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More Alternatives Emerge As Arsenic-Tainted Wood Phased Out

Mar 14, 2003 | Newport News (Va.) Daily Press

If you're planning to build a deck, planter, fence or picnic table with pressure-treated lumber, you may want to consider some alternatives.

This popular form of lumber known as CCA-treated wood will not be sold for home use after December. In 2002, the Environmental Protection Agency and the wood-preservative industry voluntarily agreed to phase out the arsenic-tainted lumber, which has been around since the 1950s.

Homeowners aren't required to remove existing structures made with CCA (chromated copper arsenate) wood. Painting the lumber or coating it regularly with a sealant helps reduce arsenic risks, according to USA Today.

The phase-out period gives the wood-preservative industry time to produce and market new moisture- and termite-resistant products with no arsenic in them. These lumbers aren't showing up at retailers just yet, but you can expect them to slowly take over the market for residential needs.

One new preservative marketed as Preserve by Chemical Specialties Inc. is made with copper and the fungicide quaternary. In short, it's called ACQ-treated lumber.

"It will do the same thing as pressure-treated lumber," says Jim Graves, sales and operations manager at Treated Lumber Outlet in Hampton, Va. "There will be some problems with fasteners, though. You can't use galvanized fasteners with ACQ lumber like you can with CCA, because ACQ will eat them up, corrode them. You'll have to use stainless steel nails and screws with ACQ, and those fasteners are more expensive."

Also emerging on the retail scene is Wolmanized Natural Select, treated with copper and another fungicide called azole. For fasteners, this company recommends hot-dipped galvanized hardware.

Both new forms of treated wood contain more pricey copper to deter termites than CCA-treated lumber ever did, so the increased costs of making the products are passed on to the consumer. Each also contains a fungicide to guard against copper-tolerant fungi that can still attack wood.

CCA-treated wood still will be available for marine projects such as piers and bulkheads, road construction and utility poles. Aquatic creatures are more sensitive to copper than arsenic, so the CCA lumber is actually more environmentally responsible for waterfront uses, says Huck DeVenzio, manager of marketing and communications for the copper azole preservative made by Arch Wood Protection.

Wood preservatives have been around long before CCA, and new ones will emerge even after ACQ and copper azole, DeVenzio says.

"Preservatives are an evolutionary thing," he says. "The next step will be all organic."

No matter what chemicals are used to preserve lumber, treated wood still needs to be periodically cleaned and sealed to keep it looking good.

The hassle of using a pressure washer and brushing or rolling a water-repelling sealant on a wood deck or fence motivates many homeowners to choose composite lumbers made from recycled plastics, rubbers and nontreated waste wood.

Fences, play equipment, trellises, planters, decking boards, railings and decorative trims are flocking to the market in white and shades of brown, gray and green. They never rot or need painting. Cleanup is simple with soap and water. Even berry-eating birds fail to stain them permanently.

Composite woods available nationwide include Trex, TimberTech, RhinoDeck, Boardwalk, CorrectDeck, ChoiceDek and Fibron.

"Trex was sort of the pioneer, the leader in this," says Doug Harbin of Harbin Builders in southeastern Virginia. "Trex weathers well and is durable. The downfall is that Trex will fade, mostly in the first year. The company actually has coloring charts now so you can see how much the color will change.

"Gray Trex seems to hold its color much better than brown."

Any no-maintenance decking will weather your budget. A do-it-yourself 12-by-16-foot CCA wood deck costs $200 to $280 for the decking boards, while Trex boards cost about $600. If a contractor builds that same deck, it may cost about $2,280 for real wood compared with $3,430 for Trex.

So far, composite lumber comes only in deck planking and railing, so you still need to use some form of rot-resistant wood for posts, joists and beams. But a CCA-framed deck can be resurfaced with composite wood.

Many of the composite woods are natural looking, often brushed to give a natural wood-grain finish. Matching railings are available, and decking boards usually come with a slip-resistant finish for safe footing.

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