Wood-plastic composite decking does not come with a force field.
Occasional maintenance is advised. So, Springdale, Ark.-based Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. has added some language to its product literature to make sure customers understand a little upkeep is encouraged.
It's a situation indicative of the trend to ultralow-maintenance products being coveted by increasingly busy homeowners.
A U.S. District Court in Seattle recently approved a class-action settlement over product failure claims regarding AERT's ChoiceDek product line. The company also manufactures MoistureShield-brand decking, which was not involved in the lawsuit. ChoiceDek is sold at Lowe's Home Improvement stores.
Joe Brooks, AERT's chief executive officer, took time at the International Builders' Show, held Jan. 20-23 in Las Vegas, to defend the company's products. Of the 440,000 decks AERT has manufactured and sold during the past five years, only 640 formal claims have been made concerning defective product, he said.
``Obviously we have a lot of satisfied customers,'' Brooks said. ``We have a full customer service department. Our job is to resolve issues, no matter whose fault it is.''
ChoiceDek, while manufactured by AERT, has been sold through Federal Way, Wash.-based Weyerhaeuser Inc. But that partnership has ended, and ChoiceDek's sales and marketing will revert to AERT sometime between September and the beginning of 2010, Brooks said.
In addition to the deck board replacement, AERT will pay $1.75 million in legal fees in three installments during the next 12 months. A new instructional cleaning video will be provided to customers upon request, according to an AERT news release.
Winchester, Va.-based Trex Co. Inc. currently is dealing with a similar lawsuit, involving surface flaking on some of its boards. Trex publicly acknowledged the defects in late 2007, when it set aside $45 million to handle claims concerning product extruded from 2003-06 at its Fernley, Nev., plant.
Less than 1 percent of the product sold was affected, company officials said at the time.
Trex President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald Kaplan called the lawsuit ``an unconscionable and irresponsible abuse of the legal system,'' in a news release.
``We believe we have fully met our obligations to our customers and that these claims are completely without merit,'' he said. ``These class-action firms make their livings initiating speculative lawsuits merely as a way of leveraging settlements that result in large attorneys' fees awards. We believe we have been wrongfully targeted in this case and, without exception, we stand firmly behind our warranty.''
Justified or not, the perception by some consumers is that wood-plastic composites are not performing as well as advertised, which is why the industry has seen a proliferation of cellular PVC decking products in the past two years.
Between Fencetech, held Jan. 13-16 in New Orleans, and the Las Vegas Builders' Show, at least three companies introduced new lines of cellular PVC decking.
Jacksonville, Fla.-based Enduris Extrusions Inc., which historically has extruded rigid vinyl fence and railing products, entered the deck arena by introducing its own version of the premium PVC decking material.
Likewise, Tamko Building Products Inc. in Joplin, Mo., launched a new cellular PVC board, called Envision, at the Builders' Show, though the firm is not extruding it in-house. Decking industry sources said Milwaukee-based cellular PVC extruder Gossen Corp. is manufacturing the boards for Tamko.
Tamko has the most-unique wood-plastic composite decking products in the industry with its compression molded EverGrain brand. Tamko also extrudes Elements-brand decking a traditional polyethylene-based wood composite.
Despite a mostly nonvinyl portfolio, the large building products maker felt compelled to enter the cellular PVC space due to customer demand, said Tamko communications director Ron Cook, at the Builders' Show.
For now, the cellular PVC decking market is dominated by Azek Building Products Inc. of Moosic, Pa., which bought the former Procell Decking Systems Inc. flax-reinforced technology in 2006.
But others are gunning for that spot. All of the market leaders in composite decking, save AERT, have launched their own flavor of cellular PVC decking.
The most recent is New London, N.C.-based Fiber Composites LLC, which merged with Sensibuilt Building Solutions LLC in December.
At the show, Fiber Composites' booth was active with decking contractors excited about the firm's new clip-free, hidden fastener system on display. Most hidden fasteners are metal or plastics, and must be screwed into the substructure and fit into grooves alongside the deck board profiles.
With the Sensibuilt Deck Pilot, installers use a tool that helps guide screws into deck boards at an angle, keeping the screws hidden but allowing for installation times equal to, or faster than, screwing directly through the deck board from above.
Despite the dreary state of affairs in the building and construction industry, deck makers remain optimistic.
Gossen Executive Vice President Bob Simon said he expects a down year for the company's core product cellular PVC trim and moldings but remains bullish on decking.
``The bright spot for us today is decking,'' he said at the show. ``That's where we're putting our emphasis.''