Unstacking the Deck

The decking market is expected to grow by about 2.2 percent annually to become a 3.6-billion-lineal-ft. industry by 2011, according to Cleveland-based Freedonia Group. This growth offers architects and contractors an opportunity: Offer low-maintenance alternatives to customers who are willing to pay a premium for building products.

With awareness driven by the Internet and lifestyle magazines, today’s new trends often are of outdoor living centers that are designed and built with integrated sitting areas, grills, pools or hot tubs. Indeed, industry trend watchers see decking as an emerging breakout category, with its own breed of specialty decking contractors, much as we see today with roofing or foundation work. Though decking is still a product that most general contractors offer, there is an increased number of specialty deck-only operations, and a great opportunity for dealers to cater to them.

Decking in the broadest sense of the word now includes four product categories: all-plastic decking, wood, composites and aluminum. Today, let‘s first look at all-plastic products. Different from composite decking, which contains plastic and fiber, all-plastic decking products break down into sub-categories. The products differentiated themselves from one another by the source and type of plastic, and sometimes by its recyclability. The most popular choices of deck plastics break out into five categories.

  1. Common HDPE
  2. Recycled high-density polyethylene plastic (ReHDPE)
  3. Polypropylene (think Tupperware)
  4. Solid polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  5. Cellular PVC (polyvinyl chloride with a foaming agent)

With so many kinds of plastic available, manufacturers of all-plastic decks point out differences in the plastics they use, especially where the plastics come from. Marketers of decking take great pride in features like “virgin plastic,” or a high percentage of post-consumer resins (PCR), and even “100 percent recyclable.” Even the speed of extrusion can be a selling factor because a product that is extruded too quickly is considered of poorer quality.

Whether you are dealing with all-plastic decking or composites, HDPE is the most commonly used product. It performs well in most situations, and expands only along its length. Plus, it does not swell when wet. Manufacturers argue that it retains color well, though good color-fast properties are rare in any deck. Plus, the all-plastic product is entirely recyclable.

All-plastic PVC decking is another product that has resistance to scratching, staining and fading that is superior to composite decking. But PVC decking has been getting slammed for the toxicity of the manufacturing process, which releases mercury and dioxin. That said, there is a green case to be made for PVC’s performance and durability. If you use PVC, you are less likely to harvest, manufacture and ship replacement products, which therefore makes PVC a viable alternative to wood; using lifecycle analysis, PVC holds up well in comparison to wood.

Another kind of PVC decking is cellular PVC decking which is manufactured through a foaming extrusion process. The foam creates air bubbles within the deck board, and the resulting product is about half as dense as PVC. It forms a hard skin as the material cools that is highly stable and non-absorbent. In fact, it can’t even be painted. Cellular PVC weighs about the same as softwood, and can be formed with wood grain textures.

In a future column, I’ll take a look at composite decking and some of the advances in treatment for wood decking products, where you have lately seen some real innovation with the Micro-Copper and EcoLife preservation methods.