Lumber prices reached record highs in May and demand for home renovations is showing no signs of slowing. With the COVID-19 pandemic still at the forefront of everyone’s mind, homeowners are looking for ways to congregate outside and utilize their outdoor living space in a COVID-safe fashion. Building new decks, or updating existing decks, is one way that homeowners are maximizing their outdoor living potential.
Composite decking emerged as a sought-after alternative to pressure-treated lumber when lumber prices more than tripled this year compared with early 2020. Normally, even entry-level composite decking can be twice or more the cost of pressure-treated lumber. However, with lumber prices so high and delays spanning weeks if not months, homeowners are taking another look at the more durable, lower-maintenance option.
“Customers are getting more sophisticated in what they’re looking for in outdoor living,” explains Jim Stange, senior production manager for composite decking and railing manufacturer Fiberon. “Even before COVID, it was a place for their barbecues and occasional use.
“Now, people are using their deck much more frequently, especially those who are working from home, who see it as an office escape. They’re spending a lot more time on the deck and, as such, expectations are getting a little bit higher in terms of the quality of the material or the sophistication in the graining.”
Long Lasting, Low Maintenance
“It’s a unique time in the market with demand and pricing, and a lot of people are making investments in outdoor living,” Stange says. “Pressure-treated lumber availability is very tight, and now the consumer’s mind is really evaluating hard: ‘Do I spend the extra few percent-increase and go with a composite deck?’”
Stange says homeowners are taking a number of factors into consideration when deciding between pressure-treated lumber and a composite deck, especially maintenance. “Pressure-treated lumber is going to need to be stained every year,” he adds. “So you’re going to have to add the cost of buying that and then sanding down the deck and reapplying stain and power-washing.”
“We recommend soap and warm water once a year or as needed to keep outdoor dust that collects to a minimum, and that’s it,” says Chase Moritz, director of marketing for Envision Building Products. “No sanding, painting, staining, anything like that.”
When compared to composite decking, which has a more expensive upfront cost but no future maintenance costs, the price of composite decking seems a lot more reasonable. This, along with splinter-free guarantees as well as being far more resistant to warping, twisting and rotting than any natural wood decking, makes composite decking attractive.
Many composite decks also come with multi-decade warranties, such as Fiberon’s 50-year performance, stain, and fade warranty on Fiberon Wildwood Composite Cladding, whether it’s used in commercial, residential or another installation. Similarly, Moritz says Envision’s composite decking features a 25-year limited residential warranty and a 10-year limited commercial warranty for stain resistance. Trex offers a 25-year general warranty, as well as a 25-year fade-and-stain warranty.
“I think a warranty is a badge of credibility and assurance,” says Leslie Adkins, vice president of marketing for Trex. “But at the end of the day, [consumers] are a little skeptical about it. It’s become of a badge of what you think your product will do. We felt confident in offering it because we know there are Trex decks out there much older than 25 [years], and they’re still going strong.”
Greener, Stronger Technology
It’s hard to compete with wood from a purely ecological standpoint—wood is, after all, a wholly renewable resource. When compared to something made largely of plastic, the greener option seems clear.
However, when taking into account how long a composite deck lasts—warranties claiming 25 years or more—and the recycled plastic materials being used, composite decking looks more and more viable as an eco-friendly alternative.
Each company has its own proprietary mix—combinations of wood pulp, plastics and polymers that make up their composites—and more and more of those plastics are being recycled from everyday garbage that otherwise would go to landfills, never to be broken down.
“We’re very proud of the fact that our composite decking is 95 percent recycled plastic, which is polyethylene film and reclaimed wood,” Adkins says. “That’s not a new thing. That’s not a greenwash from Trex. We’ve been that way from day one, and we’re fast approaching 30 years.”
She explains the company sources its polyethylene from post-commercial sources, from shrink wrap that goes on pallets from warehouses, grocery stores, and retailers of all types. “I think there’s increased recognition that plastic waste poses quite a challenge to all of us in the end,” she adds.
In addition to its low maintenance and longevity, composite decking is particularly resistant to warping, rot and splinters when compared to natural wood boards, while still using less material in the manufacturing process.
“The Ridge Premium Collection from Envision [features] a fluted profile that is a little bit wider, almost a full inch and a half on the sides, and the flutes are right out the middle, which leaves a lot more room than some of the competitor boards for our face-fastening,” Moritz says.
“The benefits are really less material use, which helps to bring costs down compared to full profile boards.” He goes on to add that because of the fluted profile—also called scalloped—the boards are lighter weight, so remodelers find them easier to use, and they say the arches create a firm rigidity that doesn’t warp the way lumber would.
One of the drawbacks of using composite decking in the past was how fake looking the boards seemed, with clunky patterns that had no way to compare to real wood grain. Homeowners who wanted the look of sophisticated hardwood preferred to go with the real deal.
However, in recent years, improvements on the extruding and manufacturing side of things have improved the appearance of composite deck boards.
“We’re seeing with our Sanctuary product, which was launched in 2020, phenomenal growth, part and parcel because it has that sophisticated look that sets it apart from the old decks of 10, 20 years ago,” Stange says, referring to Fiberon’s new high-traction decking. “Less plastic-looking and much more realistic. The streaking we’re seeing that accents the boards is much more subtle and realistic.”
In addition to improved color technology, composite decks have seen improved molding that has lent more realism to the appearance. While some manufacturers emboss their wood grain patterns, Envision Decking presses the grain pattern into the board to produce a unique, natural wood-like appearance that doesn’t repeat.
“So that Evergrain core is the core material and then that and the cap are physically bonded together. It creates a really dense [and] strong board,” Moritz explains. With such high demand, companies are limiting the SKUs they offer, sticking to a few colors and sizes they know will sell well.
“Any time you have a color change or a width change, or a SKU change, it’s downtime on those extruders,” explains Chris Camfferman, managing director of marketing for UFP Industries. (UFPI), the parent company of the Deckorators brand. “It’s really about shrinking those lead times and trying to better meet expectation of what starts at the homeowner and trickles through the back channels.”
Color trends themselves have still grown with the fast-paced market, with gray tones and especially “greige” tones dominating the market the past few years. “We introduced a color in 2021 called Cabana, a quasi-gray/brown tone we call greige, and that Cabana color is taken off tremendously well because it’s different,” Stange says. “It matches the more modern aesthetics that people are using on their siding or their outdoor furniture or the trim around their house.”
“Lighter colors seem to be pretty popular right now,” Moritz agrees. “We also thought there might be a trend moving away from reds, but we’ve seen Shaded Auburn make a really strong push this year.”
Released only in the last year, Deckorators’ 9¼- inch board is making some waves as the only wider plank of its size on the market. “There are fewer boards to fasten, so the job’s going to go quicker,” Camfferman says. “It may not be for the entire deck, but it could be a portion of the deck or a bit of framing. Our 7¼ was similarly popular because it works well with the railing, and the railing plates fit cleanly on it rather than hang over the edge.” For pros who are meticulous about their work, these new, wider planks may be really attractive.
For the Pros
Finding ways to make the lives and work of professionals easier and more efficient, so they can get the job done and move on to the next project, is always important.
“For Deckorators, Camfferman says they’re working on upgrading their deck design and visualizer. “[Pros] need to be able to get the project going and get estimates to the homeowners as soon as possible, so we’re working on improving the way they move through the administrative side of things. This allows them to speed up the time it takes to get to the actual revenue-generating activity of building the deck.”
As the company to create the first hidden fastener, it comes as no surprise that Fiberon has teamed up with National Nail to integrate a new line of grooved fasteners to help streamline the work of installers.
“We took a really hard look in 2020 at different fastening type of options for decking systems,” Stange says. “This new hidden fastener program works with any deck board, not only that from Fiberon, but it will work with any deck board that is from another manufacturer. Talk about ease of installation. You have one set of fasteners on your truck to install, and you can use those fasteners on any project, any type of board.” QR