Above ground vs. ground contact


The battle lines are drawn — dividing how pressurized lumber should go to market

A battle is raging in the treated lumber aisle. In the simplest terms, it’s a battle between “above-ground” lumber and “ground-contact” lumber, and whether it makes sense to offer both types (or only ground contact).

By most accounts, ground contact is winning. A recent report from Spectrum Consulting points to a “notable shift” toward ground contact as the primary or only type of treated lumber on the rack.

The Home Depot was one of the earliest retailers to plant its flag squarely on the side of ground contact. Geoff Case, Home Depot’s merchant for decking and pressure-treated lumber, explained: “We’re partnering with suppliers to convert certain wood products from above-ground contact retentions to ground-contact retentions in a rolling change that began in February and will impact nearly every U.S. store.”

As the names suggest, ground-contact lumber is treated to a standard to withstand rot and decay even at the point where the lumber physically touches the ground, water or leaves. Above-ground lumber is treated to a lower standard of resistance.

The face-off between the two was sparked when the American Wood Protection Association rewrote its guidelines identifying which type of pressurized lumber should be used under various circumstances. Simply put, the new standards lean toward the use of ground contact for more applications. Although the revised standard leaves the window open for some uses of above-ground treated lumber, many dealers who spoke with HBSDealer say they’re simplifying their inventory to focus on ground contact.

Home Depot’s Case described the retailer’s policy: “We’re constantly looking for ways like this to improve products for our customers, and this change is being made in accordance with new standards recently issued by the AWPA.”

Ryan Mulkeen of Kuiken Brothers said the lumberyard made the decision to convert all of its pressure-treated inventory to ground contact. “From what we gather, most competitors are doing the same,” he said. Doing so is easier to manage, prevents customer confusion, and avoids misapplication of the product on the job site — especially when purchased by DIYers.

Still, pockets of support for above ground continue — most notably, Lowe’s (never averse to zig where Home Depot zags) and 84 Lumber. Both companies offer above-ground options along with ground-contact options. Lowe’s labels its above-ground product as “not intended for ground contact.”

Viance, maker of the Ecolife product for above-ground pressurized lumber, has been working hard to promote above ground as a viable and valuable alternative. For common deck applications, according to Viance, Ecolife is a “more cost-effective option when compared to products treated for ground-contact use, and is still the best option for outdoor projects when used appropriately.” Cox Wood Treaters urged dealers: “Don’t be forced to switch to all ground-contact products when it’s not necessary.”

Those embracing an all-ground-contact-all-the-time approach point to the cost savings of managing inventory for one type of treated lumber — the one most averse to decay — and the lack of awareness among consumers about the differences between the two.

Into this debate comes the recent research from Spectrum Consulting, which bolsters the argument of the ground contact side by quantifying the high level of customer confusion.

Among DIYers who participated in two focus group sessions, 88% were unaware of the existence of two types of pressure-treated wood. Combined results from DIYer and contractor sessions reflected similar results, with 75% of the participants expressing a lack of awareness of any differences.

Other findings from the report:

  • All building material retailer and lumberyard respondents were fully aware of the new AWPA standard guidelines, and 84% said their companies had changed their inventories to primarily or all ground-contact treated lumber. (The dealer pool was described as companies in “numerous states that have a combined total of 256 locations.”)
  • 72% of lumber dealers said the new standards helped their business by eliminating dual inventories.
  • All the professional deck builders interviewed said all components should be ground-contact treated lumber. Deck safety was this group’s unanimous No. 1 concern.

The research also quoted Bobby Parks, president of BP Consulting and Design: “The two-product dilemma of the industry will result in people using the wrong product for incorrect applications. It is a recipe for problems and misapplications of the product. It is also an inventory issue for lumberyards and suppliers.”

Yet another factor in the treated wood discussion is appearance, according to Scott McCormick of Alpine Lumber & Building Products. On some species of wood, ground-contact treatments leave marks, making above-ground treatment a preferable option in some cases.

Going to a single inventory makes sense sometimes, but not all the time, he said. “I think you need to have both. That’s my opinion.”