The 2006 International Builders' Show in Orlando brought out composite and plastic deck manufacturers in force, ready to tackle a market that has boomed all at once, but also has experienced product failures that are pushing new developments.
Composatron Composite Technology of Toronto introduced color railings extruded from the patented Strandex technology at its plant in Toronto. The profiles are capped with Luran S acrylonitrile styrene acrylate, from BASF Corp., for long-term color stability, according to Jim Pratt, Composatron's head of research and development and product technology.
The growth of the product category is pushing Composatron to open a second plant in Toronto, which will be in production by summer, Pratt said in an interview at the builders' show, held Jan. 11-14. Pratt would not disclose details, except that the plant will be dedicated to extrusion.
Elsewhere at the show, Dow Building & Construction introduced its own composite deck board, marketing it as Symmatrix. The product is extruded by a third party from virgin polyethylene and wood fiber in a 50-50 blend, officials said. Dow was careful not to tout it as maintenance-free, however.
``There's no such thing as a maintenance-free deck,'' said Tim Lacey, global marketing director for the business unit of Dow Chemical Co. of Midland, Mich. So far, Symmatrix has been launched domestically in the Northeast and Midwest.
``We clearly have an intent to take it nationwide,'' Lacey said. ``We have every intention of eventually extruding it.''
Lacey believes Dow's position in materials science gives the company a competitive advantage - and Dow touts the product as having the lowest water absorption. The firm plans to introduce fascia and railing.
``We've very excited about it,'' he said. ``We clearly have some ideas on where we think the market is going.''
Springdale, Ark.-based Advanced Environmental Recycling Technology Inc. will continue to ride the success of Lowe's Home Improvement stores in 2006. Don Compton, a sales representative for AERT's ChoiceDek, said about 200 new Lowe's stores are slated to open this year. Lowe's carries ChoiceDek, which is made from 100 percent recycled material, exclusively as its wood-plastic composite decking product.
Joplin, Mo.-based Tamko Roofing Products Inc. used the builders' event to showcase its new line of extruded composite decking - Elements.
Its predecessor, EverGrain, is a compression molded composite decking line, also owned by Tamko, under the Epoch Composite Products Inc. name. EverGrain has a higher price point than Elements.
Tamko spokeswoman Renee Robinson said compression molded EverGrain allows the boards to maintain a deep, lasting grain and natural-wood pattern. The catalyst for launching Elements was to tap into a slightly lower income level.
Both products are made up of 50 percent PE and 50 percent wood fiber, she said.
At Xccent Inc. of Osceola, Wis., officials are hedging their bets on PVC-coated steel-core decking, fabricated into panels for ease of installation, said marketing director Dan Reisetter.
Xccent is building on its history in playground equipment, Reisetter said, with panels that can withstand 1,000 pounds per square foot. The decking profiles are welded into steel panels.
``The labor savings is such that a builder can complete a deck for the same cost as a composite deck,'' he said.
Still, despite the excitement, some industry officials are questioning a slowdown in composite decking sales in the fourth quarter.
Jim Morton, a senior partner in wood-plastic composite consultant Principia Partners of Exton, Pa., said there were a number of economic factors in 2005 that might have contributed to that slowing.
Principia recently announced it was conducting an in-depth study to tackle questions about whether 2005's red-hot composite-decking numbers were the norm or an anomaly.
In October, industry officials gathered in Baltimore for Principia's Wood-Plastic and Natural Fiber Composites conference. There, all data pointed to breakneck growth rates in the industry and an impressive consumer market-adoption rate.
Now, there seems to be some question about composite decking's performance. It will be mid-February before the study's results are in, Morton said.
Without question, though, pricing was a factor.
``The gap between some of the natural materials like pressure-treated lumber and composite decking has widened in the past year,'' Morton said. ``That's an important factor. Producers have to be concerned whether they're finally hitting sensitivity in pricing.''
Morton also suggested that the automotive industry's employee-pricing campaign in 2005 affected sales of outdoor living products, as consumers chose to take advantage of car deals and may have held back on major purchases for their homes.
``There's only so much money to go around,'' Morton said. ``Some producers got hit more than others.''