WPC Decking: Keeping Up With the Joneses
Wood-plastic composite (WPC) decks have become a strong contender in the decking market by identifying and satisfying consumer demands. But as these demands change, WPC manufacturers -- already hindered by fierce competition and hazy certification standards -- will have to open new lines of communication and service in order to succeed.
July 1, 2007 by Mark Stephen, associate editor
Few images are more classically Canadian than that of a family relaxing on their backyard deck on a warm summer afternoon. And these days it’s more and more likely that the deck involved will be made of wood-plastic composites (WPC).
Not to be confused with plastic lumber, which is made entirely of plastic, WPC combines plastic and wood flour in a ratio that varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but which comprises at least 40 per cent wood fibres.
Once dismissed as the “poor man’s wood,” WPC decking boards are beginning to capture a share of the North American decking market. The Freedonia Group has forecast that WPC decking, currently accounting for over one-third of the WPC and plastic lumber market in the U.S., will expand at a double-digit rate to reach US$5.6 billion in 2011. Not surprisingly, there has been no shortage of new WPC manufacturers coming out of the woodwork in hopes of satisfying this demand.
But while consumer acceptance of WPC may be growing, this doesn’t mean that all is well within the industry itself, or that every manufacturer can expect a smooth ride. For those hoping to succeed, it’s important to understand how the contours of today’s composite decking industry have changed, and will continue to change.
THEN AND NOW
Early purchasers of composite decking wanted a product that delivered specific advantages over wood, such as ease of use, low maintenance, longevity and durability, stain and UV resistance, and a satisfactory appearance. According to industry insiders, however, consumer expectations about WPC are undergoing a change as the traditional role of decking itself changes — developments that should be kept in mind by manufacturers. “A number of years ago, people put decks in their backyards and only used them periodically,” said Brian Williams, sales and marketing manager at decking supplier Brite Manufacturing Inc. “Today, the trend is to turn decks into entertainment areas, using a combination of composite decking with stone, building in their barbecue, having stainless steel shelving.”
CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
Manufacturers of composite decking should also be aware that, despite the product’s growing market share, the payoff might not be immediate. “A producer has to decide to be in the WPC industry for the long run, because nobody in the industry is making much money at the moment,” Brite’s Brian Williams said. In large part this is due to the sheer number of manufacturers that have leapt into the business in recent years hoping to turn a quick profit.
According to Tom Jacques, president of decking supplier Hickory Dickory Decks, many are getting out just as quickly, having learned the hard way that there’s more to being profitable than simply churning out composite material. “There have been a lot of companies that have entered the industry thinking that they can buy one machine and make a million dollars a year using scrap plastic and scrap wood,” Jacques said. “Many of them are gone now, either because they made an inferior product or because they didn’t have long term business plans that included marketing, sales and service.”
One key to success, Jacques stressed, is quality. “It may seem obvious, but having a good product is the starting point,” he said. Proper service and marketing plans come next, he noted, followed by a commitment to honouring warranties. “WPC is a manufactured product, and a certain percentage of it is going to fail,” Jacques said. “How a manufacturer deals with the product when it does fail will decide if distributors are going to deal with that company.”
The high attrition rate among composite decking manufacturers has been caused in part by larger economic trends, against which the largest WPC companies have not been immune. “Even among the big players, there have been bankruptcies, consolidations and mergers,” said Ben Matuska, North American market manager for plastic durable goods with The Dow Chemical Company. “When new home construction fell off in the U.S. in the middle of 2006, the WPC industry suffered as a whole.”
Ironically, these forces may prove a blessing for composite deck manufacturers in the long run. “With the housing market down, many people are choosing to remodel their current homes rather than buy new ones, in part by replacing wood decking with WPC,” Matuska said.
Another challenge facing the industry is the continuing perception among consumers that their composite decks will remain perfect, forever, without maintenance. “Consumers think WPC decking can do anything, but it can’t,” Tom Jacques said. A recent survey of composite deck owners, conducted by coating manufacturer Sherwin-Williams, highlights this misperception. According to the company, the vast majority of respondents indicated that they purchased composite decking with the intention of having to do little or no maintenance; many even questioned the need for products that relate to the maintenance and care of WPC decks.
Maintenance is indeed necessary, insiders say, in part because of technical problems with composite material that remain to be solved, such as mould and mildew. “Most of the composite manufacturers are finding out that wood filler has problems with mould, unless the product is sealed very carefully,” Tom Jacques said. Building a composite deck high enough off the ground to avoid damp conditions can alleviate this particular problem, he suggested.
Another difficulty, especially with polyethylene (PE)-based composite decking, is colour fade. In this instance, however, the problem stems from a lack of communication between the industry and the public. “There is a perception that the fading process of a lot of WPCs is a mistake, when in fact it’s intentional,” said Maureen Murray, spokesperson for decking supplier Trex Company Inc. “We’ve tried to alert our customers to this but it’s been an education challenge.” Trex Company exhibits half-and-half cutaways of some of its products to serve as “before” and “after” representations of colour fade.
Industry insiders stress that sharing information can solve this issue. “Colour fade is not a big problem as long as the manufacturer knows how the fade will occur and explains it to the people selling it,” Tom Jacques said. “They, in turn, have to educate the consumer.” The same is true with the problem of stains, he continued. “The important point is to alert the consumer about the need to wash a stain from a deck within a certain time period.”
Composite decking manufacturers can benefit from the fact that resin suppliers have invested in the development of materials designed for the WPC market. “We are trying to work with composite manufacturers by understanding the needs of the consumers,” Dow’s Matuska said. “Based on that, we are always working to make breakthroughs, such as with biocides to prevent mould and mildew, coupling agents to enhance processability, and ways to increase scratch and stain-resistance.”
Painting or coating WPC decking might strike many as defeating the product’s purpose, but paint manufacturers are developing new formulations designed to be applied over composite decking in the event that a consumer does indeed decide to coat, rather than simply replace, a WPC deck. “There are consumers who do want to coat WPC decking, for example in order to fight discolouration or to co-ordinate existing WPC decking with new exterior house paint,” said Shelly Fox, a scientist with stain manufacturer Rohn and Haas. “New formulations for solid colour stains will not only need to be applicable over WPC decking, but also resist cracking, abrasion, dirt and new stains.”
So far, there is no shortage of hurdles for a successful composite decking manufacturer to clear. For Canadian companies in particular, one of biggest involves sorting out the issue of the regulatory standards necessary to certify composite materials for
construction in National Building Code-approved projects. In the U.S., regulation has proceeded relatively well. “The American industry has done a good job of getting consistency in WPC regulations,” Dow’s Matuska said. For example, manufacturers can access a list of the tests necessary for American certification through agencies like ICC Evaluation Services Inc.
By near universal consensus, this has not been the case in Canada, where decking requires approval from the Canadian Construction Materials Centre (CCMC) for use in construction needing a building code permit. “WPC certification is a huge problem right now in Canada,” Tom Jacques said. “It’s a long, drawn-out process — often taking up to two years — and can cost over $150,000.” By comparison, Jacques continued, American manufacturers pay only US$30,000 to get comparable approval in their country, despite the much larger market size. “It’s an example of the Canadian government getting involved and totally mismanaging the situation,” Jacques said.
Another wrinkle is the lack of standardization for using composite decking across Canada. “In Kitchener, Ont., for example, a builder can use anything, whereas in Burlington he can only use CCMC-approved decking products,” Jacques explained.
However inexact their application, the CCMC does have rules and regulations on span, durability and workability of a WPC product. At present, however, only three composite decking manufacturers — Trex Company, Brite Manufacturing, and Nisku, Alta.-based Millennium Decking — have attained certification for their products in Canada.
Without CCMC certification, the onus is on local building inspectors to decide whether composite products can be used. For manufacturers without CCMC certification anxious to offer composite decking for building code structures, the solution is to have an engineer certify the blueprint.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Despite the projected growth figures for WPC decking, composite material at present represents only three to four per cent of the overall decking industry in North America. WPC manufacturers agree that there remains one large segment of the consumer audience in particular to win over: those “purists” who believe that, despite its many advantages, composite material simply does not look enough like wood.
For some, the struggle to win over this stubborn segment has already begun. “Trex Company has been working for the past few years to capture that portion of the market who are in love with wood,” Trex’s Maureen Murray said. “We are offering WPC lines that give the look of cedar, or of a bold, dramatic wood grain.”
Whatever the financial and technical challenges that remain to be solved, it seems clear that — provided the lines of communication between the manufacturer, the retailer and the consumer remain open — WPC will continue to gain market share over wood in the decking business.
Brite Manufacturing Inc. (Bolton, Ont.);
Canadian Construction Materials Centre – Products and Materials Evaluation (Ottawa, Ont.);irc.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca; 613-993-6189
Dow Chemical Canada Inc. (Calgary, Alta.);
Hickory Dickory Decks (Flamborough, Ont.);
Rohm and Haas Canada (West Hill, Ont.);
Sherwin-Williams — Chemical Coatings Division (Brampton, Ont.);www.sherwin-williams.com; 905-846-0740
Trex Company Inc. (Winchester, Va.);