Decked out with choices

They don’t make decks like they used to. They make them better.

Choosing material for a new deck used to be a simple proposition: There were pressure-treated lumber, which most people used, or fancier woods such as cedar, redwood and mahogany. Then came Trex, and a bunch of other composites, and the alternative decking market exploded. Cellular PVC, capped versus non-capped, decking made from recycled nylon carpet, special fasteners, not to mention all those railing systems.

But don’t pity the consumer, who often uses the Internet to research decking options before stepping into a lumberyard or home center. Thanks to all these choices, there is a look, a level of maintenance and a price point to fit every homeowner’s criteria. It’s the dealers who often find themselves overwhelmed by decking options these days, while the manufacturers must fight harder than ever to keep or grow their market share.

Luckily, demand is holding steady for residential decking, according to a recent study by Principia Partners. Nearly 2.4 billion linear feet of decking were installed in North America in 2010, a modest increase (approximately 2%) over 2009’s volume. The vast majority — 90% — was tied to repair and remodeling, which takes in everything from replacing a rotting deck to adding a brand new deck to an existing home.

The remaining 10% of the construction is pegged to new custom homes or development-built homes that come sans deck. Just as new homeowners are anxious to green up their dirt-filled backyards, they want their glass patio doors to open to an inviting outdoor entertainment space. Replacement decks provide another rich vein of decking installations, and deck additions to older homes are also a source of revenues to dealers and manufacturers.

Decking demand is still dominated by pressure-treated wood, which accounted for more than 50% of the total volume of decks sold, according to the Principia study. Consumers have always been attracted by its low cost, and as Osmose senior VP Gary Converse pointed out: “Wood prices are the lowest they’ve been in many years.”

Osmose uses a micronized preservative to treat wood, and the process protects against cracking, splitting and warping. The product is also backed by a consumer warranty for fungal decay and termite damage.

Decking made from wood byproducts and recycled plastics have eaten into the pressure-treated wood market, but Osmose’s Converse takes issue with competitors who claim their alternative decking is more “green” than his.

“[Our] technology has received several environmental and green certifications, unlike most WPC (wood plastic composite) manufactured products,” Converse noted.

Christopher Kollwitz, director of marketing for wood preserver Viance, also bristles at the green view of alternative decking. “Wood remains the only truly renewable resource for deck construction,” he said. “Artificial decking is now made with less recycled materials than they were in the past, and many use virgin resins to produce their products.”

Wood stabilizers used in pressure-treatment formulations have improved dramatically, Kollwitz said, and they now reduce the cracking, checking and splitting in deck surfaces. Compared with the wood decks of yesteryear, today’s crop of wood decks look better for longer and are easier to stain and finish. “With just a small amount of maintenance, it can look new for more than 20 years,” he observed.

The WPCs

But wood plastic composites have also come a long way since Trex was introduced to the market in 1996. They look more like wood than earlier generations and still offer the low-maintenance, mold- and rot-resistant features that consumers are willing to pay a premium for. The popularity of exotic hardwoods like ipe — which also carry a high price tag — is being addressed by several manufacturers. MoistureShield added Tigerwood and Walnut to its product line in response to consumer demand, according to Brent Gwatney, VP sales and marketing.

“Tropical and exotic hardwood-inspired color options have been popular in the last couple of years,” Gwatney said. Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies (A.E.R.T.), the manufacturer, uses variegated streaking to simulate the look of the wood species. All of MoistureShield’s decking is made with 95% recycled content, such as plastic grocery bags, milk jugs and detergent bottles, and carries a limited lifetime warranty against rot, splinter or decay.

Guardian Building Products, maker of insulation, glass and a range of other products, makes two lines of WPC decking under the Elite and Prestige brands. The latter brand has tapped into the trend toward darker hues, which are more expensive to produce and tend to have higher price points. Guardian Deck’s newest release, called the Rembrandt series, offers a made-to-order palette beyond the four basic Prestige colors: Cayenne, Midnight Blue, Licorice and Fern. “We can do just about any color,” said Clay Hock, national manager with the Greer, S.C., company.

The WPCs have been joined by another composite material, this one boasting that it has no wood fibers, making it a superior product. Cellular PVC is 100% plastic, most of it from recycled sources, and many of the newer product lines are choosing this type of production. Cellular PVC has its detractors — some don’t like the way it looks — but cellular manufacturers claim it is more stain- and fade-resistant than the wood composites, often thanks to a “capped” technology that seals the boards. The WPC suppliers are also getting into this technology, or they’re protecting their product by “encapsulating” the wood and plastic fibers.

Upping the alternative ante

The WPC and cellular PVC category accounted for less than 20% of the total decking and railing volume installed in residential settings in 2010, according to the Principia study. (Overall, railing accounts for only 6% of the market’s volume.) The material, which can cost approximately four times as much as pressure-treated lumber, appeals to a certain demographic and often ends up on a certain type of deck, according to Steve Van Kouteren, author of the Principia study.

“We found that the larger the deck, the higher the share of synthetic deck [materials],” Van Kouteren told Home Channel News. In his study conclusions, he stated that professional deck builders and contractors “play a significant role in the demand for alternative decking and railing materials, especially for the high-end, large and complex outdoor living deck space.” Another factor is pull-through marketing and loyalty programs, which can exert a considerable amount of influence on these contractors’ choices.

It’s important to remember that professional installers can influence consumers in either direction when it comes to choosing a product. “If a contractor has had a bad experience with a product, he’ll steer [a homeowner] away from it, saying he can’t guarantee the results,” Van Kouteren said.

Partly in response to these concerns, manufacturers are now offering longer and better warranties on their products. Many are starting to include labor as well.

Kleer Decking, which introduced its cellular PVC decking to the market this year, offers a lifetime guarantee for its higher-end Sierra series line and will pay labor costs to replace stained or faded boards for the first two years.

“We listened to contractors, who said, ‘Why don’t you include labor in the warranty?’ ” said Jack Delaney, senior VP at Kleer. “There was a need in the market.”

Kleer also decided to differentiate its product by taking the gloss off. “It looks more like a matte finish than a shiny piece of plastic,” Delaney said.

Like many manufacturers, Enduris entered the decking market through other channels. In its case, railing and fencing paved the way. Decking was a logical extension. Enduris capped its PVC vinyl into a cellular PVC board called Endeck, which was released this year in four colors.

“PVC seems to be the up-and-coming child in the decking industry,” said sales and marketing manager Rick Wearne. “Composites have had too many problems.”

AZEK, an earlier entrant in the cellular PVC decking market, is branching out into other products besides deck and porch boards. “We need to stay ahead of consumer needs and desires,” said Michael Gori, director of product management for AZEK Building Products. “Not only for the colors, textures and performance traits, but also in the development of new solutions of outdoor living such as storage, seating and planters.”

AZEK’s deck accessories — a below-deck storage kit, a bench and planter kit, and a gate kit — can utilize scrap pieces of deck left over from the job. Its most recent introduction is deck pavers that interlock into a grid system. Made from recycled rubber and plastic, the pavers were released this spring as part of a strategic partnership with VAST Enterprises, a maker of composite masonry products.

Something old, something new

By no means a comprehensive list, these decking products leave out what some producers call “real” wood: redwood, cedar, mahogany and a tropical hardwood called ipe. Compared with pressure-treated wood — which is also “real” wood — these products are at the other end of the price continuum. But their beauty and natural resistance to insects and mold have always made redwood and cedar a popular choice. In particular, they are popular in the Pacific Northwest and California.

Demand for decking and railing material, in general, is highest in the Northeast and Midwest, followed by the Southeast, according to the Principia study. These three regions accounted for 66% of the total residential demand for decking and railing in 2010. Lower demand in the southeastern states and Canada is partly due to the smaller number of existing housing stock in those regions, the study concluded.

New development in railing systems — steel cables, mixed colors, unique balusters and decorative lighting — are bringing more consumer dollars into the channel. And new decking manufacturers that claim they are even greener than recycled plastic have entered the market. NyloDeck, which launched its product at the Decking Expo in Chicago, makes boards from recycled carpet fibers. Originally developed for the marine industry because it doesn’t absorb moisture, Nyloboard became NyloDeck after 18 months of development, according to company representative Stuart Dimery.

Even with a gradual rebound in new construction and remodeling, at some point, there has to be a saturation point for decking manufacturers. Van Kouteren from Principia agrees.

“The industry has become consolidated,” he said. “The big guys are getting bigger, and every year people are dropping out.”

One of the latest casualties is LifeTime Lumber, a Wisconsin firm that made a splash in 2009 by making decking from recycled coal ash. Although LifeTime was able to get some distribution through ABC Supply and BlueLinx on the West Coast, the company went out of business earlier this year.

“It’s harder and harder for newcomers to get any traction,” Van Kouteren explained. “SKU proliferation has been a big issue with the dealers. They don’t want to hold inventory anymore. So they’re sticking with the major brands and not taking chances on newcomers.”

Universal Supply Co., a 10-unit LBM chain in southern New Jersey, carries pressure-treated lumber, one wood-plastic composite brand (Tamko), two cellular PVCs (CertainTeed and AZEK), and pressure-treated lumber. The company also carries some mahogany and epi “because people still ask for it,” said sales and product manager Steve Corbett. He estimated the breakdown at roughly 20% composites, 50% cellular PVC, and the remainder real wood, pressure-treated or otherwise.

Universal does a robust business with remodelers. And confirming the results of research, Corbett said these remodelers influence the choice consumers make on decking materials. But the homeowners who walk into his showroom are already well informed about their choices — a fact that explains the low incidence of sticker shock he sees when he hands over the estimate for alternative decking materials. And customers are gravitating toward cellular PVC, especially the capped stock, Corbett said.

“We’ve grown our sales dramatically on these products,” Corbett said. Consumers like the variegated colors and the black streaking in the boards, which looks more like wood. “The grain and the color are the two features they pick up on.” And the new extended warranties? “It seems to have gotten a lot of attention,” Corbett said.

Corbett credits one more tool for helping his customers narrow down their choices: better graphics on manufacturers’ websites.

“It’s the pictures they see on the Internet,” he said. 

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