It's deck sprucing-up time, and I thought I would share some tips on staining from Debbie Zimmer at the Paint Quality Institute.

Assuming that your deck doesn't need repairs, the first step is to remove any loose paint or stain that may be present. This is done in one of two ways: by scraping and sanding, or by treating the surface with a commercial deck conditioner, followed by careful power washing with plain water.

The prep work can be even easier if the deck has no loose paint or stain. Clean the surface with a commercial product, or, to save money, make your own by mixing a cup of household bleach and a splash of soap with a gallon of warm water. After scrubbing the surface clean, rinse it very thoroughly using a garden hose.

If, after cleaning, you still have areas with stubborn mildew, apply a solution of three parts water to one part bleach, allow the solution to sit on the affected surface for 20 minutes, then scrub off the mildew and rinse the surface clean, Zimmer said.

Once the surface preparation is complete, pick your stain. There are solvent-based and water-based formulations, but water-based stains offer significant advantages: They have better resistance to weathering, dry more quickly, are relatively odor-free, and clean up with plain soap and water.

Another consideration: whether to use a clear deck finish or a pigmented stain. This decision may be dictated by the condition and color of the wood on your deck, but durability is another important concern.

Clear-wood finishes provide only limited protection from the sun's UV rays, so they need to be reapplied every 12 months or so; pigmented stains afford more UV protection, so they last longer.

There are two types of pigmented stains. "Semitransparent" coatings help protect the wood without hiding its grain or texture, while "solid-color" stains show texture but not the grain.

The former need to be reapplied every 12 to 18 months, but solid-color stains can last three to five years, so if you want to stretch out your application cycle, go with a solid-color finish.

Consider the stress a deck endures, such as standing water, snow and ice, foot traffic, abrasion from patio furniture, and direct sunlight.

Zimmer said that top-quality 100 percent acrylic latex stains - either semitransparent or solid-color - are perhaps the best option when restoring a deck.

"They're tough and durable, and many of these stains contain extra ingredients to help prevent mildew," she said.

Stains can be applied with spray equipment, a long-handled roller, or by brush.

"However, spray or roller application should be followed by back brushing," she said. (That means going back in and brushing the stain while it's still wet so that it better penetrates the wood.)

More on grout cleaning. We had a question about grout cleaning a couple of columns ago. In response, here's what reader Ellen Shinn suggests, based on her experience:

"I, too, have dirty grout in several rooms - kitchen, bath, family room. The age of the tile varies with the room, from four to 15 years.

"I finally found a product that works: Finazzle. Unfortunately it is hard to find. The big-box stores don't carry it, and the website suggests small, individually owned hardware stores.

"It comes in two varieties: white and colored. Both are excellent.

"Using the spray bottle, spray and let it soak in for a few minutes. Then you scrub - yes, scrub - the grout, and wipe away with a paper towel.

"It is hard work, but once done, only spot cleaning is necessary. We also vacuum the floor, dry mop and use a Shark steam cleaner."

The website I found for it is finazzle.com. It says there are some Ace and True Value hardware stores that carry it.

Questions? E-mail Alan J. Heavens at aheavens@phillynews.com or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101. Volume prohibits individual replies. He is the author of "Remodeling on the Money" (Kaplan Publishing).