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Deck wars: Synthetics aim to walk all over wood

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Is that outdoor deck under your feet real wood, or something else? Summer is peak season for building decks, and makers of synthetic wood are pushing to expand their small market share against long-dominant natural wood.

According to new research, the synthetics -- whose major selling point is superior durability -- have a decent shot at making inroads on all-tree lumber. Right now, synthetics command about 16 percent of the $7 billion deck market. But a recent study by Principia Consulting found that they're growing at a faster rate, 5 percent annually versus 3 percent.

Bolstering the rise in deck building, synthetic or not, is a comeback in the housing market since the Great Recession and a surge in enthusiasm for home renovations. That rests on a growing yen among homeowners for increased "outdoor living," meaning more people want to spend time relaxing and playing right outside their own homes, preferably in a comfortable area with furniture and even a kitchen. You can look up at the sky, breathe in the warm breeze and then easily go into the den to watch TV.

Synthetic wood usually is a combination of recycled materials, often plastic and wooden scraps or sawdust. This composite product's major downside is that it can cost three times that of conventional wood, or more. Typically, a 1,000-square-foot deck costs $2,250 for synthetic material and $750 for regular wood.

So the synthetic manufacturers are putting on a marketing push, emphasizing their material's better staying power. Leading that charge is the No. 1 composite provider, Trex (TREX), which Principia estimates has slightly more than 40 percent of the synthetic sector.

Calculating that every percentage point increase in market share is worth $50 million in extra revenue (2015 total: $441 million), Trex has launched an April-September ad blitz. The campaign, which involves a significant chunk of its $25 million branding effort this year, involves national TV commercials, radio spots and magazine ads.

Wood is subject to cracking and discoloration, said Trex Chief Executive James Cline. "If you don't treat it the first year, you'll be sorry," he added. "Nothing is worse than spilling red wine" on a wooden deck. Homeowners can easily clean off composite boards with soapy water, he said, but with natural lumber, the stain is tougher to remove. Plus, rainwater seeping into the conventional wood makes it rot and splinter over time, he noted.

The annual cost of varnishing, sanding and treating a wooden deck, by Trex's reckoning, eats away at wood's initial cost advantage, thus bringing it within parity of a synthetic surface within five to 10 years.

Synthetic deck companies complain that homebuilders prefer wood decks because they're cheaper. As a result, the synthetic makers are targeting renovations to existing homes. "More and more contractors are comfortable" with synthetics lately, said Julia Fitzgerald, chief marketing officer at CPG Building Products, the second-biggest player in the synthetic deck industry.

Principia consultants puts CPG's share as just above 30 percent of the synthetic market. The company's two prime products are TimberTech (ground wood and plastic polymers) and Azek (made of polyvinyl chloride or PVC, a plastic, which renders it lighter than other decking).

A big question is whether synthetics look as good as natural wood. The synthetic makers, of course, argue that their boards are indistinguishable. And a casual inspection of composite boards appears to show no variation in texture, grain or color.

Still, an article in Popular Mechanics magazine warned that a synthetic deck exposed to direct sunlight will fade over time. But it added that manufacturers can provide boards treated to withstand sun-fading, at an extra charge.

Another criticism: Sunbaked composite wood is hotter underfoot, some contractors warn. "The material holds heat," said Bruce Kehr, owner of Sunlit Builders in Arvada, Colorado, outside Denver. "It can reach temperatures that will burn bare feet in the summer." The synthetic manufacturers respond that little difference exists. "Wood gets hot, too," CPG's Fitzgerald said.

Wooden deck makers say their product is preferable because it delivers better value and is more natural. Universal Forest Products (UFP), one of the leaders in traditional sector, notes that it treats its lumber -- southern yellow pine -- with a chemical that makes it more resistant to insects and rot.

For the synthetic industry, though, their decks' ability to last longer and resemble bona fide lumber are selling points they hope to use to expand their presence further. With traditional wood, Trex CEO Cline said, "maintenance is crucial." To drive home the argument that composite decks like his require little such care, Trex offers customers a 25-year warranty.

No doubt, composite leader Trex, which is publicly traded, is doing very well. "They have very strong brand recognition," said Lou Rossi, managing partner at the Principia consulting firm. "They're like the Kleenex" of composite wood.

After a brush with declining sales a decade ago, when previous management used inferior plastic to form boards, the company launched a major turnaround and regained lost market share. In recent years, revenue and earnings have surged, and the stock is up 12-fold since its late 2007 low. Trex convenes focus groups to help it pick out colors and grain patterns. Evidently, all that effort is paying off.

In coming years, more and more of the decks under your feet will likely have only a partial relation to trees.

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