See also: 15 Takeaways From the Decking Conference

Dealers should help boost deck sales by accompanying contractors into homeowners' houses to help the contractors close sales and by pushing deck safety issues with homeowner associations and other parties, two decking industry leaders urge.

Neither idea won strong acceptance among attendees at Principia's conference on decking and outdoor living products, a two-day event that ended today in Charlotte, N.C. But they did reflect the industry's push to find ways to boost an industry that has seen the number of deck installations drop 37% in five years to total just 2.7 million in 2010.

Other speakers called for more cooperation within the historically fractious building products sector so that the industry can face up to challenges inherent in new building codes as well as help set standards for measuring product quality and testing.

Decking sales--particularly those encompassing wood-plastic composite and all-plastic (mainly polyvinyl chloride, or PVC) decking materials--have grown over the past decade to become a significant business for construction supply companies. Principia forecast earlier this year that North American demand for decking and railing will increase by 8% per year through 2013, becoming a $3.4 billion business this year and a $4 billion line in 2013.

But while the higher-priced composite and PVC products enjoyed strong growth in market share during the first half of the last decade, taking about 10 percentage points of market share from pressure-treated wood when measured in board feet, the market has stabilized since about 2005 to where it's about 80% wood and 20% alternative products, Principia estimates. Measured in dollar terms, the fact that composites and PVC cost much more than wood means that wood figures in about 60% of the industry's annual revenue, synthetic products 34% and metal the final 6%.

Jim Daniels, vice president of product development at Parksite--the distributor whose predecessor first brought Trex to dealers--said he believes decking sales are hurt by the fact that deck builders typically make the sale. Deck builders are craftsmen, not sales experts, he said. Thus, if dealers want their builders to do better, they need to join the builder at the ultimate customer's kitchen table and help close the transaction.

Daniels and Michael Beaudry, executive vice president of the North American Decking and Railing Association (NADRA), both saw a bright side in a normally dark statistic: the estimated 225,000 injuries that NADRA says were linked to deck, railing, and stair failures between 2003 and 2008.

Some of these injuries occurred because the decks are nearing the end of their useful lives; NADRA estimates that roughly half the 40 million decks on homes in America today are more than 20 years old.

"Decks are falling down," Beaudry stated. "It's not that they were built wrong. It's that it's an outdoor product. … It's a natural progression that these decks, over time, need to be replaced." Other failures also are blamed on the weaker construction codes of past years.

Beaudry urged conference attendees to support initiatives that get homeowners to think about safety. He said one good group to reach out to is America's 309,000 homeowner associations, which collectively watch over 24.8 million homes sheltering 62 million people. Many insurance companies are now requiring homeowner groups to do an annual inspection of their members decks to ensure they are safe and code-compliant, he noted.

To the public, NADRA's message is designed to reduce the number of accidents and deaths; after all, deck collapses aren't good publicity, one speaker remarked, and it doesn't cost much in extra hardware to prevent trouble. But to the industry, Beaudry also sees promoting safety as a way to boost sales. That's because, if one assumes that as few as 2 million of the 2.7 million decks built last year were replacing existing structures, the replacement rate would be roughly 5%. Beaudry believes that with proper safety promotion, that annual replacement rate could rise to as high as 15%--pushing annual total deck construction by as many as 4 million additional structures.

See also: 15 Takeaways From the Decking Conference