Spend time with decking manufacturers and you get the feeling they live in dog years. The big question for dealers today is whether those manufacturers' products do the same.

Innovations come fast in this part of construction supply, and often deckmakers are slapping warranty promises stretching up to 25 years on products that didn't exist several years ago. That's a challenge for dealers, many of whom has been in business for decades and thus know well the cost of a long-term commitment–particularly when it can take years for product failures to show up. For instance, reports are coming in of swelling at the ends of capped wood-plastic composite (WPC) deck boards where there is nothing to keep moisture from getting into the wood fibers.

At the same time, decking has become a multi-billion-dollar business for dealers, particularly by selling WPCs and all-plastic boards. What to do? Many dealers that ProSales has talked to recently remain excited about decking developments but also view them with a good bit of skepticism, particularly regarding performance claims.For instance, Chris Freeman of California's Ganahl Lumber noted to decking manufacturers at Principia's deck conference last fall that they already refer to some of their products as "ultra-low maintenance." (ULM) If that's the case, Johnson asked, what can they possibly call the next round of improvements?

Judging by what deckmakers planned to introduce at the International Builders' Show in Orlando, Fla., in early February, that next generation of products hasn't arrived yet. But it could come this fall, when Advanced Environmental Recycling Technologies (AERT) plans to unveil a wood-plastic composite that for the first time uses nanotechnology to create a tough "cap" encircling its decking. Arkansas-based AERT says the nanotechnology coating will resist stains, fading, mold, mildew, and scuffing.

For two years, competitors have outpaced AERT by selling WPC decking that's coated with a hard, plastic-like shell that delivers much of the durability of all-plastic decks but with better looks. These so-called capped composites–such as the Trex Transcend line, Fiberon's Horizon decking, and TimberTech's Earthwood Evolutions –have proven so popular that the Principia consultancy estimates the share of the $1.1 billion non-wood decking and railing market going to capped composites and all-plastic decking rose to 45% last year from 15% in 2008.

AERT doesn't sell a capped WPC deck. But its work with a University of Arkansas research center into nanotechnology–manipulating materials so small that thousands can be placed across the width of a human hair–could give it a viable competitor. It also could foretell a time in which makers of traditional WPCs as well as producers of solid-sawn wood can give their products the benefits of capping at a competitive price.

"I've heard people here bashing wood, saying it's not the answer," remarked Joe Brooks, CEO of AERT, at the Principia conference. "We're trying to supercharge wood."

More Products, More Color

Elsewhere, the innovations revolve mainly around new colors and upgraded quality, along with a growing tendency by the bigger manufacturers to widen the range of products to include almost all aspects of outdoor living.

Last year, Fiberon expanded its capped composites portfolio by unveiling Pro-Tect, a composite with a plastic cap on three sides of the board and a scalloped bottom. Doing that enables Fiberon to use less material than it would with a truly two-sided board, thus helping it keep costs down. This year, it will add two colors–Gray Birch and Chestnut–to its color palette.

TimberTech seeks to build on the momentum from last year's introduction of its Earthwood Evolutions capped composite deck by creating a Natural Collection that adds brick, slate and brownstone colors to the three it originally offered.

The Latitudes brand made by Universal Forest Products Inc. upgraded its co-extruded composite decking products to feature what it touts as an improved capstock that it backs with a 25-year fade and stain warranty. Latitudes comes in two lines: Capricorn, which features the tropical colors of Koa and Arabica; and Captiva, available in gray, cedar, and walnut.

Last summer, CertainTeed added two new shades–Castle Gray and Tudor Brown–to its EverNew PT Decking line. Its existing colors are bronze, slate, ipe tropics and rosewood tropics.

Also last summer, Kleer expanded the all-plastic category by unveiling two lines of 100% polyvinyl chloride decks: its Coastal and Sierra series. Kleer's warranty covers the product for 25 years and, unusual to this business, commits to covering labor costs if problems occur in the first two years.

The Great Outdoors

Some dealers' most notable additions were more about outdoor living spaces. AZEK started offering VAST Pavers–made with up to 95% post-consumer recycled rubber and plastics–for use in landscaping. And Trex struck a deal with Backyard America to develop and market Trex pergola kits. In addition, Trex over the past year has introduced porch decking in three colors; began making and selling steel deck framing; added a lighter taupe color called Rope Swing to its Transcend line of capped decking; and launched Trex Enhance, another capped composite. Enhance aims to fill the market between Accents–Trex's lower-price, lower-benefits WPC product–and the upmarket Transcend line. Enhance comes in two colors and has a 20-year warranty vs. 25 for Transcend.

"We're really thinking beyond typical decking and railing to that larger outdoor space–to the porch system, deck lighting, pergolas," Trex brand communications manager Leslie Adkins says.

TimberTech introduced paint that installers can put on the ends of decks when they don't have those boards butt up against a fascia, and it expanded its TOPLoc line by offering fasteners made with stainless steel. It also put LED bulbs in its DeckLites just as AZEK increased its lighting options. Meanwhile, Kleer plans this year to begin marketing a line of hidden fasteners. Fiberon plans by IBS to introduce its own brand of deck cleaner and by this summer to roll out matching-color fascia and riser boards for its Horizon decking.

Wood Still Rules

All the talk about composites and plastics obscures the fact that, measured by lineal feet sold, decks made from treated wood still rule with about 87% of the market vs. roughly 11% for WPCs and 2% for the plastic products, according to the Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based consultancy. It's in value terms that those composites and ultra-low maintenance products matter: Principia says WPCs and ULMs make up 34% of all decking and railing sales. But wood products still account for 60% of the roughly $3.4 billion in decking and railing goods sold today.

Most experts and manufacturers agree that the bulk of treated wood sales are for decks that go into new production homes and as replacement decks for budget-conscious shoppers, while WPC and ULM boards get used in replacement decks and at upscale custom homes and commercial projects. Principia expects total decking sales to grow to $4 billion by 2013, in part because ultra-low maintenance products will take share from traditional WPCs.

Those numbers could shift based on two economic drivers: how new-home construction grows (thus boosting the building of treated wood decks), and how many people will choose to remain in their own homes and upgrade what they have (thus increasing purchases of non-wood decks).

Safety could prove to be a third factor. The North American Deck and Railing Association (NADRA) estimates that more than half of America's 40 million decks are more than 20 years old. Geriatric decks are one reason why NADRA estimates 225,000 injuries were linked to deck, railing, and stair failures between 2003 and 2008.

NADRA's director believes that talk about the safety dangers of old decks could spur more decisions to replace them, thus giving deck installers more business (the number of installations dropped 37% in five years to total just 2.7 million in 2010, NADRA says). But attendees at Principia's decking conference were almost universally opposed to using danger as a sales tool. Instead, dealers said they are more likely to tout old standbys: innovative new products, new colors, and new options.