It wasn’t that long ago when nails were the de facto fastener for deck construction. Along came screws, and builders thought they were a pretty neat idea, so construction methods changed. But wait, thought the screw manufacturers; let’s invent new screws, designs made from materials that better withstand corrosion, with threads that cut easier and heads that strip less. Once again, builders rejoiced, as these advances increased speed and efficiency of construction. But then came hidden fasteners, systems that were designed to vanish from sight and deliver clean, elegant installations, and once again the industry changed.
What does this little narrative mean? Simply this: the world of deck fasteners is constantly evolving, and distributors and builders alike need to be prepared for the latest consumer and industry demands.
Growth is coming
This past December, Fannie Mae predicted 1.35 million housing starts for 2020 in the U.S. housing market along with 6.17 million total home sales. Likewise, the Mortgage Bankers Association predicted 1.30 million, with 6.26 million in total home sales. As well, research and industry indicators (such as Principia) predict a growth rate for the decking market of 6.5% by volume into 2021.
Predictions aside, a boost in new home sales at the end of 2019 has manufacturers preparing for growth this year in the decking segment. “We expect decks will be built at a faster rate than new home starts similar to what we’ve seen in recent years,” said Mike Nelson, product portfolio manager for MiTek Builder Products. “We’re also seeing more remodel spending as the housing market continues to be strong, home prices continue to appreciate, and homeowners choose to settle in and invest in upgrading what they have.”
Melanie Bisson, national sales manager of Grabber Construction Products’ LBM program, agrees with Nelson. “Not only are national marketing research firms indicating 2%–5% growth in decking,” she says, “but we see it in the shift in real estate trends where younger families are staying in their first homes longer and putting investments into low-maintenance exterior spaces.” Phil Lail, president of Sure Drive USA, also sees good things on the horizon. “We are budgeting 8%– 10% growth with our Sure Drive USA/Mantis decking business segment for 2020. This will come from organic growth with current customers and additional sales of our hidden deck fastener lines plus our Big Timber construction lag and fastener line.”
Fasteners efficiency is key
It stands to reason that, if deck construction grows, the fastener segment will be coming along for the ride. That does not mean, however, that all types of fasteners will grow at the same rate. While there will always be the need for traditional fasteners, trends such as the growing demand for hidden fastener systems and for non-wood deck products, plus the need for a safer workspace, and faster, easier, more productive installation methods are spurring product development. As Jim Miller, president and CEO of Screw Products, Inc., explains, “Homeowners are continuing to demand environmentally friendly deck products. They are also taking elements like multicolored decking, lighting options, heating and fan options and outdoor kitchens. Today’s fastener manufacturer has to be ready for multiple fasteners to be used outdoors.”
“The increasing demand for decorative deck construction, including hidden deck fastening, has driven the further development of Simpson Strong-Tie Outdoor Accents, EB-TY Premium Hidden Deck-Fastening Systems and DCU Screw Plug Solutions,” explains Brandon Ward, fastener product manager for Simpson Strong-Tie. “These products allow builders and customers to enjoy the premium, precise perfection of a visually stunning outdoor living space. Our fastener delivery systems are built to last and are designed to make the installers’ job safer by reducing jobsite hazards such as ladders, heavy-duty equipment, hoses and ballistic tools; easier by providing simplifying installation processes; and less physically taxing by designing tools that are ergonomic and less demanding on legs, knees, arms and back.”
Trends, however, can create confusion for both the homeowner and for the contractor. “In years past, there were not many options for what type of material deck boards were made from that a consumer had to choose from,” explains Roderick Kabel, marketing director for DeckWise. “At the present, there is a wide array of different types of deck boards; pressure treated, hardwoods, composite, and thermally modified to name a few, and options are expanding more and more due to new technologies, colors and plastic materials to choose from. Consumers may now have too many options.”
Fasteners codes continue to evolve
Because of the development of so many alternative decking materials, fastener manufacturers have been forced to work quickly to keep pace and develop fastener systems that meet increased safety codes. “The demand for increased safety and structural stability is at the forefront of all production and future innovation,” says MiTek’s Nelson. “We know there is increased demand for stability against extreme and unpredictable weather. Shifting weather patterns and the recognized need for stronger decking structures is creating some focused attention on decking codes. MiTek provides the builder and consumer assurance with decking hardware that has the highest structural values in the industry and are code approved. Additionally, our range of anti-corrosive treatments, such as our Gold Coat, help ensure that deck stays strong and beautiful for many years.”
As Phil Lail, president of Sure Drive points out, fastener manufacturers work closely with code organizations to ensure their new products meet safety standards. “Building codes are becoming stricter in certain areas in regard to the testing required for structural connections,” he says. “Our company is a charter member of NADRA and our organization is very involved in participating with advisory boards that set some of these new standards. We are having our entire Big Timber product line certified this year to help gain access to new markets and opportunities in code specific areas.”
In the case of Simpson Strong-Tie, in order to meet requirements as spelled out by the American Wood Council’s DCA 6, The Prescriptive Residential Wood Deck Construction Guide, it conducted significant testing to determine minimum loads required to create various deck connections using fasteners as alternatives to traditional hardware connectors. As a result, Simpson Strong-Tie has published a series of Engineering Letters describing new fastener-centric connections for guard posts, guard rails, guard rail infill, stairway stringers, notched post-to-beam and diagonal bracing assemblies.
Likewise, in an effort to meet stricter codes and make decks safer, National Nail recently had its EdgeClips tested by an independent firm, and they were found to be 88% stronger than competitors, which is vital to the overall deck’s integrity.
In light of these changes, fasteners that can ease confusion for contractors will be a sought-after commodity, as will those that demonstrate reliability in performance and ease of installation, and LBM distributors need to have these types of products on hand to best meet builders’ needs. When it comes to fasteners, builders want products and systems that aid in the productivity and profit for their sub-contractors and aid in the longevity of the building structure,” explains Grabber’s Bisson.
Jase DeBoer, senior marketing director for Deckorators, says “Helping contractors save on time and labor is key. Pre-assembled railing panels, tools that install fasteners faster, and other solutions that remove the guesswork provide incredible value. For example, in 2019 we approved CAMO’s EdgeClip and EdgeXClip fasteners for use with our grooved composite deck boards to offer builders what they wanted: more installation options and a better installation experience.”
Quality and performance are also at the top of contractors’ lists of must-haves. “One main goal we fixate on is repeat business and we see installers coming back to our products,” says DeckWise’s Kabel. “They know the quality of our USA-made deck fasteners and they continue to use them on project after project. Builders want a fastener that they know will not cost them additional time and money on call-backs.”
Simpson Strong-Tie’s Ward shares Kabel’s thoughts on providing products that have a track record of quality. “Builders are realizing that premium fastening products are a necessity in building stronger, safer decks,” he says. “Investing in premium fastening solutions results in higher-quality, longer-lasting decking projects. This results in greater customer satisfaction, better service ratings and increased business for the builders.”
Meet customers’ needs
Perhaps once upon a time it was sufficient for LBM distributors to merely stock boxes of fasteners on their shelves, relying on their customers to find for themselves what they needed.
The successful distributor, however, cannot afford to look at sales individually. Instead, they need to see the entire picture of a job and provide solutions for the scope of the project.
As DeckWise’s Kabel explains, LBM distributors need to sell the whole job. “Quite a few companies spend a lot of their efforts focusing on their big sellers and main elements for their bids,” he explains. “They lose sight of the smaller items that gain additional profits for their company. We have spoken with multiple building material sales reps and purchasers who say ‘they don’t know,’ or ‘they are not interested’ in what other components such as wood finishes or cable railings are being used on a job. This leaves the homeowner or builder left searching for these additional products elsewhere and permits the contractor/ installer to fill in the gaps with possibly lower end components.”
The key to seeing the “big picture” is to be as informed and educated as possible on your product lines, points our Deckorators’ DeBoer. “LBM dealers can create value for contractors in a variety of ways. Having a staff that is truly educated is key. There are differences in material and technology, differences in price points and what features you receive or forfeit at each price point, nuances to how the product installs, and pros and cons to competing products in different outdoor scenarios. Truly being a knowledgeable resource to both builders and homeowners is extremely valuable.”
Grabber’s Melanie Bisson agrees. “There is an abundance of information available in regard to new products and technology that contractors need and often have a difficult time keeping up with themselves,” she says. “In this manner I think it is wise for the LBM dealer to be the go-to expert in all segments and channels and at least the first source of direction and information for the contractors since many dealers have direct access to manufacturers. It is sometimes easy to ignore this need with the busyness of day-to-day tasks, but I think it is the area of improvement for dealers to build relationships that forge a barrier with their competition.”
Become a fasteners product master
In order to provide the solutions that contractors and homeowners alike are looking for, it’s not enough to have an intelligent plan behind what you’re selling; the most successful LBM distributors are taking advantage of every opportunity to become as intimately knowledgeable about the lines they are selling as possible—not just to sell more product but to be a knowledge base to their customers.
According to the manufacturers we interviewed, one of the best ways for a distributor to start building a knowledge base is by developing a close relationship with the manufacturers themselves. As DeckWise’s Kabel explains, “When building material professionals and consumers contact us, it really is us. Calls and online chats go direct to our seasoned sales reps and not a robot or untrained person. We make ourselves available and ready to discuss, train, and educate anyone who has questions about our products.”
Manufacturers highly encourage getting hands-on with their products, and most provide a plethora of opportunities to do just that. For example, Sure Drive hosts training sessions with its distributors and independent lumberyards on how its products work and perform. Grabber regularly encourages dealers to participate in lunch-and-learns and product knowledge sessions to educate staff on the features and benefits that matter to their customer and help anticipate what their customers will be asking in regard to product application and performance. Huttig offers in-store training not only to LBM distributor staff, but also holds contractor events to educate the builder and consumer alike.
Likewise, Simpson Strong-Tie provides both informal and formal on-site training for builders, distributors and their customers. “Educating the public is key to them gaining knowledge as to what inspectors and specifiers are looking for regarding load-rated, code-listed fasteners,” explains Simpson Strong-Tie’s Ward. “As end-users gain such knowledge, an awareness of how their structures are built for quality, durability and safety reinforces the demand for premium fastener solutions.”
And while few training methods are as effective as hands-on learning, let’s not forget technology. Many manufacturers are offering unique tech-based learning solutions—from online materials to YouTube training videos to downloadable apps—that can help inform distributor, builder and consumer alike. For example, Simpson Strong-Tie provides downloadable product information from its website along with videos, literature, engineering drawings, and training courses on numerous topics. It also provides several online applications that assist in selecting the appropriate fastening solution for the appropriate application (such as its Fastener Designer and Fastener Finder apps), as well as aids in designing structures (such as Deck Planner software).
Likewise, MiTek presents a variety of videos and materials to builders, distributors and customers offering guidelines on installations and best practices. Its MiTek Builder Products App has the most up-to-date code reference, load values, and installation guides for all of its builder products. Items are searchable and sortable which makes the app valuable on a jobsite, and when prepping for a job or creating a bill of materials. Says MiTek’s Nelson, “We also have a variety of videos on our website and the MiTek YouTube channel that walk through common issues and step-by-step guides for installation.”
What this all boils down to is that fasteners for decking are no longer a foregone afterthought. What once was a one-option choice is now a sea of many options. “Builders are realizing that premium fastening products are a necessity in building stronger, safer decks,” says Simpson Strong-Tie’s Ward. “Investing in premium fastening solutions results in higher-quality, longer-lasting decking projects. This results in greater customer satisfaction, better service ratings and increased business for the builders.”