building is one of those rare categories in which I advise you not to rely on local lore. Chances are, older docks in your community were installed before current local, state, and federal environmental regulations were enacted.

Q. How do I find out the rules in my community?
A. Start from the bottom up. Call your town's code-enforcement officer. Then check with local government agencies. Describe exactly where you live, and have your property survey or title available so that you can provide precise coordinates. For a helpful list of state departments of environmental protection, visit clay.net/statag.html.

Q. Should I build a floating dock or one on pilings?
A. Floating docks rise and fall with the tides. They're attached to fixed vertical poles, sometimes called piers, pounded into the seabed. Stationary docks are, well, stationary. Most of the big decisions related to them―lengths, design configurations, height above the water―are shaped by regional regulations. One tip for pilings: Choose round rather than square for less-disruptive water flow and fewer edges to deteriorate over time.

Pros of floating docks: They easily adjust to changes in water levels. In regions where the water ices over in winter, you can haul them up to shore to wait out the coldest months.

Cons: To some, floating docks feel unstable. Many homeowners associations insist on traditional docks.

Pros of stationary docks: If well constructed, stationary docks will ride out storms that tear loose floating docks. They also tower above high tides that pull floating docks to their anchoring systems' limits.

Cons: Stationary docks are expensive and always in your view. Localities can impose a complicated review process for permanent coastal structures.

Q. What material should I use?
A. Composite materials don't have wood's long track record, but they should have an advantage in resisting sun and salt. Only use composites for surface decking, not structural support. For the support components, I still favor pressure-treated wood. (Buy the more expensive stock, which contains more of the chemicals that resist rot.) And steel? Because it corrodes, it doesn't hack it in a residential context.

Q. How about maintenance?
A. Go low maintenance. If you use high-quality pressure-treated wood, you won't need wood sealer. When you clean the dock, stick with plain water, a good scrub brush, and―in extreme circumstances―biodegradable soap. I'm betting after the first time on your knees with a brush, you'll see the grime as adding distinctive character.

Read More About It
For additional advice: "Coast-A-Syst" Environmental Stewardship for Homeowners; soil.ncsu.edu/assist.

For general dock tips: "Dock Primer," by the Canadian government; dfo-mpo.gc.ca (click on "Reports & Publications).

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