Deck builder Jim Finlay wants his arsenic back.
Finlay, whose company Archadeck of Suburban Boston builds custom decks, patios, and sunrooms in the Boston, Mass., area, says, "I'm still a little miffed about the way they discontinued CCA." CCA, the old familiar green-tinted chromium- and arsenic-treated lumber, which was phased out of the residential market in a 2002 deal between the EPA and the treated-wood industry, was undeniably effective against bugs and rot — and, like many people, Finlay thinks the hazards of the material were exaggerated.
But Harold Bumby, the founder and owner of Maine Wood Treaters in Mechanic Falls, Maine, has a different point of view (see Slideshow). Bumby agrees that the old CCA got a bad rap, and he agrees that it worked beautifully in its day. But realistically, he says, CCA is gone and it's not coming back. After all, while there is little if any solid evidence that CCA-treated lumber used in home construction is dangerous to homeowners or carpenters, the concentrated arsenic and chromium formula used to treat the wood could be extremely dangerous to workers at the treating plants — and spills at the facilities have been known to cause serious environmental cleanup problems. There are almost 60 wood-treating plants on the EPA's list of Superfund sites. The government is not going to back off.
Anyway, says Bumby, the new, safer, arsenic-free formulas in today's market can be as effective as CCA was. But there's a caveat. "With CCA," he says, "I never heard about a problem. None. Never. It always worked." With the new treated wood, he says, "There are some failures. Not a lot. Only a few. But with CCA, there were none." Bumby prefers none.
Jim Finlay has seen it. In one case, he says, he was under contract to replace just the decking on a deck built with the newer treated wood. When he looked at the stairs up to the deck, however, he found that the 2x10 stair stringers were rotten where they contacted the ground. "I told the owner we had to replace the stair framing, not just the treads," he says.
That problem is familiar to Bumby, and to managers who have to handle complaints and warranty claims at the companies marketing the major brands of treated wood. The problem, says Bumby, is that these days, treated 2x framing lumber isn't made for ground contact. Bigger members, like 4x4 and 6x6 posts, get a higher dose of chemical (called "retention") at the treating plant, and they can handle being buried (although installers should treat cut ends in the field with copper naphthenate). But 2x4s, 2x6s, 2x8s, 2x10s, and 2x12s are treated, rated, labeled, and guaranteed only for "above ground" exposures. You can leave them out in the rain. But you can't lay them in the dirt.
Deck builder Finlay occasionally needs to build a three-banger 2x10 girder and set it into the ground for a wood deck built at grade. "But I can't get a 2x10 or 2x12 rated for ground contact," he says. "Nobody stocks it." Executives at the major chemical companies agree — if you want a 2x10 stick treated for ground contact, it's a special order, and you'll have to wait a few weeks and pay a premium. "That's just not practical for builders," says one exec.
On a drive around his neighborhood in Maine, Bumby showed Coastal Connection a walkway built with 5/4 material treated at his own plant, installed at a house he used to own. The boards, laid directly on the ground, weren't warrantied for that use. They still look good after five or six years, and Bumby is crossing his fingers. But Bumby says, "Look, I'm a wood treater myself. If it's too complicated for me to get this wood in ground contact retentions, how can we expect contractors to do it?" One industry executive says, "Some of the people in the industry are saying, 'we need to educate the end users.' But I don't think we can educate our way out of this."
Back in the day, says Hal Bumby, things were different. Bumby grew up in the treated wood industry. His father and his grandfather were wood treaters. In Minnesota, where he grew up, Bumby could look at any utility pole and see his family's company mark. "In those days," he says, "there was only one product on the market. It was a general use product — which means, you could use it for ground contact, or above ground applications. People didn't want to stock two products at the lumberyard — they didn't have the space for that. And if you wanted to stock just one product that was for every use, it had to be ground contact." That was the World War II generation, says Bumby: "They knew how to get things done. They kept things simple."
Bumby wants to go back to the way things used to be. At a September 2014 meeting of the American Wood Preservers Association Technical Committee in Portland, Maine, Bumby made his case to his fellow wood treaters — and, surprisingly, many if not most of them agreed.
"I wanted to go back to treating everything to ground contact," says Bumby. "Two by fours, 2x6s, 2x8s, even 5/4 decking." The other wood treaters and chemical industry execs at the Portland meeting wouldn't go that far. But they did accept the idea of changing the industry's treating standard to require ground-contact treatment for all 2x8 and wider stock. The reasoning, according to one industry executive, was that if a deck board starts to decay, it's easy to replace and it doesn't create a major risk, while if a deck framing member fails, there's a structural hazard that requires a costly repair.
The cost increase for end users will be relatively minor, says Bumby. But he's in a cut-throat industry, and he says, "I could never do it on my own. If I'm the first one to treat all my lumber for ground contact, I'll lose all my customers. It has to be everyone at once." An AWPA committee is studying the proposal, and the industry association plans to bring the idea to a full vote this coming spring. If the measure passes, there will be a grace period for suppliers and lumberyards to work their way through their existing inventory of above-ground-treated material. After that, all the wide 2x stock on the home center and lumberyard shelves will be treated to be buried in the dirt. It's not a done deal yet. But there's a decent chance that by 2016, Jim Finlay will be able to get his 2x10s rated for ground contact at any lumberyard — and with no waiting.