Synthetic Decking As Quality Advances Preference Becomes a Matter of Appearance

Builder’s 2011 Brand Use Study , the magazine’s comprehensive annual survey of builder product preferences, was released on April 12. Among the hundreds of products examined, one category of special interest to coastal builders is synthetic decking. Builder surveyed 10,000 readers identified as professional building contractors, asking respondents to answer four basic questions about their brand choices:

• Which brands have you heard of?

• Which brands do have you used in the past two years?

• Which brand do you use the most? And,

• How do you rate the quality of the available brands? When it comes to synthetic decking, one brand, Trex , stood out as the most widely known, and also as the most commonly chosen view results. Seventy-two percent of builders had heard of Trex, and 46% had used Trex recently nearly double the score of the first runner-up, Azek. Twenty-one percent said they used Trex “the most” — double the second-place finisher, Azek, at 11% Trex and Azek were the only two brands to hit double digits on this question. Interestingly, however, despite being the clear favorite of Builders, Trex did not score at the top of the scale in perceived quality. CertainTeed’s EverNew decking won that honor, followed by TimberTech in second place. Trex was third in the crowded field of 20 brands. The quality ratings, however, are a near dead heat across the board. Although Builder provided a seven-point scale of 1 (poor) to 7 (excellent), all the synthetic decking brands clustered between 4 and 5.5. The top 7 brands all ranged from a low of 5 to a high of 5.41. The top three scores — CertainTeed’s 5.41, TimberTech’s 5.29, and Trex’s 5.22 — amount to essentially a photo finish, with any significance lost in the statistical noise. Still, the results underscore Trex’s undeniable success as a brand. By establishing an early lead in market penetration and consumer name recognition, Trex has earned the category-defining position of prominence, even without any clearly perceived quality edge. The name stands for itself: just as “Kleenex” is tissue and “Xerox” is photocopying, “Trex” is synthetic decking. For a more nuanced look at the market Coastal Connection turned to Jim Finlay the owner of Archadeck of Suburban Boston a deck and porch construction franchise based in Burlington Mass Finlay sees Trexs name recognition advantage every day His showroom offers a wide selection of brands on display 15 large floor assemblies and another 20 choices in 2 foot sample squares But he says customers typically come in saying Oh Im interested in that Trex stuff I ask them says Finlay ‘Do you mean Trex the manufacturer or do you mean composite decking in general and they say ‘Yeah composite decking “Trex is the original,” says Finlay. “They’ve been around the longest. They kind of invented composite decking. They got a good lead on everyone else.” But when it comes to quality, Finlay says, the apples to apples comparison gets a little more complicated. “Other companies have typically been quicker to introduce various improvements,” he says. “They put grain in, they use hidden fasteners, they add new colors. Trex has tended to lag behind a little, and when they do come out with their version of the new features, they’re a little more expensive.” But at this point, Finlay says, all the big leading manufacturers are on a fairly even footing in terms of quality and features. Instead of comparing brands, he says, it’s more interesting to compare whole generations of products, across the brand spectrum. And the ten or more years since Trex started the ball rolling, Finlay says he’s seen three generations arise. “This is just my way of understanding the array of available products,” Finlay explains. “But to me, the first generation was the original Trex and some of its early competitors. The material was homogeneous — all one color, all one texture, flat, and smooth, with no grain to it. It looked manufactured, because it was. And you can’t find that stuff anymore, even if you wanted it.” “Then the second generation came along,” Finlay goes on. “People brought out systems with hidden fasteners — typically, using a board with grooves on the side, and some kind of clip or biscuit with screws. And in about that same time period, companies introduced boards with some kind of embossed wood grain to make the decking look more natural and realistic. By then you had a number of players in the market — CorrectDeckTimberTechFiberon, et cetera.” All of those products still had a few drawbacks, however, notes Finlay. Reinforced with wood fiber for strength, the boards had small exposed surface fibers that served as food for mold and mildew. Marketing those products as “zero-maintenance” got some suppliers in trouble, as homeowners discovered that decks in shady locations were prone to surface mildew and needed periodic scrubbing with bleach. Colors faded over time, too. The third generation of products dealt with those disadvantages. Manufacturers added new color effects to augment the embossed grain — random streaking and shading. And they improved the surface durability of the boards, achieving high degrees of stain resistance, scratch resistance, and mildew resistance. “That’s really popular with customers,” says Finlay. PVC-based products are naturally hard and tough; third-generation boards made of polyethylene or polypropylene are now surfaced with a “cap stock” — a thin layer of hardened pure plastic with no exposed fiber to gather dirt or support organic growth. “So now we have a good-looking grain, nicer colors, more natural shading, and a greater resistance to the elements,” says Finlay. But he notes that the suppliers are also careful now to market the material as “low maintenance,” rather than “no maintenance.” The improvements come at a price, Finlay notes. Second-generation boards, which are still on the market, sell for about $2.50 a line foot in Finlay’s market, while the third-generation material may sell for $3.50 or $3.75. That price difference is enough to keep some customers buying the older technology. Within the third generation, however, the different brands of synthetic decking offer equivalent features, and are priced within a few percent of each other. And given the fact that framing costs and installation labor costs are the same, there’s no significant price advantage with any of the common brands, says Finlay: “Any price difference generally loses to the trump card of appearance.” These days, Finlay says, synthetic decking in general is starting to out-compete wood. “We do more synthetics than we do wood now,” he says, “and that’s because the features have gotten better.” Technically speaking, he says, the latest composite products are head and shoulders beyond what the market offered five or ten years ago. “Used to be, people would consider synthetic decking and look at the features. How much does it fade? How much maintenance will I really have to do? Is it strong enough? But now the industry has solved those issues, and they’ve got products that are fade-resistant, stain-resistant, perform well outside, are strong enough, hold their color -- and all that’s left for the consumer to think about is appearance.” And with the newest products, that appearance has become a strong selling point. “Today’s third-generation decking looks great,” says Finlay. “It doesn’t have that horrible manufactured look. My sense is that people who own a synthetic deck are no longer bringing friends in and making excuses and talking about how low maintenance it is, but rather looking at it and seeing the beauty of it. It’s good-looking stuff.”