Canadian Plastics

Composite decking gets off the ground

Improving upon nature is a difficult task, but after over a decade of trial and error, manufacturers of wood-plastic composite (WPC) decking systems are increasingly convincing consumers to put their...

April 1, 2006   By Rebecca Reid, managing editor



Improving upon nature is a difficult task, but after over a decade of trial and error, manufacturers of wood-plastic composite (WPC) decking systems are increasingly convincing consumers to put their faith and money in science instead.

Unlike plastic lumber, which is made entirely of plastic but mimics the look of wood, composite decking combines the gene pools of both Alexander Parkes –inventor of the first man-made plastic –and Mother Nature, with the ratio of plastic to wood flour ranging from manufacturer to manufacturer.

The number one way to win over skeptical consumers is by making composites look more like real wood, and although there is still plenty of room for improvement, the market is already growing considerably.

According the Cleveland, Ohio-based Freedonia Group, decking accounts for over a third of the wood-plastic composite and plastic lumber market in the U.S., which is set to expand at a double-digit rate to reach US$3.8 billion in 2009, according to the research firm’s Composite & Plastic Lumber Study, released in February 2006.

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“Advances for composite decking will also be driven by increasing consumer and contractor familiarity, a widening distribution network and product improvements that enhance appearance,” the Freedonia Group said.

Consumers can easily drop by their local Home Depot or Rona and find composite decking options, but these retailers generally only offer a handful of product lines in-store.

Toronto-based Hickory Dickory Decks, on the other hand, has been selling composite decking systems for the 12 years they have been available. It now comprises the vast majority — about 80 to 95 per cent — of the firm’s business, Tom Jacques, company president, said. Nation-wide, however, he estimated WPC decking still makes up only about three per cent of the market.

“We bought into the benefits very early on,” Jacques said. “I’ve probably built about 2,000 (WPC decks) in the past 12 years and this year we’ll build well over a 1,000.”

Consumers like the benefits composites can offer over pressure-treated wood, which include virtually no maintenance and no staining. Plus they are less slippery when wet and don’t splinter, he explained.

The Toronto-based Home Depot Canada’s sales more accurately reflect the North American market. According to Nick Cowley, spokesperson for the Home Depot, composite decking comprises between only three and five per cent of sales, with the lion’s share going to pressure-treated wood.

Yet the Home Depot’s sales of composite decking rose between 40 and 50 per cent in 2005 over 2004, Cowley noted, indicating a growing awareness and interest in wood-alternative decking.

WINNING CUSTOMERS

But people are still resistant to the up-front costs, Jacques said. Composite decking costs more than pressure-treated wood at the outset, Jacques said, but when the total costs of ownership of the two products are compared, it costs more to maintaining a wood deck over its 15- to 17 year-life. Plus composite decking manufacturers are increasingly offering long-term warranties, some as long as 25 years.

Hickory Dickory Decks stocks over a dozen different brands of composite decking systems, and has another dozen it uses on occasion.

“The leader in the industry is Trex (Company Inc.) — it is a good seller for us,” Jacques said. Trex has a good reputation with customers, Jacques explained, because it addresses product errors and flaws, such as loose boards, very quickly.

Other big sellers include: Xtendex, a division of the Carney Timber Co., in Barrie, Ont.; CorrectDeck from Correct Building Products in Biddeford, Maine; and Nashville, Tenn.-based Louisiana-Pacific’s (Corp.) WeatherBest, he said.

“WeatherBest was the first one to come out with a wood grain that looked like real wood,” Jacques noted.

NAGGING PROBLEMS

Despite its current efforts, Trex has had some problems with customer service in the past. In a class action lawsuit, customers allege the decks Trex manufactured during 1992 and 2004 rotted, splintered and degraded, and the company failed to provide the customers with support options.

Trex also faces a class action lawsuit from its investors alleging the firm published misleading financial statements to inflate its stock price.

Hickory Dickory Decks is currently embroiled in a lawsuit itself with another manufacturer, which the decking installer declined to name, over the manufacturer’s refusal to address colour-fade issues with its customers, leaving Hickory Dickory Decks to take the heat, Jacques said.

These lawsuits are the result of problems with the earlier generation of composite decking systems, Jacques said, and companies are still battling the negative perceptions that resulted. But product reliability has substantially increased; only about one per cent of installed composite decking systems have problems with performance, he noted.

COLOURED JUDGEMENT

Colour-fade, however, remains a huge problem, especially with polyethylene (PE)-based composite decking, Jacques noted. Vinyl-based composites retain colour the best.

In a move Jacques applauds, some manufacturers print ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos in their brochures, so customers know exactly what to expect.

“If it fades, it fades, there’s nothing you can do about it. Just make sure (customers) know about it,” Jacques advised manufacturers.

Honesty, he said, is the best way to ensure happy customers.

“Don’t be afraid to tell your customers what (your product) won’t do as well as what it will do,” he said. “There isn’t one product that does everything for everybody. If it scratches easily, tell them. Wood scratches too, but a lot of people don’t need scratch-resistance. If you’ve got five kids, however, it might be a concern.”

Other product shortcomings manufacturers need to address include mold, mildew-, and stain-resistance.

“Some of the decks will permanently stain if you drop some barbecue sauce or red wine on it and leave it over night,” he explained.

Jacques singled out Nisku, Alta.-based Millennium Decking Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Wood Composite Technologies Inc., as having excellent stain-resistance. Millennium Decking uses a polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based composite.

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE

Although decking systems make up one-third of the wood composites and plastic lumber market, according to the Freedonia Group, railing and fencing applications are increasing in popularity, as are moldings.

“Also there has been a lot of development around some of the building products, like door jams — the frame on the inside of the door,” Paul Godwin, director of sales at American Maplan Corp., in McPherson, Kan., said. “On exterior doors, the bottom of a (wood) door jam has a tendency to rot.”

Additionally, the slowing of the U.S. housing market has the potential to open another market for wood composites, John Effmann, director of sales and marketing at Entek Manufacturing Inc., in Lebanon, Ore., said. “We are seeing more of a focus on home renovation”, he noted, and composites could be used to build enclosed outdoor living spaces, like a sun room to expand a home’s living area.

However, American Maplan’s Godwin said before composites can be applied to such heavy-duty construction applications, like outdoor living spaces, the materials need to become more robust.

“The problem with wood composites is that they are not considered load-bearing materials,” he explained.

SETTING THE STANDARD

But before WPC processors can move any further, a set of standards needs to be developed for certifying composite products, Andrew Rush, vice-president of operations for Brite Manufacturing Inc., in Bolton, Ont., said.

In the U.S., manufacturers can easily access a list of the necessary tests through ICC Evaluation Service Inc. (ICC-ES), which publishes a standard technical guide of the nec
essary tests.

Because there is no published standard set of tests in Canada, the Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) in Ottawa will only devise testing booklets on an application-to-application basis, for which it charges $10,000.

Brite commissioned manuals for two differently sized boards, one hollow and one solid, and upon receipt discovered the manuals were virtually identical, Rush said. And they were virtually identical to manuals commissioned by other composite decking manufacturers.

Rush estimates the cost of testing will range between $50,000 and $60,000 per board. After testing, it will have to shell out $15,000 per board for the CCMC to approve the data.

“In total, it costs about $100,000,” he said. “If you’re a small company starting out, this isn’t chump change. And you could pay all this money and not get your product approved.”

Brite already has its U.S. ICC-ES certification for its two decking boards.

So far, only two brands, from Trex and Millennium respectively, have received CCMC certification.

Without CCMC certification, the onus is on local building inspectors to decide, on a case-by-case basis, whether composite products can be used. Standard certification is needed to open up market opportunities for these products, Rush noted.

LOBBYING FOR CHANGE

Joe DeRose, president and founder of Axis Polymer Services in Woodbridge, Ont., has spent a fair amount of time working with makers of composite deckboards and guardrails to help them through both the U.S. ICC-ES process as well as the CCMC evaluation.

After comparing the requirements the CCMC has asked for with the requirements of the U.S. ICC-ES, DeRose noted that getting certified in Canada requires meeting higher standards for impact resistance, hardness, weatherability and freeze/thaw conditioning.

The Canadian Natural Composites Council (CNCC) of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association (CPIA), of which DeRose and Brite’s Rush are members, is lobbying both the Underwriters Laboratories and the Canadian Standards Association to write a standard testing guide for composite products.

“Those are the two bodies that are recognized in Canada for the writing product standards,” he explained.

However, development of this standard could take three to five years, he said. Until then, companies will have no choice but to go through the CCMC’s lengthy and costly process.


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