Weighing the Pros and Cons of Decking Material

Choosing a deck material used to be a no-brainer. There were few choices available. Now the market is flooded with options, which can make the decision much tougher.

July 07, 2005

Choosing a deck material used to be a no-brainer. There were few choices available. Now the market is flooded with options, which can make the decision much tougher.
Today’s homeowner can install a standard concrete patio, a flagstone or other stone patio, or a deck. If the choice is a deck, the next question is what material is preferred. Here the options are numerous. There is pressure treated wood, natural wood, and wood composite material, plus vinyl, steel and nearly every combination of these.
Pressure Treated Wood
Generally speaking, pressure treated lumber is the standard in the industry,” says Lou Rossi, a senior partner at Principia Partners, a leading international business-consulting firm with extensive experience in the building products and plastics industries. “It is pretty easy to work with. You can make mistakes and fix them easily, as opposed to a composite board that cuts a little differently because it is only 50 percent wood. The do-it-yourselfer has some degree of hesitation to work with a product he knows less about.”
Pressure treated pine is also the least expensive material available. “As you might expect from a long-time participant in the wood preservation industry, I favor pressure treated wood for most decks,” says Huck DeVenzio, manager of marketing communications for Arch Wood Protection.
Pressure-treated wood offers an unmatched combination of benefits – economy, natural appearance, environmental superiority, strength and longevity,” he continues. “Some of these features are overlooked in the rush to embrace newer decking materials. The preservatives in treated wood have changed, but the next generation of treated decking continues to provide the most deck for the money, the look that artificial wood tries to imitate, and the use of a renewable and plentiful resource that requires less energy to produce than alternatives.”
On the downside is the maintenance required of a pressure treated wood deck and the ongoing debate about the effects of the chemicals used in the pressure treated process.
Natural Wood
Many homeowners choose a natural wood deck based on cost, according to Principia’s Rossi. “Not everyone can afford wood composite materials, paying two to three times the price of natural wood.” This makes natural wood the next affordable option – after pressure treated wood – on the spectrum of possible deck materials.
The cost of wood can vary geographically. In the Southeast, where southern yellow pine is dominant, it is quite affordable. On the West Coast, redwood is far less expensive and more popular than in other parts of the country. Even a hardwood like mahogany, as expensive as it is, still costs less than most composite materials.
Experts maintain cost is an issue that can’t be ignored. “After pressure treated wood, cedar is next up the scale, so there is a lot of value associated with it,” says Peter Lang, general manager of Western Red Cedar Lumber Association (WRCLA). “People who like being outdoors on a deck usually like being part of their natural surroundings. If that’s the case, choosing a natural product like cedar is the way to go.
That points to another advantage of natural wood: its purity. “A lot more people are spending time at home with the family,” notes Lang. “Despite the innovations of new composite decking materials, people prefer to spend time in backyard with all-natural materials, which is a big benefit of western red cedar.
While all the new, alternative materials might seem a threat, they have actually created an opportunity to distinguish western red cedar as a natural material,” he continues. “We’re carving out a niche as a truly natural option. You don’t have to worry about chemical issues, as with pressure treated, nor the synthetic character of composite materials.”
Principia’s Rossi echoes Lang’s thoughts: “To some degree, as good as composites can be, they are still synthetic, and there’s a part of the market that remains loyal to natural materials.
Among red cedar’s advantages, besides cost, are its good looks and aesthetics, as well as its natural durability. Red cedar has its own built-in preservative that resists decay and insect attack, versus pressure treated wood that uses chemicals to provide the same function.
Cedar also offers dimensional stability, according to WRCLA’s Lang. “It has the lowest rate of shrinkage and movement compared to other wood species. It lays flat and is less prone to shrinkage, cupping and splitting characteristics of other wood species,” states
Advocates of southern pine decking say the same is true of their product. Southern pine is up to nine times stiffer than comparable artificial decks, says Richard Kleiner, director of treated markets at Southern Forest Products Association. “As a result, the material offers an advantage when dealing with the new, heavier cooking products and furniture people are putting on their decks. You can span 16 inches on center with southern pine, as compared with artificial materials, which can only span 12 inches. That means you have to use more wood underneath to support the deck surface.
From an environmental perspective, wood “is a truly natural and renewable resource,” says Lang. “Pressure treated or wood plastic composites use nonrenewable resources like plastics and petrochemicals. But we can always plant new trees, making wood one of the rare products that is truly renewable.”
Wood Plastic Composite Materials
The decking materials that have seen the most growth and have spurred the most consumer interest are wood plastic composites. “These materials, which typically combine wood and plastic elements, have seen sales grow by about 25 percent annually,” reports Amanda Flora, marketing operations manager for TimberTech. “It is estimated that in 2005, approximately 20 percent of decking and railing sales in the United States will be comprised of composite materials.
It is no secret that builders and consumers alike are becoming more familiar with the qualities of composites, and that sales are being driven by their low-maintenance features. For example, no waterproofing or staining is involved, since composites generally come in all the popular colors. (However, like any deck, this material does require regular cleaning.) It is also available in numerous styles that encourage builders and homeowners alike to be creative in their deck designs.
It’s like having a forest in a manufacturing plant,” says Principia’s Rossi. “You can shape the pieces the way you want, for easier installation. Plus, manufacturers can answer the call for innovation to go beyond what’s been done already.”
As already noted, one of the downsides is cost. Homeowners might think that synthetic materials are less expensive than wood, but that’s not true. Wood plastic composites are at the high end of the cost spectrum.
Another problem composite manufacturers wrestle with: How do you distinguish one product from another? “The copycat approach goes only so far,” Principia’s Rossi states. “Brand proliferation leads to category acceptance, but it also leads to customer confusion. It’ll be interesting to see how the composite decking world evolves to bring innovation to the table.
Rossi suggests two ways that a wood composite manufacturer can use to set its brand apart from the pack:

  • Make its decking more compatible for electrical runways.
  • Produce different finials and caps that aren’t easily replicated in a wood product system, because of the onsite fabrication required.

Narrowing the Field
I recently read in ‘Composite Decking & Railing 2004’ that the number of manufacturers of composite decking has doubled from approximately 15 to 30 companies,” says John H. Hart, a structural design consultant for U.S. Structures, Inc./Archadeck, a designer and builder of decks. Hart is also chairman of the North American Deck and Railing Association Code Conformance Committee.
Many of these companies have been active in the business for a number of years, and at least 11 new firms entered the decking products market in 2004,” he continues. “But from a technical standpoint, I recognize materials/decking products only if they have been approved by the International Code Council.”
Which materials are the best? Hart is reluctant to endorse specific products, but did say that Archadeck sells only high quality products and pointed to his sales report for 2004. Archadeck’s number one decking material sold was pressure treated pine. Coming in second was Trex, a composite. In third place was Ipe, a Brazilian hardwood. Ranking fourth was Epoch, a composite. Weatherbest, another composite, came in at number five, followed by cedar, a Western wood, and TimberTech, ChoiceDek, and Geodeck, all of which are composites. In tenth place was mahogany, an exotic hardwood.
“In summary,” says Hart, “composites represented 43 percent of consumer choice for decking in our system last year, which is well above the national average of 14 to16 percent that I read.”
Terry Dempsey, general manager for DeckExpo, Inc., the industry trade show, agrees that hard numbers on the decking industry are tough to come by. “But it appears that somewhere around 85 percent of all decks are still built out of wood in a huge range of species, three-quarters of which is pressure treated pine. Wood is still a huge part of the market.” Alternative decking, including the composites, vinyl, metal or galvanized steel with coatings and some aluminum make up the remaining 15 percent.
As with most fields of endeavor, there’s no one best or perfect product in the deck industry. Each has pros and cons. Certain geographic areas and applications may be better for one product over another. It all comes down to individual need and preference.

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