The composite wood decks at Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida have endured some pretty wicked weather in the last decade.
Rain falls on the swampy neighbor of the Everglades about 128 days a year — some of it the most damaging on record, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
The boardwalks by canals and over wetlands are pounded by about 70 inches of rain a year. Then, there's the brutal heat and humidity — 95° days with 95 percent humidity are common — plus weight of some 1.2 million visitors in 2014 alone walking the planks of recycled polyethylene and wood fiber.
Despite all these conditions, other than some moderate color fade, the decks manufactured a decade ago by Springdale, Ark.-based Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies Inc. (AERT) are in good shape regardless of whether they meander through shaded or sunny areas, according to Dennis Bartalino, chief of facilities management at the preserve.
“Both sections have held up well other than some discoloring,” Bartalino said in a telephone interview, adding that the decking is fastened with exposed stainless steel screws. “Those are solidly in place. They haven't loosened or backed out. There's no cracking and no serious deterioration at all.”
Composite wood decks are standing the test of time and the sales outlook is bright for these kinds of decks and others, particularly for back yard uses.
AERT ranks 46th in Plastics News' latest list of top pipe, profile and tubing extruders and there's cause for optimism.
Demand for residential decking and railing in North America is forecast to increase to nearly $5 billion in the next 2 ½ years, according to Principia Partners. The marketing research firm based in Malvern, Pa., projects increases of 4.5 percent annually through 2018 to 3.5 billion linear feet.
While wood share has grown over the past in the past five years, sales of wood alternative decking have recently improved, Principia says. The recovering housing market, stronger economy, trend toward more luxurious outdoor living spaces, and consumer preference for better-performing products should bode well for future sales of alternative wood decks, Principia researchers predict.
AERT and other composite deck makers are ready to battle for market share against wood and each other with high-performance materials that improve durability and reduce maintenance. They are producing a wider range of wood grains and colors to complement homes. The boards look freshly stained and the manufacturers say they will maintain their richness without the need to actually apply stain.
CPG Building Products is out with new shades of brown and gray for the Legacy and Terrain collections of its capped composite TimberTech brand, which is made of post-consumer PE and wood flour. The Legacy line is based on the look of crafted, hand-scraped interior flooring.
CPG, which ranks 14th in the latest Plastics News ranking, also owns the Azek brand of decks, which this year introduced its capped cellular PVC Vintage Collection to “reinvent PVC decking” by mimicking the natural, aged look of interior flooring found in old Victorian homes.
The trend of bringing the indoors outdoors or creating a seamless transition between the interior and exterior of a house continues to gain popularity.
Winchester, Va.-based Trex, which says it's the world's largest manufacturer of wood-alternative decking and railing, came out with waterproof cabinetry this year to make outdoor living more stylish and utilitarian. The storage units come in the form of trash receptacles, hampers, coolers and bench drawers for pool toys.
Ranked No. 11, Trex set company records for sales and operating profit in the first quarter of 2015 with sales up 20 percent to $121 million compared to 2014 due in part to expanding market share. Second quarter guidance is $136 million, which reflects a 14 percent increase from the prior year.
At an analyst meeting in March, Trex officials put the composite share of the decking market at an estimated 35 percent with a chance to approach 50 percent in coming years. During a quarterly call in May, Chairman Ronald Kaplan, who is the former president and CEO, said the expectation is based on what has happened in the five years since Trex introduced its Transcend decks. That's the top option in three collections of products made of recycled PE film, wood and sawdust that are capped with protective shells and categorized as good, better and best.
“In Trex Transcend, you eliminated the primary dissatisfier among people in the composite customer base,” Kaplan said. “Those two dissatisfiers were staining and fading. Subsequent to our introduction, the marketplace has essentially copied the technology, thereby raising the overall quality of the entire composite segment.”
Officials at AERT, which has been making composite decks for more than 25 years, might disagree. They can point to the technology of their MoistureShield brand decks installed in Florida's tropic-like preserve back in 2004-05, which is before the cap craze began.
“Big Cypress is a great example of the many MoistureShield decks and docks installed across North America that are 10-plus years old and still perform and look as good as the day they were installed,” Brent Gwatney, senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in an email. “When composite decking is specifically manufactured to resist moisture and UV, it has proven it can stand the test of time even without a cap.”
Made of wood fibers encapsulated with water-resistant PE, MoistureShield bills its products as the only composite decking that can be used on the ground, in the ground and under water while still being backed by a warranty.
AERT did come out with a capped board for what its website calls “an added layer of protection and beauty,” but the company still sells its “traditional” products while Trex did away with all of its deck collections made before 2010 as part of a “strategic transition.”
Gwatney said MoistureShield always had the mechanics right when it came to manufacturing well-performing decks and its capstock was refined for the Pro collection for aesthetic reasons that deepen the embossed pattern and add color variation for a more natural, less-plastic look.
To spur Pro sales, MoistureShield is offering contractors a $2 per board rebate through September.
“There are a lot of complicated reward systems in the industry, but we believe in keeping things simple for our builders, and there is nothing simpler than a check,” Gwatney said.
Other deck makers also are sweetening the pot.
In April, Fiberon came out with a new five-year limited labor warranty. The New London, N.C.-based company, which ranks 28th, says the new warranty should give homeowners and building professionals another reason to use its composite decking and railing. If a product fails to perform in accordance with its original warranty, Fiberon will pay labor costs associated with replacement. The company says that should be “a powerful differentiator” to generate more business and close more sales.