Dan Betts of Deck America, Woodbridge, Va., was a little surprised by the consumer response to the EPA's announcement on February 12 of this year that wood treated with chromated copper arsenate (CCA) would be off the market by the end of next year.

"We had customers calling in cancelling contracts, cancelling appointments," Betts says. "It was pretty much a mess."

Why the phase out?

Though it's been used for 70 years, CCA became popular as a preservative for boards and beams used in decks, fences, retaining walls, playgrounds, and picnic tables in the early '70s. Treatment involves placing wood in a cylinder and filling the cylinder with preservatives, which soak through the grain. Treatment prevents rot, molds, insect damage, and other forms of biodegradation. Untreated pine -- 85% of pressure-treated wood is Southern Pine -- generally rots or is subject to insect damage within three to five years, according to industry sources. Before the EPA announcement, about 90% of treated wood involved the use of CCA.

The "negotiated decision" between the EPA and manufacturers calls for the voluntary withdrawal of CCA-treated wood products by Dec. 31, 2003. The EPA has found, citing numerous published studies, that over time the arsenic component of CCA, an insecticide, leaches into soils at a rate determined by climate, acidity of rain and soil, age of the product, and quantity of CCA used in treatment.

Courtesy Fiber Composites

What are the alternatives?

The copper-based preservatives, such as alkaline copper quat (ACQ), that will be used to treat wood instead of CCA cost about 10% to 20% more than CCA, according to Mel Pine of the American Wood Preservers Institute, an industry group based in Virginia. Quats are fungicides that attack decay organisms.

"I went to a seminar with the chemical manufacturers, who told us the cost would be 20% more because of the copper in it," says Barry Klemons, Archadeck of Charlotte, Charlotte, N.C. "So with that in mind, we have a tremendous amount of interest in composite decking and vinyl."

Betts says Deck America has offered composite decks for six years and vinyl for two. Combined, the two types of materials make up about 7% of his $15 million annual sales. Composite and vinyl decks, Betts says, are sold as a replacement product. A composite deck of identical square footage now costs about 17% more than one built with pressure-treated pine, and a vinyl deck, Betts estimates, about 25% more. Composites and vinyl could get a boost from the changeover in preservatives, he says, but only if they end up being less expensive than wood.

"Right now the price spread is pretty significant," says Klemons. "This is going to bring the pressure-treated up to a higher price point, closer in price to composites, which should drive the composites and sell more product."

Klemons estimates that about 10% of the decks his company builds for retail customers (opposed to decks built for new home builders) are constructed of composite materials, "with a lot of people showing a lot more interest." Besides price, he says, what's driving it is mainly convenience and the graying of America. Older consumers frequently want maintenance-free materials. Two years ago, Klemons replaced his own wood deck with composite materials.