The Deck Handbook: Part 4 Wood-Plastic Composite Decks
When composite decking first hit the market around 30 years ago; it was trumpeted as the best thing to happen to deck building since decking screws replaced nails. Company advertising promised a new era of nearly indestructible, maintenance free decks that would last your lifetime.
Turns out, it just wasn't true.
Within a very few years, significant flaws in the material began to surface. The most common complaints were that it scratched and gouged easily, sagged, and warped, delaminated, cracked, and splintered; and developed mold and mildew problems that could not seem to be cured.
Manufacturers have scrambled to cure some of the more egregious problems, and as a result composite decking is getting more sophisticated — and more expensive. But, it may be that the basic concept of wood-plastic composite decking is fundamentally flawed — it simply does not work in a product intended for prolonged outdoor use, and it may be that cannot be made to work given the technologies currently available.
In theory, it ought to work.
Wood-plastic composite (WPC) materials are made of a combination of wood powder or dust (which is called "wood flour" in the industry) and a plastic binder. The idea behind this combination is that the wood fiber helps shade the plastic from UV rays that cause the plastic to deteriorate, while the plastic coats the wood particles to protect them from water, mold, and insect damage. It should be a perfect marriage.
Trex settles product lawsuits
September 14, 2004
Trex and Exxon-Mobil (the former owner of Trex) have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit. The suit claimed that Trex decking rotted, splintered, and degraded, contrary to widespread advertising and marketing claims by the company and that Trex failed to live up to its warranties against product defects. After initially calling the lawsuit "frivolous", Trex agreed to stop all advertising claims that its deck products do not require sealant and are maintenance-free. Trex also agreed to replace any defective product sold between 1992 and 2004.
Trex settled a similar suit by one of its large distributors in 2000 for fraudulent business practices in which it was claimed that Trex materials tended to "disintegrate, crumble, turn pink, turn blue, spot, bubble, blister, contain lumps, contain hidden defects such as metal objects, or grossly warp if exposed to sunlight or weather" and that the company failed to honor its warranty. The actual settlement terms are secret.
GeoDeck products recalled
August 16, 2005
Proving that even the experts can be fooled, the GeoDeck composite decking products, a top-rated composite decking by Consumer Reports in 2004, were recalled for safety issues in 2005.
The Consumer Products Safety Commission announced a voluntary recall of certain GeoDeck products manufactured by Kadant, LLC for dangerously rapid degradation, especially in hot climates. Although no one has yet been hurt, the recall was prompted by several hundred confirmed reports of composite deterioration to an unsafe condition. Kadant, LLC is a subsidiary of Kadant, Inc. Kadant sold the assets of its composites business to Liberty Diversified Industries. Kadant, LLC used the money received from the sale to pay warranty claims and has reportedly paid out $4.6 million on its defective GeoDeck product. When the money ran out in September 2009, it simply ceased business and shut down its recall website.
EON declares bankruptcy
January 7, 2009
CPI Plastics Group Limited, the maker of EON decking, announced that it has been unable to withstand the ravages of the current economic crisis and was seeking relief in bankruptcy. Its CEO and all of its directors have resigned. The company is being liquidated under Canadian bankruptcy law.
Trex sued For a third time
January 13, 2009
Trex has been sued again for warranty violations. In the lawsuit, a Washington homeowner claims his two-year-old deck began degrading, cracking, and rotting and is now unusable and unsafe for his family. The homeowner claims Trex offered to replace the damaged boards but refused to pay for associated labor costs. In exchange for the new materials, Trex asks for a signed release freeing the company from further liability. The lawsuit alleged Trex's warranty documents violate the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, a consumer protection regime.
After first responding that it had fully honored its warranty, Trex settled the lawsuit in 2010, agreeing to replace any defective materials and paying part of the labor cost of replacing the defective products.
Trex sued yet again
February 13, 2009
In a class action filed in California, Eric Ross, et al. v. Trex Company Inc., et al., Case No. 3:09-cv-00670-JSW, SD CAL, 2009 plaintiffs alleged that Trex manufactured and sold defective decking materials that were susceptible to surface flaking, mold, mildew, fungus, or other spotting and discoloration. Trex agreed to pay $8.25 million to settle the case, which, as the Court admitted was just a fraction of the actual cost of repairing the damage. Trex, as usual, admitted no liability.
Louisiana-Pacific decking recalled
May 13, 2009
The Consumer Products Safety Commission with the voluntary cooperation of Louisiana-Pacific Corp (LPC) has recalled composite decking materials made by the company and sold under the trade names LP WeatherBest®, ABTCo, and Veranda®. The recalled decking can prematurely deteriorate and unexpectedly break. Consumers can fall through the broken decking and suffer serious injuries. LPC has received 37 reports of composite decks breaking, resulting in 14 injuries.
CorrectDeck sheds Warranty liabilities in bankruptcy
July 2, 2009
Correct Building Products, LLC, the manufacturer of CorrectDeck, a composite decking product line, has filed for reorganization in bankruptcy and a quick sale to GAF subsidiary Building Materials Corp. of America (BMCA). Once completed, the CorrectDeck product line will be added to GAF's newly formed Decking Systems business division. The sale, under Section 363 of the Bankruptcy Act allows the sale of "distressed" assets free of liens and warranty claims. (Editor's Note. GAF renamed the product Duralife Siesta, then discontinued making the decking entirely in 2011. It is now made by Integrity Composites as Duralife.)
Fiberon settles class-action lawsuit for mold and staining of its composite decking
March 5, 2013
Fiberon, then organized as Fiber Composites, L.L.C., was sued in a class action (Fleisher v. Fiber Composites, LLC) for staining and mold build-up in its non-capstock composite decking. The suit claimed that the decking contains manufacturing defects that caused "extensive mold, mildew and other fungal growth" that manifested itself as a uniform spotty discoloring across the entire deck, and that Fiberon failed to honor its warranty. Although Fiberon denied the allegations, calling them "completely false" and stating that the mold and mildew are caused by improper homeowner maintenance, it nonetheless agreed to a settlement in which it pays compensation to owners of its products sold under various brand names. The number of customers involved has been estimated at 150-200,000. A final settlement order was entered on March 5, 2014.
GAF sued over defective DuraLife and Elk Cross Timbers composite decking
March 4, 2015
GAF, the former manufacturer of the DuraLife and Elk Cross Timbers brands of composite decking which exited the composite decking business entirely in 2011, selling DuraLife back to its original owners, now organized as Integrity Composites, L.L.C., has been sued by 30 named defendants in U.S. District Court in New Jersey. The Omnibus Amended Master Class Action Complaint alleges that the composite decking is defective in that it cracks, warps, swells, and expands beyond what is reasonably acceptable, harbors mold, mildew, and fungus regardless of proper installation and maintenance resulting in unsightly discoloration and spotting; all contrary to GAF's representations that the decking was resistant to sagging, warping, rotting, scratching and wear and tear, even under heavy traffic; did not require staining or sealing, was easy to install, low maintenance, long-lasting and would outperform wood decking.
In 2016 the defendant agreed to compensate deck owners for damages, including a fixed sum for the labor to repair the decks.
Green Tree Composites, LLC settles class action
September 14, 2016
Green Tree Composite, makers of Monarch Decking products, settled a class-action lawsuit in which plaintiffs alleged that Green Tree sold defective decking and then refused to honor claims, stating that it was no longer in business. Greentree settled for $470,000. (Stolzenburg v. Green Tree Composites LLC., Case No. 4:14-cv-1533, ED MO, 2014)
Azek Building Products Inc. settles multi-state class action lawsuit
October 28, 2017
In a consolidated class-action lawsuit against Azek Building Products Inc. and its parent company, CPG International Inc., plaintiffs claimed that Azek's Harvest composite decking was affected by extensive splits and cracks as well as stains, streaks, scratches, discoloration, chalking, fading, and mold, and mildew deposits.
The lawsuit alleged that Azek knew or should have known that because the decking is made of PVC it is highly susceptible to color and performance degradation as a result of exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation and heat and that Azek decking could prematurely discolor, stain, scratch, chalk, and deteriorate as a result of photo and thermal degradation and had a duty to fairly disclose the information to prospective customers.
Azek settled the case in 2017 without admitting liability "to avoid the costs and uncertainties of a trial". (In re AZEK Building Products, Inc. Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, No. 2:12-CV-06627, MDL Docket No. 2506 (D.N.J.))
The practice is getting closer to the theory but the products are still far from ideal. Wood-plastic composites are still experimental — very much a work in progress — and like any developing technology have quirks and kinks that have not been worked out.
The basic flaw is that the plastic protective coating is very imperfect and very fragile. The soft plastics used in most products are not very durable. Ordinary use of the deck wears away the protective coating, exposing the wood particles to sun, water, and microbes, especially the fungi that we call mold and mildew.
The earlier, very wide gulf between consumer expectations and actual product performance has been narrowed somewhat, not so much by making the products better but also by scaling back the advertising rhetoric and outlandish claims.
No composite manufacturer now advertises its products as "never needs maintenance" or "a lifetime deck". Trex made these kinds of claims early on but was sued when its decking faded, deteriorated, and stained, and had to agree to never again say such things in its advertising (see Sidebar: "Trex Settles Product Lawsuits").
Composite decking manufacturers now acknowledge that their products will fade and change color, will stain, and may need periodic sealing at some point. But, after all the improvements in composite deck products, and there have been many, they are still having a hard time justifying their relatively high purchase price for the very marginal improvement over wood decking that some but not all, offer.
You will pay at least 75% more for composite material over standard treated yellow pine. If you select a high-end capstock material, the premium might be as high as 400%. For less than this price, you can have a hardwood deck of Ipe (Brazilian Walnut) or another luxury, exotic wood with many times the durability of plastic or composite decks. The premium price of composite decking is worth it only if the materials actually do reduce the time and cost required to maintain the deck.
The question is, do they? Do composite materials perform well enough to justify their higher cost? In this section of The Deck Handbook, we're going to find out. We want to know what actually works and what is just hype.
Have these materials finally become so much better than wood decks that their relatively high price is worth it?
Let's take a look.
What Is Composite Decking?
Wood-plastic composite (WPC) is not new. In fact, the technology is well over a century old.
The world's first true thermosetting plastic, Bakelite (or Baekelite) was a wood-plastic composite developed in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-born American chemist living in Yonkers.
Baekeland was looking to improve the durability of wood by impregnating it with a synthetic resin. He developed a resin that he called by the tongue-twisting name polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride.Note 1 When combined with a wood powder filler, a hard, moldable material resulted. It had "1,000 uses" — or so Baekeland predicted.
Its first use was as an electrical insulator, an application at which it excelled because it was non-conductive, could be formed into any shape, and was heat resistant. During World War II it was used in everything from warplanes to mess hall trays. (The ugly brown trays, and matching ugly brown coffee mugs, are familiar to anyone who served in the military up to about 1975. Bakelite was extremely durable and could handle abuse by unwilling soldiers condemned to KP — which is why the damn things seemed to last forever. They are still available and, outside the U.S., used widely.)
Early radios often had Bakelite cases, and those ubiquitous black table model telephones distributed in their millions by the Bell System up to the 1960s had Bakelite handsets, which were lighter and more comfortable to hold than earlier cast steel models.
Today's composite decking boards are made about the same way as the original Bakelite. They are composed of a filler, usually powdered wood fibers ("wood flour") that make up the bulk of the board, a plastic binder, and a variety of additives that facilitate manufacture, stabilize the plastic, and help protect the material from UV damage.
The binder glues the mix together, protects the filler from the elements, and gives the board its rigidity. The plastic used as the binder in today's composite decking is a little more advanced than Baekeland's polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, a resin derived from phenol exposed to formaldehyde. The plastic binder in composite decks may be any of several petroleum- or natural-gas-derived plastics.
One 2003 study identified the three types of plastic most commonly used in WPC as High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and Polypropylene. Other plastics are used is less than 1% of decking boards. These include binders made from bio-oils rather than petroleum or natural gas.Note 2
Unfortunately, all of these are relatively soft plastics, unlike Baekeland's polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride which is very hard.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Polyethylene is the most common plastic in the world, and one of the most versatile. It is used to make grocery bags, milk jugs, and those ubiquitous plastic water bottles. It is manufactured in many forms with varying properties, including PEX, a cross-linked variety used to replace copper in water pipes, and ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) used to make ballistic (bullet-proof) vests.
But, the most ubiquitous forms are high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used to make shrink wrap, milk jugs, and other throw-away containers, garbage bags, and plastic toys, and low-density polyethylene (LDPE) used in grocery bags, film wrap, and throw-away plastic bottles.
These are the compositions most used in composite decks. Polyethylene is most commonly used in its high-density form (HDPE) but can be mixed with less expensive low-density polyethylene to save cost. Unfortunately, while strong, the plastic is not rigid and not very wear-resistant. How hard is it to scratch a plastic toy? Not very, and in a composite mix, the plastic does not get any more resistant to wear and tear. LDPE has even less structural rigidity than HDPE.
Polyethylene is the world's most recycled plastic, and many composite deck manufacturers use at least some recycled polyethylene. Unfortunately, after being combined with wood flour in a composite mix, it is no longer recyclable. Some German WPC manufacturers offer to recycle their own decking materials but no U.S. manufacturer does so.
Poly-vinyl Chloride (PVC)
Poly-vinyl chloride is used as a binder and as the cap material in capstock boards (see below). It is more rigid than either of the other two common plastics and more resistant to wear (although still not particularly wear-resistant). It is degraded by UV from sunlight so a UV-absorbing additive must be included in the composite mix to prevent premature decomposition.
Mold in the Aspergillus family also degrades PVC. Aspergillus is very common and a frequent constituent of the mold and mildew that infect composite decks, which is one reason it is important to keep a composite deck free of mold and mildew.
PVC is a problematic material with known health and environmental risks. Its principal component is chlorine, a chemical used to kill microbes in swimming pool water and to make poison gas like the "mustard gas" that killed and injured thousands of combatants in the 1914-1918 global war. It is now banned, and its use is a war crime.
Its principal use today is to manufacture PVC. PVC is the only plastic, and the only major building material, made from high volumes of poison gas. Vinyl production consumes more than 40% of the chlorine gas produced in this country. That is the largest use of the gas in the world. By comparison, only 5% of the nation's chlorine gas is used to disinfect water — including wastewater and sewage treatment.
PVC is about 50% chlorine by volume, and it is the chlorine that makes PVC hazardous from cradle to grave. It is dangerous to manufacture and a bio-hazard throughout its lifespan.
It out-gasses chemicals nearly constantly, including dioxin, a potent carcinogen for which there is no known safe dose. (That chemical smell that fills the air when you open a new vinyl shower curtain is partly dioxin combined with up to 107 other organic compounds, most of them not at all good for you.) If your home catches fire, the PVC materials will produce hydrogen chloride fumes — not as deadly as burning nylon, but close. If you breathe it once, you will never want to do it again.
In 2007, the Green Building Council (USGBC) released its report on PVC which concluded that the
"risk of dioxin emissions puts PVC consistently among the worst building materials for human health impacts."
Polypropylene is a soft, but strong and fairly rigid plastic, less susceptible to expansion and contraction. It is the binder of choice in some higher-end composites, although, like polyethylene and PVC, it is not particularly wear-resistant.
Its common uses include packaging and labeling, rope, carpets, and thermal underwear; reusable containers, and automobile parts.
It is very affected by UV radiation from sunlight, which degrades the plastic, causing cracks and crazes that become more severe as exposure continues. UV-absorbing additives such as carbon black must be used with polypropylene to protect the material from the effects of ultraviolet.
The filler gives the composite decking material its bulk and contributes to its rigidity but does not add much in the way of strength. In most composite decking the filler material is a finely powdered wood cellulose called "wood flour".
Wood flour is not just finely ground wood particles. It is heavily modified from natural wood. The lignin and other components of natural wood are almost completely removed in processing, leaving just the cellulose in a very small particle form.
Most often a fairly random mix of wood species is used — after all, once the wood is reduced to a flour, it makes little difference whether it started life as a premium hardwood or scrub pine. Oak and other high-tannin woods are, however, generally avoided because tannin tends to stain. Some manufacturers use a specific species of wood.
The wood filler makes the material stiffer and reduces expansion but generally does not make the board any stronger than a pure plastic board. If you find the notion that a material can be stiff but not strong a tad confusing, think of a glass shelf. The glass is stiff but not strong enough to hold a heavy load. A WPC plank is stiff enough not to sag under its own weight when installed per the manufacturer's instructions but will not hold nearly as much load as natural wood without deflecting or breaking.
A wood-plastic composite board will expand and contract less than an all-plastic board but much more than a natural wood board. And, while wood expands hardly at all along the long axis of the board, WPC does. So excessive gaping between board ends can be a problem.
Wood is naturally hygroscopic, It likes water. Over several million years of evolution, wood has evolved to absorb and store water whenever it can. A tree's ability to draw in water helps ensure its survival. It's a good thing for a tree, not so much for a deck.
In a deck board composed partly of wood flour, water is a continuing problem. Natural wood, along with cellulose, contains lignin fibers which bind the cellulose in a strong matrix that gives the wood its strength and helps keep it from breaking apart as it swells and contracts with water absorption.
In composite materials, however, the lignin matrix has been removed. Water absorption can cause deformation, cracking, and other undesirable results. As a consequence, some manufacturers are actively looking for alternative filler materials that do not absorb water but still provide sufficient stiffness and expansion control.
Rice Hull Powder
Rice hull powder is one such material. Rice hulls are plentiful, cheap, relatively lightweight, and don't absorb water. They also result in a material that is more impact-resistant — a plus for decking that usually takes a considerable beating in ordinary use. While there is considerable research on rice hulls as a filler material, there is little actual experience with the material.
HCI Floor, a Chinese manufacturer headquartered in Shanghai, has been importing WPC decking made with rice hulls since 2014 but it has not found a widespread market. TruGrain decking, made with a filler made in Germany called Resysta,® a combination of powdered rice hulls and unspecified minerals. The manufacturer claims it is "weather-resistant, waterproof, UV-resistant" and 100% recyclable. It certainly has promise but had not been in the market long enough for any data on its performance in actual installations.
Natures Composites located in Torrington, Wyoming uses locally abundant wheat straw as the filler in its TerraDeck decking. According to a company spokesman, wheat straw is stronger than wood powder, more water-resistant, and does not contain starches or proteins that may be a food source for mold.
The company does have some rather impressive data from the University of Wyoming that says wheat straw filler is marginally stronger and more resistant to impact damage than wood-flour composites, But, it is no more resistant to deflection caused by seasonal expansion and contraction, and like all composites, special installation measures are needed to control and disguise expansion and contraction.
Asian WPC manufacturers are experimenting with bamboo fiber as an alternative to wood flour filler. As bamboo is one of the most environmentally friendly materials, the bamboo fiber in WPC is being heralded for its "green" advantage but does not appear to have any other advantages over wood flour. A study by Jing FengNote 3 et al. published in 2014 found that wood and bamboo fillers absorbed water at about the same rate, and are equally likely to provide a medium for mold growth.
The manufacturers using this material are, as one might expect, all in China. One such company Cali Bamboo, makes BamDeck which is composed of 60% bamboo fiber and 40% recycled HDPE plastic. It is not widely available in North America.
Other natural materials such as flax, jute, hemp, and kenaf fibers have a strength to weight ratio higher than fiberglass, which is encouraging experiments to see if they can be used to add structural rigidity to composite boards. None of these is yet on the market.
Capstock Decking — Plastic Coated Composites
If most of the problems associated with composite decking result from water getting into the filler through small chinks in the binder, why not solve the problem by enclosing the whole thing in a plastic shell? Plastic is impervious to water, so problem solved.
That's the thinking behind the newest incarnation of composite decking — the capped decking board.
The Wear Resistance of Plastic Surfaces
Because there is no information about how well plastic capstock coatings resist the wear and tear of typical deck use, we looked at its closest analog, plastic flooring, to get a sense of how long capstock can be expected to last.
Wear resistance is a major factor in the vinyl flooring industry. Plastic flooring is promoted primarily by how long it wears. In consequence, the common plastics used in capstock boards, polypropylene, and polyethylene, are rarely used for residential flooring. They are not considered durable enough for the abuse to which floors are subjected daily.
Quality vinyl flooring is composed of multiple layers. Each layer has a particular purpose.
Wear Layers: The transparent top wear layer gives the tile an easy clean surface that does not need waxing and provides stain and abrasion resistance. Wear layers are usually urethane and may include silica beads and aluminum oxide for even greater wear resistance. The thickness of wear layers can vary from 4 mils (a mil is 1/1000 of an inch) on economy tile up to 40 mils on a high-quality commercial tile. Twelve mils are typical of good quality vinyl residential flooring.
Decorative or Printed Layer: The high definition printed layer that gives the tile its color and pattern. In this case, simulated wood grain similar to that which appears on most capstock deck boards. It may also be embossed to give the tile texture. This is usually a thin film, about the same thickness as the PVC cap on most capstock decking boards.
Top PVC Backer Layer: A spongy vinyl layer that gives the tile some of its resiliency or "bounce".
Fiberglass Backer: This layer gives vinyl tile its stiffness. It is usually omitted in sheet flooring so the flooring can be rolled up.
Bottom or Base PVC Layer The vinyl body of the tile is usually formulated to add stability to the tile and to adhere well to the mastic used to attach the flooring to the subfloor. It contributes to the resiliency of the material but is typically not as spongy as the top PVC backer layer.
The plastic most commonly used is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). But, even PVC is considered too soft for floors. To achieve long-term durability, any PVC surface exposed to wear is protected by a "wear layer" made of more wear-resistant material, usually urethane. The longevity of the flooring depends on the thickness of the urethane wear layer, which may range from 4 mils on the low side to 40 mils for some commercial flooring. (A mil is 1/1000 of an inch.)
The wear resistance warranty on vinyl flooring with a wear layer 12 mils thick is usually 30 years, and 20-mil wear layers for the buyer's lifetime (Usually defined as "for as long as the original purchaser owns the house.").
For unprotected PVC flooring without a urethane wear layer, the guarantees are not nearly as generous. On average unprotected PVC flooring is warrantied for 10 years against wear.
Unprotected PVC flooring is the closest analog we have to capstock decking. But, unlike vinyl flooring in which the material is thick, just under 1/8", capstock is thin, usually less than 1/16", sometimes much less. Applied in semi-liquid form during the extrusion process, cap thickness varies, which means that there are places where the coating is very thin and more susceptible to wearing through more quickly.
There is nothing in vinyl capstock that suggests it will wear longer than economy vinyl flooring and much to suggest that it will not last quite as long, so expect a fairly short lifespan of ten to 15 years — much less in heavily trafficked areas — before the material wears through.
Manufacturers, seeking to counter the historical problems with unprotected wood-plastic composites have begun wrapping a solid plastic shell or "cap" around a WPC core. The resulting plank is known in the industry as a "capstock board", or just "capstock". The waterproof shell is intended to protect the wood content of the interior filler from moisture.
Almost all composite manufacturers now offer a premium capstock board. The process of binding the plastic capstock to the underlying wood-plastic composite material is very new. It is much too soon to tell how it will work over the 20- or 30-year expected lifetime of a deck. All we can say at this point is that it has promise. But, so did uncapped composites when they first came out, and that promise has proven largely false.
The Capstock/PVC Paradox
A capstock composite board is made of wood-plastic composite (WPC) wrapped in a plastic shell.
The thin plastic shell is intended to protect the vulnerable WPC from the elements. But, it is only partly effective. The WPC is still exposed at the cut ends of the board, so the WPC can still get wet, swell and permanently deform the board (See the main article).
We can get rid of the WPC, however, by making the plastic outer shell thicker with some internal bracing so the shell does not collapse when walked on. With these changes, the rigidity provided by the WPC is no longer required — the plastic shell provides its own structure.
Without the WPC we also…
Of course, if we modify our capstock board like this, we end up with plastic decking. Plastic decking is capstock without the internal wood powder filler. Which begs the question: why buy capstock decking when you can buy a PVC deck board for about the same price and have many fewer problems?
Two reasons. Pure plastic decking costs a little more than capstock because more plastic goes into a board and pure plastic expands more than capstock, making finicky installation a necessity, usually at a slightly higher cost.
By the way, the capstock guys are trying to keep this on the down-low. So, mum's the word.
The tradeoff with capstock is that the material is much more costly than uncapped composites. The co-extrusion process is a more complex and expensive technology, and a capstock board uses much more plastic. Plastic is expensive, so the more that is used the higher must be the price.
To work well, the plastic cap must enclose the entire board. It doesn't. The manufacturing process used, called co-extrusion, coats the top, sides, and (maybe but not always) the bottom of the board but not the ends. The board is extruded as one continuous length. To get individual boards, the extrusion is sliced every 10 to 20 feet. The sliced end is not then capped. And, if it were, when the board is installed it will be re-cut to the needed length by the installer, so again, the unprotected core WPC would be exposed.
After studying the behavior of capstock decking, Shane O'Neill, founder of Compositology LLC, a technical consulting firm focused on composite building materials reported in Deck Builder, the magazine for deck professionals, that the unprotected ends of capstock boards can swell and deform when the board is exposed to water, and the deformation is permanent. He wrote:
"With capstock decking, you have sealed a WPC - which wants to absorb water - in a protective wrapper. This offers many advantages but the uncapped ends of the boards are free to pick up water just like before. Since only the ends of capstock decking take on much water, that's where the swelling happens. I've measured the water absorption rate through the ends of a capped WPC and found it to be more than six times higher than through the cap. Unfortunately, the real kicker is that once the decking flares, the flare never fully goes away. Even if you completely dry the deck, the swelling may go down some but the board will never be the same."
The reaction of capstock manufacturers to the problem of capstock end flare has largely been denial.
The response we received from a representative of Tamko, the manufacturer of composite decking is typical: "We have not had any reports of deformation at the ends of our boards."
Once the companies move beyond denial (which, based on the history of the industry, will not happen until someone is sued), hopefully, they will come up with a solution. Right now, installers are trying their own fixes, including sealing the board ends with sealants designed for end grain on wood boards — at best a stop-gap measure.
How quickly will the relatively soft and very thin plastic outer covering of a capstock board wear out from normal use of the deck?
Astoundingly, no one knows.
The capstock coating is not just a water seal and a pretty surface that has all the nice woodgrain embossing and "genuine" wood coloring, it is also the wear layer. It is where all the wear from constant walking on the deck takes place. The coating is paper-thin and the plastics used as the coating — PVC, polypropylene, polyethylene, and acrylics — are not very wear-resistant.
But, despite the known risk of wearing through the capstock shell, there is no reliable information about how long it will last on a deck board.
With vinyl flooring (or any flooring material, for that matter), surface wear is a big factor. Consumer Reports gives "the durability of a floor's finish" the most weight in its flooring tests. Standards such as ISO 10874 grade flooring according to how long it can be expected to wear, and therefore where it can be used. The grades range from 21 (areas with low or occasional use — bedrooms) to 42 (heavy industrial use areas — factory floors).
No such testing or grading is done for capstock decking (or any decking). The standards for decking, which were developed when decking was actual wood, do not include a wear-resistance test. If they did, most likely decking caps would test poorly for two reasons: (1) all of the plastics used in deck board caps are soft and (2), unlike plastic flooring which is usually 1/8" thick, plastic decking caps are seldom more than half that thickness, and often much thinner.
Some manufacturers may have tested their capstocks but they are not sharing the results, which is in itself a troubling notion. If the results were good, you can bet they would be heavily advertised. Manufacturers talk extensively about how realistically their capstocks emulate natural wood, and how little their colors fade over time but not a single manufacturer discloses how long its capstock actually lasts in normal use.
So, at this moment all we know about the wearability of capstock decking is that we don't know anything about the wearability of capstock decking. We can estimate wearability by comparing decking composition to that of vinyl flooring but no one really knows for sure.
We do know that when the surface cap material does wear through — and it will — there is no repair. The only solution will be to replace to boards, assuming they are still available at that time. Expect that the new boards will not match the old boards, which have faded and changed color over time, so the repair will be obvious.
Keep in mind that wear-through is not covered under any capstock manufacturer's warranty. It is considered ordinary wear and tear. The warranty offered by is typical:
"Integrity Composites warrants that your … products will remain free from manufacturing defects that adversely affect its performance during the warranty term and shall not split, splinter, or suffer structural damage from termites."
Capstock wear-through is not usually due to a "manufacturing defect" and it's not a "split, splinter" or termite damage, so it's not covered by warranty. You are entirely on your own.