Most apartment managers don’t have a history in construction, and it can get them in trouble in ways that they may not have expected. Balcony railings, for instance, are generally an afterthought for those that manage apartments, condos, and other multi-family residential units. Generally, more attention is paid to the paint on the walls than to these important safety features. As a result, balcony railings end up developing a visible history of maintenance that goes back to the very first day an apartment opened.
Uneven paint? I can tell that management didn’t include priming the railings in their budget. Rusting welds? That tells me that the railings were assembled onsite, and whoever installed them couldn’t be bothered to coat them properly. If I see multiple welds on the same joint, that tells me the railing has failed before, but more importantly, since rusting will continue on the inside, that it will fail again–a possible safety hazard that management is likely to be completely unaware of. The best material for balcony railings is one that doesn’t constantly need these half-hearted repairs. In fact, the best material, properly coated, will result in railings that don’t even need painting.
The Best Material for Balcony Railings: An Overview of the Options
To understand what the best choice is for a balcony railing material, it’s important to know what materials are options, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. Wood’s drawbacks with rotting and splintering keep it from being a serious contender for anything but single family homes where the residents can maintain it. For large residential complexes with multiple units, the serious contenders are metals.
- Aluminum is a lightweight metal with excellent structural properties for its weight. Its lightness makes it a good choice for many purposes, and with careful planning, it makes a great material for balcony railings. Unfortunately, it is often used without care. For instance, it is often found on balconies in buildings along the coast due to a mistaken belief that it will not corrode. When installed with steel fasteners in a high salt environment it can start the process of galvanic corrosion, in which the railing corrodes before the steel bolts holding it in place rust. Even when its weaknesses are accounted for in design, it can still be undermined by laziness or ignorance in installation. Opting for cheaper fasteners or skipping coated washers can create circumstances for aluminum to corrode and eventually fail.
- Stainless Steel is possibly the best material to use in any outdoor environment. The chromium in stainless steel forms an invisible but rust-proof layer of chromium oxide that keeps it from corroding, even in harsh conditions. The first reason it is not used more widely is that it is more difficult to produce than regular steel, the second is that it is more expensive, and the third is that in certain situations it is weaker than steel. Finally, it is much more difficult to work, making it largely impractical for balcony railings in most forms. However, high-quality stainless steel cable railings are in widespread use and do make an attractive railing option, although the need to adjust the tension makes this impractical for most complexes.
- Steel is quite possibly the single most versatile material that humans make, and that is why it is also the most commonly used material in balcony railings, especially for large complexes with many units. It is stronger than aluminum, although it does weigh more. Depending on how it is heat treated, it can be stronger than stainless steel while retaining more flexibility. It is also relatively inexpensive and easy to work. Its single real disadvantage is that it rusts, and there are a variety of ways this is addressed, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
- Glass railings are a new development. These are tempered glass panes or balusters that are suspended using clamps or posts, or in a frame of aluminum or steel. These have the advantage of really opening up views, and when the single pane version is used on high-rise balconies, they are able to act as deck or balcony railing windbreaks.
In large residential complexes, steel is really the only practical choice that can last a long time. Aluminum is its closest competitor, and is sometimes used instead, but because it tends to be weaker than steel and more subject to dings and dents (depending on quality), and because it’s vulnerable to galvanic corrosion, it doesn’t get chosen as often as steel. Stainless steel could work in the role, but its expense and the difficulty involved in working it makes it impractical. That leaves steel, which, when part of a thoroughly thought-out and well-designed railing system, is much less likely to rust, losing its single biggest disadvantage.
Not All Steel Railings Are Created Equal
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I check at an apartment complex is the condition of the welds. I used to build railings as a welder, and I know how to do the job correctly. The proper way is to get the measurements from the site, fabricate the railings at an industrial site, and turn them over to an experienced painter for coating. Even if everything goes exactly right, it will still begin rusting within only a year or so of installation. It will start doing so even more quickly if an onsite modification is needed. This is because of the simple fact that the best rustproofing is simply too expensive for most local steelworking shops to use, and paint over primer doesn’t hold up well over the long haul. Even powder coat, as tough as it is, is porous enough that it will let a small amount of moisture through and cause rusting after a time. Two different methods, however, when used together, can stop rust in its tracks:
The first of these is galvanization. Steel stock comes from the maker coated in a thin layer of galvanization. Unfortunately, when the piece is welded, the galvanization around the welds is burned off. That is why many apartment complex railings begin rusting at the welds first. A basic layer of galvanization is still an important step in protecting a metal railing, but that thin layer of zinc plus a paint or powder coat layer isn’t enough to prevent rust, particularly around the welds.
Electrophoretic deposition, usually called e-coating, is an additional option. This method was first used by the automotive industry to protect car undercarriages, and now is used by at least one railing manufacturer. This is a process in which a rust-resistant coating is added by submerging a finished piece of metalwork into a solution bath while running a current through it. This bath is filled with particles that have an opposing electric charge. This draws the particles to the metal where they form an even coating of rust proofing, filling in even the smallest crevices of the weld. This is a non-sacrificial coating that can be covered over with a UV-protective powder coat to create an incredibly durable, attractive surface.
You may have figured out by now that, in my opinion anyway, the best material for balcony railings is steel, rust-proofed through means of galvanization, an e-coat, and a powder coat (which protects much better than paint). This combination simply has the greatest strength and resistance to rust available. The e-coat fulfills a similar function to the chromium oxide that keeps stainless steel from corroding. When e-coated steel is given an appearance coat like a high-quality powder coating, it has a life cycle that is competitive with stainless steel. When it is part of a complete railing system that leaves the coating intact–with mounts that don’t break the protective layers or with screws that are also coated–then e-coated railings become completely maintenance free.
There are many companies that make balcony railing systems, but one of the few that makes steel commercial-grade railing using an e-coating in conjunction with galvanization, a zinc pre-coat, and a powder coating is Fortress Railing. They offer railing systems, including mounts, that are carefully engineered to be rust and maintenance free over the long haul. This durability is a hallmark of all of Fortress Building Products’ lines, from decking to fencing. Property managers looking for outdoor solutions to refresh residential complexes should check out Fortress’ range of solutions.