ATLANTA — A walk through the International Builders' Show turned up enough backyard decks to fill a suburban housing development — and about 10 companies showed decks made of wood/plastic composites.
You could almost smell the barbecue.
Manufacturers smelled money at the show, held Feb. 9-12 at the Georgia World Congress Center. Three million decks are built, replaced or repaired in the United States each year and right now, most of them are made of wood.
North American demand for wood/plastic composites, pegged at 700 million pounds in 2000, should more than double by 2005, according to a new study from Principia Partners of Exton, Pa. Decking accounts for about 60 percent of the total.
Anybody who ever sanded and sealed a deck knows why. Composite decks are virtually maintenance free. No treating, no cracks, no rot, no insect damage. "Less Work. More Life," is how one supplier, TimberTech Ltd., puts it.
"The driver is the demand for lower-maintenance exterior products that look good," said Marty Fajerman, marketing manager for wood polymer composites at Louisiana-Pacific Corp. The composite decking market is expected to grow 25 percent this year, to about $225 million, he said.
The red-hot wood composite market has lured brand-new players into the plastics industry. Lumber companies and wood fabricators generate waste fibers and sawdust. That cellulosic material is combined with plastic — usually polyethylene, PVC or polypropylene — to make the weatherproof "lumber." Recycled or virgin plastic can be used.
LP introduced its WeatherBest decking at the show.
For Portland, Ore.-based Louisiana-Pacific Corp., the move into plastics first came in 1999 when LP bought ABT Building Products Corp. The deal gave LP new capacity to make vinyl siding. But LP moved quickly to add wood composites. Last May, LP bought Hoff Cos. Inc., a composite-decking maker in Meridian, Idaho. LP also built a new siding factory in Selma, Ala.
Production began at both locations in May. Fajerman said LP runs eight extrusion lines in Alabama and seven lines in Idaho. He declined to identify the machinery supplier.
Unlike some other wood companies, LP was not prompted to make composite decking as a way to use its waste wood fibers.
"We got into it because we thought it was a good product, and we saw a market," Fajerman said.
LP blends pine and PE to make its light-colored boards and railing.
"We really try to make a product that looks just like wood," he said.
According to wood-flour missionary Strandex Corp., wood companies now account for most of the eight licensees of its extrusion technology, including LP.
"The overall wood industry is beginning to accept these products as being viable," said Al England, executive vice president of the company in Madison, Wis.
England said wood waste typically is burned in fire kilns used to dry lumber. Wood processors also sell material for animal beds.
CertainTeed Corp. began extruding its product, Boardwalk, last year in Jackson, Mich. Atlanta marked the builders' show debut of the composite decking and railing, said John Pruett, Boardwalk marketing manager.
Boardwalk blends PVC with recycled natural fibers, according to CertainTeed of Valley Forge, Pa.
Not all manufacturers use wood fibers. In Canada, Composite Building Products International Inc. blends flax and rice hulls with high density PE to make its Xtendex.
"We feel that it makes for less water absorption and a stronger, more consistent product. And it's lighter" than wood flour, said Leo Renner, manager of sales and marketing for CBP.
Renner said the company first compounds and pelletizes the material, then makes the planks and railing on single-screw extruders.
After outsourcing the manufacturing, CBP began production late last year at a 145,000-square-foot plant in Barrie, Ontario. The company currently runs 12 extruders with a yearly capacity of 24 million pounds in decking. To meet demand, CBP this summer plans to add eight extruders from Deltaplast Machinery Ltd. of Concord, Ontario.
At the Atlanta show, CBP showed off its corner post, a complex extrusion with nine chambers.
Two wood-flour processors lured builders with celebrity pizazz. Just down the concourse from CBP, Norm Abram, star of the PBS show The New Yankee Workshop, pressed the flesh for Trex Co. Inc. The Winchester, Va., company introduced a railpost and a new reddish-brown color for its decking.
Golf legend Chi Chi Rodriquez posed for pictures at the booth of U.S. Plastic Lumber Corp.
"People are looking at decking as really an inexpensive way to add value to their homes," said Robin Jacobs, vice president of marketing, as she shuffled aside to avoid blocking the Chi Chi line.
USPL, based in Boca Raton, Fla., makes three types of decks: two varieties using recycled plastic plus a line of wood-fiber/plastic composite called SmartDeck. The company blends the wood slivers — waste from hardwood-flooring factories — with recycled high density PE grocery sacks in a 50-50 mix, Jacobs said.
The total-plastic decking category is surging by 30 percent a year, she said: "It's the fastest-growing segment in decking."
For TimberTech Ltd., based in Columbus, Ohio, Kevin Brennan anticipates doubling busi- ness from last year to this year. He declined to give current sales figures.
"Our goal is to take business from wood," said the sales and marketing director.
The subsidiary of Crane Plastics Holding Co. makes its decking material from recycled wood and virgin polymers.
Also exhibiting at the builders' show was Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. of Springdale, Ark.