The Future is Strong for Composite Decking

That scenario has been repeating for many composite brands, as the benefits of a splinter-free deck surface that is far more resistant to warping, twisting and rotting than any natural wood decking often are worth the extra upfront cost to many consumers. “One disadvantage composites face is that with the way the lumber market is now, treated lumber is very inexpensive,” says Jim Precht, senior vice president of sales and marketing for AERT, the manufacturer of ChoiceDek. “But consumers still recognize that composites carry warranties, and that often offsets the higher initial cost.”

Fedor says the low-maintenance aspects of composite decking are such that after a few years a composite deck will actually cost less than a comparable wood deck. “After four years or so, wood decks actually begin to cost more when you figure in the added cost of cleaning and restaining them,” he says. “The added lineal foot cost is negated starting at about year five, and consumers are recognizing that. They want a relaxation piece in their backyards, not a workpiece.”

Green Still Growing

Comparing the green aspects of wood decking to composite decking can be tricky — wood is a renewable resource, after all, and the treatments are becoming more Earth-friendly. But most composite manufacturers are doing more than their share to increase the green aspects of their products. Chris Fox, marketing manager for Latitudes Composite Decking and Railing, says that waste wood from other manufacturing facilities are reclaimed and turned into wood flour for use in their Latitudes decking products.

ChoiceDek products are made from 90 percent recycled content, and Precht says that 889 plastic grocery bags and 92 plastic milk jugs are reused to make one 12-ft. composite board. Trex’s Fedor says that no trees are cut down to manufacture Trex decking, as each board contains 98 percent recycled content. “We are a LEED certified product, and last year we were able to keep 600,000 tons of wood and plastic out of landfills,” Fedor says.

CrossTimbers decking is manufactured with polypropylene (as opposed to polyethylene) and a nonwood-based organic material, which allows GAF/Elk to manufacture a board with voids and channels in the middle. “The result is a lighter, stronger board that uses less material in its manufacture,” says Todd Christiansen, marketing director for GAF/Elk. “Our board will also span 24-in. on-center joists or 16 in. on-center when the boards are laid diagonally, which means less framing material as well.”

New Products to Meet Demand

The exotic/tropical hardwood segment is one of the few segments of the natural wood decking industry that has shown increased demand over the past few years. Wood species such as Ipe are more popular — often for some of the same reasons as composites such as resistance to splintering, insects and rot. As a natural response, composite manufacturers now offer new colors and products that mimic these exotic — and often far more expensive — materials.

Trex now offers its new Brasilia line, which is pregrooved for hidden fasteners and its new espresso color, which is intended to mimic natural mahogany decking. Latitudes decking is perfecting its new co-extrusion process on its line of tropical boards. “We wrap another co-extruded material around our tropical boards for [none or] extremely minimal color fading,” Fox says.

Waterfront locations are another growing segment of the composite decking category as more people are building docks, decks and piers with these moisture-resistant materials. To meet increased demand and provide product diversity in this segment, composite manufacturers are rolling out new decking products.

Latitudes offers a new marine board, which is thicker (a full 1½ in.) and wider than regular composite deck boards. “These will be suitable for use on joists spaced at 24 in. on-center, and they will have two slip-resistant surfaces — wood grain on one side and a brushed finish on the other,” Fox says.

“ChoiceDek’s regular decking products are one of the few already on the market which carry a warranty that is still valid in ground contact and saltwater installations,” says Sue Snuggs, product manager for Weyerhaeuser, which sells and distributes ChoiceDek through Lowe’s. “That’s given us a jump in the waterfront applications market, which is still growing.”

Another reason consumers are choosing composite decking despite the higher up-front cost of treated wood is a broader product selection — especially in the railing category. “We’ve beefed up our railing system to exceed structural codes,” ChoiceDek’s Precht says. “We’ve also made them easier to install and added to our line of ornamental post caps and bases.”

Most composite manufacturers have railing systems that match or complement their decking, and now many are making those systems more modular, easier to install and compatible with nearly any type of baluster from nearly any other manufacturer — from square to round balusters or glass and ornamental steel. “We’ve made our RailWays railing system easier to install, which saves labor,” Christiansen says. “We’ve also made it so you can pick and choose from a variety of different components for even more design flexibility.”

Looking Ahead

Building codes and regulations also affect the composite market, especially now in the arena of fire codes. “Fire codes are becoming more stringent, especially in California,” Trex’s Fedor says. “Builders and architects are going to have to start looking at flame spread ratings for these products, and we’ve come out with a new Fire Defense product in our Accents line. They meet or exceed the most stringent of current fire codes.

“We are in the final stages of approval for our decking that features improved flame spread, underflame and burning spread ratings,” Precht says. “It’s these kinds of improvements that will keep demand for composites strong — even in a weakened economy.”

With all the product choices available in most composite brands, dealers and contractors are also changing the way they market their deck offerings. Fedor says he notices that dealers are using showrooms more to highlight their different composite products, and builders are getting into showrooms. “I’ve seen more than a few builders and contractors actually renting or leasing prime downtown locations to showcase their various deck offerings and designs,” he says. “They are becoming more design-savvy, and they are trying to capture foot traffic to show that off and attract more customers.”

Not only are dealers and contractors changing the way they sell decking to consumers, but manufacturers are also changing the way they sell to this group of people. “We will ship directly to a jobsite so that dealers don’t have to carry as much inventory or handle as much material,” Fox says.

Christiansen says that GAF-Elk is also helping distributors and dealers better manage inventory. “In this challenging market, we wanted to make it easy for our customers to get our products,” he says. “So we are changing the way our RailWays Products are sold, by allowing mixed pallets and smaller quantities to keep a broad selection of railings and accessories, like NiteScapes Lighting, available at our distributors, while maintaining a leaner inventory resulting in increased turns.”

So while the overall construction market is still struggling through tough times, things look bright — or at least steady — for the composite decking market. “When people step back and factor in maintenance costs and overall aesthetics of composite decks, they realize they will have a lower total cost that more than offsets the higher upfront lineal foot costs,” Fedor says. “And that bodes very well for composites in the future.” ?

Deck Resources

AERT - For more info, please indicate #24 e-Inquiry.

GAF/Elk Corp. - For more info, please indicate #25 e-Inquiry.

Latitudes Composite Decking and Railing - For more info, please indicate #26 e-Inquiry.

Trex Co. - For more info, please indicate #27 e-Inquiry.