Its products may be devoted to stability and durability, but as an industry, the decking business is getting all shook up.

Changes in the economy, consumer tastes, and production technology are buffeting deck manufacturers and making things tricky for those dealers who are deciding this winter what to stock this year. Those decisions matter because three out of 10 dealers responding to a recent ProSales survey said they expect decking sales to rise next year, and another 60% believe they will at least hold steady. Here are the decking trends most likely to affect LBM operations in the near and long term:

The Numbers

More Sales Ahead

After a 25.8% decline in 2009 from the year before to reach $2.77 billion, decking sales will climb 10% this year to $3.05 billion, Principia Partners forecasts. Another consultancy, the Freedonia Group, prefers to look longer-term and count board feet rather than dollars. It says demand will rise 12.5% between 2008 and 2013 to total 3.64 billion board feet.

Recessionary Influences

While the traditional view is that wood gets used in new and starter homes while composites are purchased primarily for repair and remodel work, analysts and dealers say the recession has helped wood increase its market share lately for all types of homes. Composite decking used to account for 60% of sales at The Deck Store in Apple Valley, Minn. But in 2009, wood decking garnered 70% of sales. "People are trying to hang on to more of their money and are going with real wood," says Bob Heidenreich, the store's president. Adds James Morton, a senior partner at Principia: "Consumers are price conscious. They ask, 'Can I build something cheaper? Do I have to put in high-price railing?' There's a lot of flux."

Non-Wood's Growing Influence

In 2008, roughly 84% of the board feet of decking produced was made of wood, Freedonia says. By 2013, it predicts that share of market will drop to 77%. Meanwhile, composite's share will increase to 19.3% from 13.8% and plastic/PVC goods will account for 3.7% of the market, up from 2.6%. In dollar terms, the relative lower price of wood reduces its dominance even further. Principia, which lumps composites with plastics in its estimates, says those products figured in roughly 26% of the dollars expended for decking last year. It expects composites and plastics to keep that share in 2010.

Where Dealers Matter

Principia found that two-step dealers accounted for roughly two-thirds of the $936 million worth of wood-plastic composite decking sold and close to half of the $1.2 billion worth of cedar, redwood, and other non-softwood products. On the other hand, two-steppers sold just $48 million of the $1.59 billion in softwood sold for decks. Big boxes were the leader here, with $898 million in softwood sales, followed by one-steppers with $636 million in softwood sales.

Lower Prices

Composite boards in Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies' MoistureShield Vantage collection are 10% less than their price last year, says Brent Gwatney, vice president of sales and marketing. The maker achieved this by making the board slightly thinner. "We see our business changing to 80% purchases of that product," Gwatney says. TimberTech also planned to introduce a new product, ReliaBoard, this month that falls into the price range of a lower-priced composite. TimberTech reduced the price of the product with a new process.

Capping Performance

Manufacturers are encasing caps over their composite and PVC products. These allow the boards to sport more realistic looks, such as those that imitate tropical hardwoods. The capped products also have improved durability, which manufacturers hope will allay concerns over the performance of composites and PVC decks. Chris Fox, marketing manager at Universal Forest Products, says the capstock on his company's newest tropical-look composite decking, Latitudes Capricorn, allows it to resist stains, scratching, and fading.

Azek is introducing five new hardwood-inspired colors that use a variegated, multi-chromatic alloy cap. The colors will release across two decking lines, Arbor and Terra. The cap makes the colors of the decking richer and deeper, says Mike Gori, Azek's decking product manager, and adds more durability.

Fiberon offers a capped composite product, Horizon, that wears a tropical look. It comes with a 10-year stain and fade warranty. "The new products offer a level of performance above and beyond [traditional composites]," says Chris Beyer, spokesperson for Fiberon.

Finally, Trex introduced its Transcend decking and railing, which is protected by a shell to offer a high-definition woodgrain pattern and improved stain and fade resistance, says Adam Zambanini, senior product manager of decking.

Getting Tough

Despite their growing importance, composites' and plastics' recent history makes them suspect with some installers and customers. "I first thought composites would solve all my problems," says Bobby Parks, president of Peachtree Decks & Porches, Alpharetta, Ga., but the early products had "marginal looks, marginal performance." Today, he says, "We have composites with good looks and marginal performance, and PVC decking with good performance and marginal looks."

To that end, manufacturers continue to develop composites with increased fade, stain, scuff and scratch resistance. Trex feels so confident about its newest release, Transcend, that it offers a 25-year stain and fade warranty on the product, says Zambanini.

While Parks says he's excited about the products coming down the line, he says contractors remain cautious about claims that a product sold today will still look great in 2035. "If a product fails, our reputation gets tainted," he says.

How Do I Look?

Thomas R. Meier, director of research and development for Americhem, a Cleveland-based company that supplies many of the raw materials used in composites, knows that the traditional complaints about wood-plastic and PVC products is that they have looked like pale imitations of the woods they were supposed to supplant. But today, he says, "We think we can produce synthetic material that looks better than wood." Americhem and decking manufacturers are developing patterns that feature such woody features as growth rings.

Colors also are getting darker–of Transcend's four colors, three are dark browns to bronze–and Americhem is working on synthetics that resemble such exotic species as rosewood and teak.

Meier says he also is working on ways to mimic stone. While developing Transcend, Trex's Zambanini tested versions of the composite in all sorts of patterns. What he found was that customers wanted one style–wood–and one demand: "It needs to look as close to wood as possible."

Becoming Environmentally Friendly

Pressure-treated lumber experienced an overhaul in 2003, when a popular preservative that contained arsenic, CCA, was phased out due to its detrimental effects on human health. Now, products trend toward less concentrated solutions that have a smaller impact on health and the environment and are less corrosive to fasteners. "Everyone is trying to get formulations and do testing that shows you can use less of a chemical and still provide effective protection," says Huck DeVenzio, manager of marketing and communications for Arch Wood Protection. The Deck Store's Heidenreich tragically experienced the negative effects of arsenic-containing treatments firsthand. "I had a bone marrow transplant because of those chemicals in the original treated wood," he explains. "It adds a lot of reliability when I talk about looking at what those chemicals are now."

Cutting Out Corrosive Stuff

One of Heidenreich's favorite wood treatments is Viance's Ecolife. "It's nontoxic and water repellent," he says. The non-metallic treatment is biodegradable, does not accumulate in soil, and can be used for above-ground indoor and outdoor applications, states the manufacturer. The NAHB also labeled the treatment as a Green Approved Product for its National Green Building Standard.

Universal Forest Products' Fox recommends Osmose's MicroPro product. It "keeps the lumber's natural appearance longer and is less corrosive to fasteners," he says. The copper-based treatment won a Green Product Award last year from our sister publication, Building Products. Certified as an Environmentally Preferable Product by the Scientific Certification Systems, MicroPro treated lumber releases 90% to 99% less copper into aquatic and terrestrial environments than standard treated wood, the company says. The amount released bonds to organic matter and becomes inactive, the maker adds.

Arch offers a non-metallic treatment and a copper-based treatment to fit into these environmentally friendly categories. Protected by a non-metallic, carbon-based solution, Wolmanized L3 Outdoor wood features a built-in water repellent. It also resists wood-destroying organisms, and is less corrosive than copper-based treatments, the firm says. It won a Most Valuable Product Award in 2008 from Building Products for its ability to solve "some of the problems inherent with CCA-treated wood, at a competitive price point," a contest judge stated. However, the product can only be used above-ground. Copper azole Wolmanized Outdoor Residential Wood can be used in-ground, and has no adverse health affects, the company states.

Heat Treatment

Along with treatments that use biocides to protect wood, two new categories of products have started emerging in the United States. The first is thermally modified wood–products that use heat treatments to protect against decay. While some of these products have been in Europe for decades, they just recently started to make their way into the U.S. market.

Heidenreich displays a thermally modified product, Radiance, outside his Minnesota store. "It's performing really well," he says about the GreenSpec-listed product. "We wanted something unique and different."

Another thermally modified product, PureWood, uses heat and steam to remove sugar from the wood, says Ron Long, president of Bay Tree Technologies, which supplies the product to the United States. This process allows the wood to resist mold, warping, and mildew.

"It doesn't dry out or fill up with water and expand," Long says. PureWood is warranted to resist rot, decay, and excessive checking and warping for 25 years.

"The wow is the lack of toxins," said a judge for the Green Product Awards, which recognized PureWood. However, the product costs more than pressure-treated lumber. "It comes to market for about what a good grade of cedar would," Long says. Also, the product does not protect against termites and thus cannot be used in contact with the ground.

Chemical Modifiers

Another emerging product category changes the chemical composition of wood to achieve protection. The American Wood Protection Association (AWPA) formed a committee this year to examine such offerings, as well as thermally treated products. "We do think there is a need to standardize these types of products," says Colin McCown, executive vice president of the AWPA.

Universal Forest Products announced it will distribute Accoya, a chemically modified wood that uses a non-toxic process to increase wood's acetyl molecules, rendering it more dimensionally stable and protecting it from rotting, fungi, and insects, says its supplier, Titan Wood Ltd. Fox considers it to be a high-end niche product. Accoya lasts for 50 years above ground and 25 years in ground, the firm states.