Something is underfoot in the world of extruded plastic building products: decks.
The birth of the plastic lumber industry in the 1980s also gave rise to the use of plastic-based products to replace pressure-treated wood for decks.
Since then — and especially in the past few years — a host of processors have joined the fray, adding wood composites, vinyl and even fiberglass to the mix of available choices.
Each product type vies for a small piece of a pie worth more than $2 billion.
A general consensus in the decking industry indicates more than 3 million residential decks are either built, replaced or repaired each year in the United States. Of those, only 2-5 percent use a decking material other than wood, according to several industry estimates. Sources have estimated the alternative decking market is as high as $100 million and as low as $60 million.
The Canadian market is proportional to that in the United States — translating into about 10 percent of the U.S. total, industry sources say.
No matter what ultimate figure they come up with, most industry insiders agree plastic-based decking sales are split evenly, with wood composites owning about half the total market and all other types — vinyl, plastic lumber, and fiberglass — sharing the rest.
One source put the vinyl share of ``the rest'' of the pie at about half — or about $20 million to $25 million based on the $80 million total market estimate.
``The industry is still in diapers. It's an infant,'' said F. John Long, vice president of sales and marketing for U.S. Plastic Lumber Co. of Boca Raton, Fla.
But it's a baby taking growth hormones.
Long sees ``50-70 percent growth year over year'' for the company's Earth Care Products line of decking materials in the next three to five years.
The market for vinyl products also ``is growing by leaps and bounds,'' said Sharon Fullen, marketing director for Royal Crown Ltd. of Milford, Ind.
Pure plastic lumber shares the recycled-content crown with many wood composites, and boasts the more-permanent color scheme of vinyl. So far, plastic lumber products generally have less structural strength than their competitors, though U.S. Plastic Lumber plans to add fiberglass reinforcements to future lines, Long said.
On the other end of the scale are pultruded fiberglass decks. They have great strength, but are the most expensive of the ``synthetic'' decking products. Fiberglass decking could fill a small niche for high-strength, commercial decks where initial cost is not a big object, producers say.
If resin buyers think their market is volatile, it's nothing like that for wood. Long said pressure-treated lumber prices are down 35-40 percent from two months ago. A major hurricane could send prices soaring again.
In some places, the volatile price of wood is actually above that of some plastic materials.
``Redwood is becoming increasingly scarce,'' Royal Crown's Fullen said. ``Scarcity is a big issue. In many markets vinyl is cheaper than wood.''
Big box retailers are beginning to take notice of the emerging market of alternative decking.
``Major chains are waiting in line to get this stuff,'' said Jim Pratt, vice president of sales for Richmond Hill, Ontario-based Comptrusion, which custom extrudes Strandex-licensed materials. ``Contractors are champing at the bit for new materials, and this stuff fits the bill.''
A big obstacle toward market growth is product recognition.
``Nobody really does that much advertising,'' Fullen said. ``Consumer awareness is really, really tiny.''
Trex Co. LLC of Winchester, Va., with its multinational conglomerate roots in Mobil Oil Corp., is a leader in advertising as well as total sales. It even has a national television personality — Willard Scott — as a spokesman.
``Trex has had tremendous growth,'' said Trex spokeswoman Maureen Murray, although she added the firm does not give out sales for the most recent year.
The company lists 1996 sales as $23.8 million — and is shooting for a 2000 sales goal of $100 million. Trex claims it is the biggest processor of recycled grocery bags, converting about half of the U.S. capacity of recycled bags into its decking products. Trex also consumes about 20 percent of the stretch film recycled in the United States. The other component comes from waste wood — mostly from furniture makers.
Other wood-composite decking manufacturers include Trex rival Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. of Springdale, Ark. AERT is a public company that has fought legal battles against Trex and Mobil, and battled blazes at its own factories. But the company still has a distribution deal for its wood-composite decking through lumber giant Weyerhaeuser Corp.
AERT reported $8 million in total 1997 sales, of which about $1.8 million came from decking products. The 10-year-old company has teetered on the brink of profitablility for years without actually crossing into the black.
Other players in the wood-composite decking arena include Crane Plastics Co. of Columbus, Ohio. Crane started out as a Strandex licensee, but switched to its own TimberTech wood-plastic blend. It sells its own decking through its Proprietary Products division.
Eaglebrook Products Inc. sells both a wood-composite deck and railing system along with a pure plastic lumber product under the SmartDeck name.
``We have the best of both worlds,'' said Eaglebrook President Mike Dahl.
SmartDeck calls its pure plastic lumber Durawood PE, and its cross-linked, wood-plastic composite Durawood EX. The EX line is made under license from Strandex Corp. of Madison, Wis.
The Strandex process gives the profiles more structural strength than other types of plastic or wood/polymer lumber, allowing the product to be used for all the railing components, Dahl said.
``Many of our contractors love the deck railing system so much they're actually installing [Durawood] fences,'' Dahl said.
The Brock brand now held by Royal Crown was the first out of the gate with a vinyl deck, and leads the pack in vinyl's market share, insiders agree.
``We've been on the market longer,'' Fullen said.
Royal Crown was born in 1996 when Royal Group Technologies Ltd. of Woodbridge, Ontario, bought CTB Vinyl Products Inc. Royal also owns another decking manufacturer: Royal Sierra Extrusions Inc. of Sparks, Nev.
The Brock brand of vinyl docks and decks has recorded double-digit growth for the past five years, Fullen said.
``Decking is following the cycle of vinyl windows and vinyl siding, both of which existed for a long time before becoming almost de rigueur,'' she said.
Heritage Vinyl Products, now part of Jannock Inc. of Pittsburgh, came second, and, logically, is considered the second-largest vinyl deck producer.
Together, Royal Group and Heritage hold about 85 percent of vinyl's portion of the decking market, Fullen estimated.
``It's always best to be first in,'' said Gary Acinapura, Jannock executive vice president of fabricated products.
Brock got into residential decking almost by accident.
``Brock Dock's focus was on marine dock applications, but homeowners were using it to make decks as much as docks,'' Fullen said.
David Blum, general sales manager for CertainTeed Corp.'s fence division, said it was typical for a fence company to start making railing for docks and decks and then the decks themselves.
Other members of the vinyl deck fraternity include North American Pipe Corp. of Houston; Alside Inc. of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio; Kroy Building Products of York, Neb.; L.B. Plastics Inc. of Mooresville, N.C.; and Thermal Industries Inc. of Pittsburgh.
With its EarthCare brand, U.S. Plastic Lumber Co. leads in sales among pure plastic lumber decking manufacturers, recently purchasing competitor Cycle-Masters Inc. of Sweetser, Ind.
The fiberglass field has been small — and may be shrinking. One company, Pultronex Corp. of Nisku, Alberta, advertises a pultruded decking line called E-ZDeck. Pultronex is the result of a management buyout of ZCL Composites Inc.'s pultrusion division in April. At the time of the sale, ZCL said the decking line's sales dropped to about $1 million in 1997.
But the size of the potential market is sure to lure more players.
``While plastics likely will never overtake wood for decking, it still could be a $1 billion business that should not be overlooked,'' said CertainTeed's Blum.