PT lumber

EHH week 05: avoiding pressure treated lumber

Part 2 of the quest to avoid toxic chemicals in this project (see week 4 for part 1).  Get ready for some acronyms.

Chemicals to keep wood from rotting, called PT for “pressure treated,” are by their very nature not “natural.”  I mean, wood in nature is supposed to rot.  But nobody wants rotting wood in a house.  So the wood treatment industry injects toxic chemicals into the cells of PT wood to prevent rot.

For decades, CCA (chromium copper arsenic) was used for PT.  But under pressure from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), CCA was phased out as of 2004.  Alas, there are still thousands of playgrounds with arsenic wood in this country.

Replacing CCA are ACQ (ammonium copper quaternary) and CA (copper azole). While the chromium and arsenic are gone, the copper remains.  And unfortunately it leaches out of the wood over time.  Copper is toxic to aquatic life if, or should I say when, it gets into the water.  So it is best to avoid PT lumber altogether.

The two most common places for PT lumber in a house are the mudsills and exterior decks.  The best way to deter rot is to keep wood dry.  Not an easy task in the rainy Pacific Northwest.  But we figured out how to do it.

Mudsills are the pieces of wood immediately on top of the concrete foundation wall.  Concrete in contact with the earth is always damp, and the moisture rots this critical piece of wood.  For this house, we isolated the mudsills from the concrete with an adhesive rubber membrane so no PT chemicals are needed.  

The exterior decks of the Northwest Harvest House are made of naturally rot resistant wood decking (ipe).  Supporting the decking is framing made of steel, so no PT lumber was necessary.

We did have to compromise when the electrical utility insisted on pressure treated lumber for the temporary power post, the only stick of PT lumber in the project.