Deck Code Official - Composite Decking Interview
Decks.com: How long have you been studying composite decking?
Roger Axel: I first ran into the subject of composite decking about 10 years ago while working for the Uniformity Committee. The committee looked at how we could clarify the gray areas in the building code and try to direct consistent methods for enforcement. Back then, there were only about eight or nine composite materials available. Now, there are over 100.
Decks.com: Why did you start “the list” of approved and tested decking materials?
Roger Axel: The ICC was already producing a list of composite decking materials that had current Evaluation Service reports that could be considered “approved for use.” I just took it one step further by including all known composite decking products no matter what their status was. I also reorganized the list so it was easier to use. The purpose of “the list” is as a reference material. It helps code enforcement by pointing them in the right direction for published Evaluation Service reports. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time an inspector runs into a new product. I think of my list as a living document. My phone is always ringing. I update it at least once every three months. It is kind of a learning process. We want the industry and regulatory side to be able to work together.
Decks.com: What are the criteria to be included on “the list”?
Roger Axel: Composite decking must meet the ASTM testing criteria by being tested by an accredited testing agency. The criteria addresses only the structural properties of the material, such as:
- Nail and screw withdrawal
- Shear, compression and tension
- Moisture absorption
- Flexure and allowable deflections
- Modulus of elasticity and rupture
- Thermal expansion
- Abrasion resistance
- Accelerated weathering
Composite materials must also include tags or labels for identification. We require an evaluation report as evidence that the product meets the accepted criteria. We are concerned with quality control manufacturing. We need to be able to demonstrate that the material can consistently perform up to code standards.
Decks.com: Are there really decking materials being produced that don’t meet IRC code requirements?
Roger Axel: Yes, there are several products that either have never applied or have applied and failed. These materials can still be used in applications where code isn’t enforced like a ground-level platform or a cabin in the woods where permits aren’t required.
Decks.com: How can deck builders make sure that the materials they use are properly designed to meet code?
Roger Axel: Always have a copy of the ES report at the site and follow the installation instructions. Ask the building department about any limitations on the material. For instance, some composite materials cannot be used for stairs or must use specific framing for certain applications. Remember, specific requirements in the ES reports take precedence over general requirements even if it is listed on the manufacturer's literature.
Decks.com: What advice would you give to a homeowner who is trying to research composite materials for a personal deck project?
Roger Axel: Pick up the phone. Call your building department. Ask if the material is approved for use in your city. Look at the product literature. Can you find an ICC report # listed? Visit www.icc-es.org and www.10klakes.org and print out and read the reports. See if there are any limitations for installation on stairs, etc.
Decks.com: How should building inspectors get involved so they can consistently enforce the rules in such a rapidly changing environment?
Roger Axel: Remember that a composite material doesn’t react like lumber. I always tell my students to ask yes or no questions. Is the material approved? Yes or No. Can it be used on stairs? Yes or No. You must take the initiative. Reference the ICC list. Look at all of the supplemental documents. Read ALL of the reports. Make sure the installation requirements are met, such as fastener spacing, etc. You have to pay attention to details in your inspections. No drive by inspections.
Decks.com: How can a product manufacturer get on “the list”?
Roger Axel: You can call me. That’s usually a good place to start. I am happy to get them pointed in the right direction. They will need to get the testing done. That takes some time and money, but it is the most important step in the process. Then, they will need to apply to the ICC and have a report generated. We want to help them in this process.
Decks.com: How has the composite decking industry changed since you started paying attention?
Roger Axel: There are a lot more approved products. All of the manufacturers are making refinements and learning from their mistakes. There are a lot more options as far as textures, profiles and colors too. Composites have really taken off in their popularity.
Decks.com: What changes do you anticipate coming from the composite decking industry in the next 5-10 years?
Roger Axel: I see a lot more improvements to come. The public really likes the idea of low-maintenance materials. It’s a fast growing industry. I think that education will go a long way to eliminate the confusion surrounding composite materials. We don’t want builders and homeowners to be intimidated by the code issues. We should continue to see new products and improvements to existing composites.
ROGER AXEL, C.B.O.