My college apartment was well maintained, but very old. It had steel railings up the exterior stairs and around the balconies, but after twenty years of flaking, being repainted, and spot repairs it was common to grab hold of the railing and come away with a giant chunk of paint. Even when that didn’t happen, it still had a tendency to dye the palms of your hands a shade of green that was popular a decade ago. And even with 25 years of paint layered onto the rails, the rust still managed to show through, turning them from a faded teal into a weirdly festive camouflage.
Even when continuous effort is put into maintenance, the real devil in keeping a property looking nice is in the details, especially when it’s a large multi-family residential property. The apartment complex I lived in through college was built as a luxury residence for professionals, and twenty years later it was home to low-rent college students, in large part because of the inability of management to bring important details like the railings and fences up to date. For that reason, it’s worth seeking out durable, high-quality railings that don’t need painting, especially for large residential complexes where the cost of railing replacement can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Types of Railings for Residences and Residential Complexes
The original railing material for all buildings was wood. Wood absorbs paint better than most building materials, making it fairly easy to get a smooth, even coat. This also makes it easier to change the entire look of a residence. Wood’s biggest drawback is the constant maintenance. It absorbs paint well because it absorbs everything well–including water. This means that wood requires regular repainting to keep it looking nice and to prevent rotting. And, since there isn’t a good way to mass produce preassembled wooden railings, the initial cost of installing wood is prohibitive for large residential buildings. That’s why the majority of wooden railings are in single family homes, or in add-on projects like railings for handicap ramps.
The most common railings in residential complexes are metal ones, usually steel, but sometimes aluminum. Metal railings can be mass-produced, making them more affordable, and steel stands up better to the wear and tear that renters tend to put on their homes. The big drawback to steel, as far as aesthetics go, is that it’s not very friendly to painting, requiring at minimum a coat of primer, then a coat of paint. Furthermore, when repainted, metal railings don’t tend to take new paint well. This results in patches coming off, which is what happened to my old apartment complex. Once paint starts peeling, the uneven surface allows water more places to collect, and the process of rusting will happen more quickly.
To avoid problems with rust, most steel made to be used outdoors is coated with zinc during galvanization. The issue with this is that this layer of galvanization comes off when the metal is heated, leaving welded joints exposed. When those welds rust, it creates a route to the interior of the metal. The rust bleeding through the paint at my college apartment complex was due to the railings being welded during installation, with the welds not even receiving primer afterward. To avoid this issue, look for preassembled, prewelded railing systems that are galvanized after welding. Even better, look for preassembled systems that are protected by specialized coatings, rather than just galvanization and paint.
Powder Coated Steel Railings That Don’t Need Painting
If you’re looking for a railing material that doesn’t need to be painted, there are a few options. Wood, for instance, isn’t always painted. In fact, it’s the most common material left au naturale in private homes. This does, however, quickly turn it into a faded splintery mess and leaves it vulnerable to rotting. This makes metals the most structurally sound option. Yet, while metals may not need to be painted, they do generally need to be protected by a coating. Stainless steel doesn’t need to be painted or coated, and is strong structurally, but it is also expensive, and using it in the quantities a large apartment complex requires would be very costly. That leaves powder-coated metal railings as the most economical choice all around.
Powder coating is a process that coats a metal item in a fine, colored powder. When the item is heated, the powder melts and creates a uniform coating across the surface. This method has a number of advantages over traditional paint.
- Dry application means no runs or differences in thickness due to gravity pulling liquid downward. The initial powder is applied using an electrostatic spray that holds the powder to the metal with static electricity.
- A much stronger bond is formed between the metal and the powder paint than between metal and regular paint. This is due to the electrostatic application and the fact that the paint is then baked on to the metal.
- The coating is thicker than a layer of paint, which makes it even more resistant to scratching and other damage. This also provides greater protection against rust for steel railings.
A railing that has been galvanized after welding and given a high-quality powder coat is nearly rust-proof and chip-proof, which is ideal for any residence but especially for large residential complexes.
Still, a powder coat all on its own isn’t perfect. It does have very tiny pores that moisture can get through. That’s why it’s important that a railing receive galvanization or some other rust proofing after it is welded, to protect it beneath the coat of powder paint. Many of the railing system manufacturers I’ve run into talk about galvanized steel and powder coating, but they often don’t treat the steel after welding, leaving the welds vulnerable.
One company that I know does treat their steel after welding is Fortress Railing. Not only are their commercial steel railing systems galvanized and powder coated, they also receive an e-coat of electro-deposition material before the powder coat, to fill in all the crevices of the welds for complete rust proofing. It’s the kind of attention to detail that tells you that these products were built to look good for a long time–something my old college apartment’s railings definitely weren’t designed to do. Fortress Building Products’ other product lines also provide long-lasting, low maintenance solutions, from slip-resistant composite decking for the pool area to high privacy estate fencing for building managers looking to upgrade their properties.