PERFECTING PVC: AZEK Building Products, which leads the cellular PVC decking market, incorporates specially treated flax fibers for improved board strength and rigidity. Photo: Courtesy Azek The future of residential decking products looks more and more plastic as demand increases.

Americans maintain a love-hate relationship with their decks. They love the way decks connect their inside space to the outside, effectively adding square footage to the living area. They hate, and therefore neglect, the maintenance necessary to keep them in good condition.

For years, product manufacturers have been coming up with innovations they promised would take the hassle–and therefore the hate–out of deck ownership. Now an expanding number of deck manufacturers say they've come up with the ultimate solution: plastic, specifically cellular polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

"It's clear that the tide is going to shift to that generation," says Bud Bootier, vice president of marketing for Sensibuilt Building Solutions, a Pegasus Capital Advisors-owned company that recently launched a line of cellular PVC building products including decking.

Before joining up with Sensibuilt, Bootier was a seasoned building products industry analyst and consultant, author of the SABRE and STRATA Reports, and a sort of building materials historian.

"It's a fascinating time in the decking industry," Bootier notes. To understand how revolutionary the new cellular PVC decking materials are, you need to understand the history of decking in America, which, according to Bootier, is overrun with disappointing deck products.

Decks were rare in the United States until the late 1970s when affordable pressure-treated lumber made them accessible to the masses that couldn't afford naturally weather resistant woods like redwood. Billions of board feet have since been sold to people who thought their decks would last forever. "Forever" turned out to be about 15 years, and they started looking pretty bad before that if they weren't regularly sealed.

The next purported solution to the maintenance issue arose somewhat accidentally out of the desire in the late '80s and early '90s to rid landfills of plastics, when manufacturers started mixing recycled plastic with wood to make park benches.

"But what, exactly, is the world demand for park benches?" Bootier asks. The answer: not as great as the demand to replace all of those existing pressure-treated decks. Out of that demand came the composite Rivenite, renamed Trex, followed by a host of imitators. But those products had a downside as well. Early on, there was lack of color choice, and the combination of plastic and wood, while it lasted longer, could still serve as a Petri dish for mold. The product was not scratch resistant, and there were staining issues.

Next Up, PVC

DYNAMIC DECKING: XLM from TimberTech comes available in a variety of hues. Each plank is capped with solid PVC embossed to emulate the look of painted wood. Photo: Courtesy Timbertech Manufacturers have come out with the next generation of products they say eliminates all those problems: not plastic mixed with wood this time, but instead "foamed" or cellular PVC infused with microscopic bits of air that make it lighter, easier to clean, and less susceptible to mold and mildew.

Sensibuilt's new product, which is expected to be available nationwide by the end of the year, is made of cellular PVC fused with urethane acrylic coating in a patent-pending process. The coating allows the product to be offered in a wide variety of colors, even darker tones, that are color stable, stain and scratch resistant, and don't hold heat like composite decking products do. There should be no real need to power-wash the Sensibuilt product, Bootier says.

Sensibuilt's backers believe this new decking category will capture a large market share, and with good reason. The same scenario is already playing out for the current cellular PVC decking market leader, AZEK Building Products.

Demand has been outstripping supply for AZEK's decking, which is made with Procell technology, says president Ralph Bruno. When AZEK bought Procell in January, it vowed to more than triple the company's manufacturing capacity within 12 months to catch up with surging demand. Bruno says the company will meet that goal; its next step is to expand the color choices beyond the five currently offered.

SENSIBLE SOLUTION: Sensibuilt's cellular PVC decking is fused with a urethane acrylic coating for color stability as well as stain and scratch resistance. Photo: Courtesy Sensibuilt In addition to cellular PVC, AZEK's decking contains a special flax fiber. Specially grown and treated flax fibers are incorporated in the PVC to give the boards strength and rigidity, as well as to minimize expansion and contraction. "We have the worldwide license for building products made with this treated fiber," Bruno says.

AZEK decking, like all cellular PVC decking, is lighter than composites, stain and scratch resistant, and retains its color. "With an AZEK deck, you could spill red wine on it and an hour later wipe it off, and there would be no stain," Bruno comments. "That has huge appeal to consumers. That's much different from many wood-filled products."

TimberTech also recently introduced a cellular PVC product called XLM, for "extreme low-maintenance." The planks are capped with solid PVC that is embossed to look like painted wood. The product has a "proprietary blend of mineral enhancements to reinforce structural integrity," the company says.

"This segment is relatively small," says Tom Day, TimberTech's senior product manager. "Last year, it was $25 million. This year, the estimate is $50 million. We feel there is enough growth that there is plenty of room for competitors."