Misinformation has been a thorn in the side of wood-plastic composite products makers since their offerings started trickling into the marketplace over the past decade.
Perhaps surprising to some in the industry, there are still consumers in the market for building products who don't understand what a wood-plastic composite is.
But even worse, there are those who have heard of them, but their heads have been filled with fairy tales of deck boards that could survive a nuclear blast. The ``maintenance-free'' marketing mantra from the early days has been replaced with the more-appropriate ``low-maintenance'' label, but still, some consumers can't help but be disappointed after having such lofty expectations.
As misleading marketing rhetoric has dwindled, the technology for making quality deck boards has improved. Still, the same issues that were a problem in composite decking's early days continue to be obstacles today: board stiffness, moisture resistance, and color retention.
At Americhem Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, chemical engineers are working with composite lumber manufacturers on all of those issues.
Laura Prexta, Americhem's technology manager for building and construction, told attendees at the Wood-Plastic and Natural Fiber Composites 2006 conference, held Sept. 25-26 in Baltimore, that consumers are facing color fading in composite decking that is double, and sometimes quadruple, the color differential seen in certified vinyl siding. Adding insult to injury, the drastic fade is happening in just four months in composite lumber vs. two years for siding.
``As an industry, we need to learn to stabilize these new compounds,'' Prexta said in a Sept. 27 interview at Americhem's headquarters.
Composites, because of high expectations and premium prices, are under greater scrutiny, but according to Prexta, they perform better against ultraviolet light than their natural wood counterparts.
Bob Tichy recognizes that consumers care about color fading on their decks. But the senior research engineer in the wood materials and engineering laboratory at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., said he has never once been asked to inspect a composite deck because of color change.
Tichy's primary concern is rigidness and strength.
``I'm coming from a safety issue,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``We spend a lot of time making sure color doesn't adversely impact strength and stiffness.
``Color from a visual standpoint is important to consumers, but completely unimportant to code organizations.''
Tichy believes in composites, but agrees with those who say poor marketing decisions have been a big part of the problem.
``A whole lot of claims have been made about colorfastness, strength, stiffness, being able to leap off a tall building - whatever,'' he said. ``People push the limits of performance in literature. That's not new. The auto industry has the same problem.''
Furthermore, total encapsulation of wood fibers in composite lumber is a myth, he said.
``Take a good look. You'll see fiber,'' he said. ``But that's not that bad. We're making entire decks out of exposed wood.
Mold growth remains an issue, he said. But he was quick to defend composite deck makers, saying there is no surface on the planet completely immune to biological growth.
``Anyone who claims they have a maintenance-free product is just asking to pay out in a lawsuit,'' Tichy said. ``Plastic, wood, steel, concrete - everything grows mold if it gets a little pollen on it. The industry is catching on to that fact.
``If it was 100 percent plastic, you're still going to get mold growth. If we stood around without moving long enough, we'd have mold growing on us, too.''