It's time to ask the question: Did composite decking extruders make a mistake when they decided to come to market with boards composed of polyethylene and wood fiber?
On the surface, no pun intended, it makes sense. PE is the most abundant of recycled plastics. Wood fiber also is available readily from lumber mills throughout North America. It seems like a perfect match.
But on the surface, pun intended, it's beginning to look not so perfect. And here's why: The industry is pitching low-maintenance (formerly ``maintenance-free'') decks, yet I continue to hear story after story about mold and mildew, or severe color fade, or development of a milky, white residue on decks for which homeowners are paying a premium. A market has actually developed for composite deck cleaners. Extruders have invested millions of dollars in research and development in an effort to get PE and wood to not act like PE and wood.
I have access to only a handful of composite decks myself, so I don't profess to have firsthand experience with weathered composite decks from every manufacturer. But I know what I hear.
This should not suggest I am completely sour on wood fiber-PE deck boards. Far from it. They are undeniably a wonderful recycling solution, and clearly a better-performing product than traditional lumber.
But is being better enough? When asking a homeowner to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a deck, is it OK to just be better?
Most of the market leaders, including the top five in the category, are using PE and wood fiber to make their deck boards.
I used to separate the low-maintenance decks into two groups: the ones that performed really well, and the ones that looked the most like wood. The market research is undeniable: Consumers want their decks to look like wood.
Composite deck makers using PE and wood fiber have that going for them - generally speaking, they win the wood look-alike contest. And until DeckExpo, I thought that might be enough.
That's when I saw a very wood-looking, PVC-based Chinese product that threw my theory right out the window.
Composite decks have made the leap from niche to mainstream, and in doing so, have raised the stakes of the game. There are a lot of composite decks out there today, and there are going to be even more tomorrow. Perception is reality, and if the number of unsatisfied customers grows along with the industry, eventually there will be an entire new generation of builders, dealers and homeowners weary of the most exciting category in polymer-based building products. And that would be tragic.
Griswold is an Akron-based Plastics News staff reporter who covers building and construction.