Unstacking the Deck

Many industry trend watchers now see decking as a unique breakout category, with its own breed of specialty contractors, much as is the case with roofing or foundation work. Though decking is still a product most general contractors offer, today you see an increasing number of specialty deck-only operations, and there is a great opportunity for remodelers to position themselves in this specialty trade.

Why the rise of this specialty? It’s because of increased demand for outdoor living environments. Today’s up-market decks are way beyond the CCA decks we knocked together in the 1980s. These new decks are outdoor living centers, designed and built as lifestyle choices, with integrated sitting areas, grills, pools or hot tubs …and premium decking materials. According to Cleveland-based Freedonia Group, which tracks industry trends, the decking market is expected to grow by about 20 percent annually to a 3.6-billion-lineal-ft. by 2011.

There are four categories of decking, and though many products have been around for quite a awhile (like aluminum decking, which we won’t cover here), new all-plastic and composite-decking products are really dominating now. The main decking categories are: wood, all-plastic decking, composites and aluminum.

Each category has subcategories. Wood decking breaks out by wood species, ranging from southern yellow pine and cedar to ipé and meranti. The various wood species can be further differentiated by their sources (“green” and “chain of custody” are increasingly under scrutiny). Another categorization is how the wood is treated or preserved, with options ranging from micro-copper to brush-on sealants.

As for all-plastic decking, products are differentiated by the source and type of plastic, and sometimes by its recyclability. The most popular choices of deck plastics are:

  • Recycled high-density polyethylene plastic (ReHDPE)
  • Common HDPE (milk jugs)
  • Polypropylene (think Tupperware)
  • Solid polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • Cellular PVC (polyvinyl chloride with a foaming agent)

These types of plastics are also used in composite decking.

With so many kinds of plastics, manufacturers of all-plastic decks will point out differences in the plastics they use, especially where the plastics come from. Points of pride for marketers are features like “virgin plastic,” or a high percentage of “post consumer resins” (PCR), and even “100% recyclable.” Also, since plastic decking can be manufactured through extrusion (pushed through a mold), even the speed of extrusion can be a selling factor, as product that is extruded too quickly is considered poorer quality.

Whether you are dealing with all-plastic decking or composites, HDPE is the most commonly used product. It performs very well in most situations, and expands only along its length, like vinyl siding. Plus, it does not swell, as many lumber products will. Manufacturers argue that it retains color well, and the all-plastic product is entirely recyclable.

Another product, all-plastic PVC decking generally has resistance to scratching, staining and fading that is superior to composite decking. But PVC decking has been getting slammed for its toxicity. The manufacture of PVC releases mercury and creates dioxin. But there is a very “green” case to be made for PVC’s performance and durability. It goes like this: If you use PVC, you are less likely to harvest, manufacture and ship replacement products. Ask yourself what’s greener: a 30-year plastic or PVC deck or a wood deck that has to be harvested, shipped, installed, treated and shoveled into the landfill three times in those three decades?

Composite decking is called composite because it has more than one component, and this class of decking has some characteristics of wood and some of plastic. Most composite decking is created when wood is added to plastic resin (usually polyethylene). Since the properties of composite decking vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, marketers will differentiate their products using various metrics or features, most notably:

  • The source of their plastics (post-consumer is considered greener)
  • The percent of recycled plastic (for those who want to use recycled products)
  • The percent of virgin plastic (for those who don’t want to use recycled plastics because of perceived quality)
  • The source of the nonplastic components used (recovered wood is the greenest alternative)
  • The quality of the post-consumer resin used in the plastic (you don’t want chopped-up milk and vitamin labels in the deck boards)
  • The color-fast properties of the decking (fading is so common, manufacturers call it a “mellowing process”)
  • The surface feel and slip resistance
  • The structural performance of the product (look for 16 O.C. span-ability)
  • The UV-protection (anything to frustrate the sun’s punishing rays)
  • The deck board’s weight per board food (for transportation, easy handling and span loading)

No matter what composite products you offer, be sure they can span 16-O.C. joints and that they comply with the all the crucial codes and standards. Look for a warranty of at least 10 years; it should cover splintering, corrosion, as well as rot, warp, cupping, checks or damage caused by termites or fungal decay.

And finally, urge your customers to purchase premium products, for their own sake as well as yours as a contractor. If you always use low cost as the ultimate metric of value, you risk your reputation and expose yourself to the prospect for annoying callbacks that are hard to solve without painful and costly tear-outs.