Lumber Market Update – August 2019

By Paul Rogers

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Lumber producers have finally gotten their desired result, as Western mill curtailments and shut-downs (both temporary and permanent) brought the long slide of pricing to a halt. With a clear tightening of supply and escalating prices, buyers jumped in to cover their forecasted needs. However, the influx of sales was short-lived as it appears that buyers continued to remain conservative with their purchases as ample inventory at the retail level (some say attributed to a slow-down in business, primarily due to the labor shortage) and concern over an unpredictable market kept buyers from over-extending themselves. Nonetheless, additional factors (scheduled Eastern mill summer shut-downs, a strike at Western Forest Products in British Columbia (a key supplier of forest products with eight sawmills) and growing threats of forest fires) have kept prices propped up and it appears that they will remain that way for the foreseeable future. For the month of August, it appears that the market may be entering a stage of instability but, as of print, we anticipate prices to remain firm with the potential to moderately climb by month’s end.

It is a well-known fact that today’s wood fiber is not what it used to be just two decades ago, as the depleted volume of old-growth lumber and the impact of environmentally managed forests has forced our industry in to using different species, newer growth timber and alternatives, such as engineered wood. What isn’t such a well-known fact are the changes to pressure treated lumber. Although it’s still Southern Yellow Pine, green in appearance, and has a reputation for being impervious to rot and insect damage, it has gone through many changes over the past two decades that makes it quite different. Many of us are well-aware of decks that were installed twenty years ago that are still being used today that are still in excellent shape. This material was CCA .40, an acronym for chromated copper arsenate (comprised of chromium, copper and arsenic; .40 references the retention level of preservative treatment). The particulates in CCA are dissolved in a solution. As in all pressure treated items, boards are submerged in the solution and, under intense pressure, the chemicals are pushed in to the board. Saturation is typically most heavily concentrated around the perimeter of the board, as penetration becomes harder to achieve the deeper you go. This often explains why, if you do come across a rotten piece of pressure treated wood, it often starts in the center or in areas of penetration. For the most part, cutting and installing the very green-in-color CCA was a breeze. There was little concern in best practices (such as end-sealing or using joist tape) or application, as the copper and arsenic worked to be an effective fungicide and insecticide, keeping it safe from harm. Unfortunately, what made CCA great also made it an environmental concern, as the level of arsenic in the solution made it a potential health hazard in the event that it leached out (as it’s an element that can increase the risk of certain types of cancers). The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) deemed that it was too hazardous for residential use and so mandated changes in 2001 to prohibit CCA from being used residentially by 2004. Acknowledging the risks, manufacturers elected to voluntarily change their formulations and so converted prior to the deadline. Although banned from recreational use (such as decks and playgrounds), CCA is still available today for certain industrial applications. The new solution was ACQ (alkaline copper quaternary), but in two retentions: ACQ .20 Above Ground and ACQ .40 Ground Contact. Unlike the old CCA formula, ACQ contains no arsenic but had a high copper content. It is here where we turn our next corner for issues as, prior to going to ACQ, we didn’t have to specify “Above Ground” or “Ground Contact”. “Above Ground” or “Ground Contact” was a matter of interpretation by the end user. Unless it was for “burial”, CCA .40 was seen by most users to be fine to use in contact with or in proximity to earth. The industry made a big mistake in its assumption here, as the success of ACQ relied heavily upon knowing its intended use and choosing the right product for the application. Initially, ACQ .20 Above Ground was the only option typically stocked by dealers and it was commonly sold for every application and without too much concern as to how it was to be applied, as the differences between ACQ .20 Above Ground and ACQ .40 Ground Contact versus CCA .40 were not communicated well. Unfortunately, it was discovered too late that the high copper content in ACQ .20 was a major problem for wherever the wood was in contact with metal, as fasteners and hangers soon corroded to the point of failure. This resulted in another change, this time to MCA (Micronized Copper Azole) in both -AG .06 Above Ground and -GC .15 Ground Contact. MCA is a different solution than CCA or ACQ, as the method employs pulverizing (“micronizing”) the copper to very fine particles. Micronizing the copper allows it to penetrate the wood at a microscopic level (which is why MCA pressure treated lumber isn’t nearly as green in color as CCA or ACQ), as the copper that gives it the green color is now “inside” the wood fiber, as opposed to “around” it. It is also why the retention number is so low, at .06, due to its ability for deep penetration. Around 2016, it once again came about by discovery after some premature rot issues on both ACQ .20 and MCA .06 that consumers where buying Above Ground and using it in Ground Contact applications that would make the boards susceptible to rot. As a result, the definition of “Ground Contact” by the treatment companies was amended to state that any component would be considered ground contact if it were to be installed in a difficult place to maintain, repair or replace (which includes beams, joists, ledger boards, stringers, posts and sometimes decking). This also includes components that are less than 6’ above ground after final grading, or in situations with limited air flow or water drainage. As a result of this news (and understanding the risk we all were taking in selling MCA .06 Above Ground), most lumber dealers switched to MCA .15 Ground Contact on all of their pressure treated inventory items shortly thereafter.

It’s a matter of perspective in how you want to compare the different versions of pressure treated we’ve had to endure over the past twenty years. Although CCA .40 was exceptional in performance and didn’t require much thought in its application, it was a health-hazard. Although ACQ .20 performed well, it was too caustic to use with common metal products and created significant safety issues but, in addition to this, the proper options to choose from (ACQ .20 Above Ground or ACQ .40 Ground Contact) were not clearly conveyed to the consumer. With MCA, we can tell you it will perform well and to your expectations IF it is installed properly and the correct retention is used. Even though it hasn’t been widely practiced (and according to the manufacturer’s care and installation instructions), boards should have an end-coat preservative applied to cut ends and penetrations (we recommend WoodLife CopperCoat). For additional measure, we highly endorse the use of a joist tape on decks. If you’ve lived on Cape Cod for any length of time, you surely know what a damp climate it is and battling mold and mildew is a year-round sport. Water is the chief nemesis to any home, and it now requires us to pay more attention to our decks, so that water is properly shed away and that all has been done to best protect any place where standing water may penetrate or where poor airflow may occur. Please be sure to contact us should you have any questions and thank you for reading our update this month. We appreciate and thank you for your business!


Paul Rogers

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