There are two metals that are a big part of our everyday lives, and they each have a personality. Steel is the sort that wears work boots and does repairs around the house on the weekends. It’s rugged and dependable. Aluminum wears skinny jeans and shows up at the local hipster coffee shop around noon for a cappuccino. Steel is the old veteran that has been around for awhile, while aluminum is exciting in its unfamiliarity.
Now, when it comes down to which metal works best in a railing for your home, the answer isn’t cut and dried. There are benefits of aluminum deck railings as well as drawbacks, and it all depends on the context they’re used in, as well as your priorities for your railing. To give you a clearer picture of what material works best in what situation, we’re going to pit steel vs. aluminum railings in head to head competitions around the country to see how they’ll perform.
Steel Vs. Aluminum Railings: A Showdown in the Snow
Most of us aren’t blessed with warm temperatures all year round, and if you’re living in places like Buffalo, Chicago, or Canada, winter can be harsh on you and your home. It can be especially harsh on parts that spend time outside, like metal railings.
The cold in northern climates can cause structural changes in metals at the molecular level. Steel becomes less flexible as temperatures plunge, and it has a point of failure called the ductility to brittleness transition point. The failure has been linked to ships being damaged, and even to the sinking of the Titanic. The good news is that steel making has improved since then, and for modern steel, the point of failure is a face-shatteringly cold -40 degrees F, a temperature that doesn’t occur that often outside of the polar regions and the Himalayas. In very cold weather, steel can lose some of its strength, though, and with repeated batterings from a winter storm, it’s possible–though very rare–for cracks to form.
Aluminum does the exact opposite. In cold weather, aluminum actually gets stronger. This is due to the fact that this metal has a completely different molecular arrangement than its rival. As a result, aluminum also has a greater linear expansion/contraction factor than steel. This means that it expands a bit more when warm, and shrinks a bit more in the cold. Therefore, an aluminum railing will be a bit looser on its mounts during very cold months than it was when it was installed.
What it all boils down to in the matchup is that steel’s lip will split a bit easier and aluminum is going to be a bit wobblier on its feet. Still, both are strong contenders and are likely to make it through the snowy round to a sunnier day.
A Hot Time for a Hurricane Down South
Down in the South, homes and their railings face different challenges. It can be difficult to choose building materials for hot and humid climates where the sun fades everything and the air is thick with moisture. And if you’re anywhere near the coast, summer doesn’t just bring high temperatures. It also brings a constant spray of saltwater, and the yearly possibility of a hurricane.
At first glance, aluminum seems to have the advantage. Everyone knows that aluminum doesn’t rust, and that makes aluminum the clear choice for humid, salty environments in the South. Right? Not so fast. Metals are ranked on the galvanic series from base to noble, with the more base metals sacrificing themselves to preserve more noble metals when exposed to an environment with electric potential, like that of seawater. Since aluminum railings are usually attached with steel screws, this can lead to the aluminum railing sacrificing itself to preserve an inexpensive screw it forged a connection with. Who would have thought that blue-collar steel would have such an aristocratic heritage, or that flamboyant aluminum could be so selfless? Properly coated steel has the advantage when avoiding this form of corrosion.
An occasional, but significant, concern is hurricanes. These aren’t always catastrophic. In much of the Southeast, a Category One or Two hurricane is treated like a snow day. Even these relatively minor storms bring high winds, though, which can damage a home. In constant, low-speed winds aluminum’s light weight works as an advantage, lessening the stresses on railing anchor points. When the wind gets up to highway speeds, that lighter weight becomes a liability. Aluminum is light enough to be carried into the air by high winds, while steel has enough weight to it that even if it comes loose it probably won’t go airborne.
The combination of staying power and immunity to galvanic corrosion makes steel an upset winner in coastal and hurricane-prone areas.
The Downtown Throwdown
For the deciding match, we head to an urban location–let’s say Dallas, TX–and let steel and aluminum show us how they do things downtown. In a populous city with a lot of high-rises and a lot of balcony railings, you might think that wind would be the biggest challenge. High-rise balconies, though, are actually somewhat insulated from the surrounding wind speed. Deflected air molecules flow up, down, and around the building, protecting the balconies from experiencing the wind directly. If you’ve ever been up high, tried to spit over the edge of the roof or balcony, and had spit come flying back into your face, then you’re familiar with the effect.
Instead, the greatest challenge a high-rise balcony railing faces is the residents of the building. Renters are notoriously hard on their homes, though the amount of wear and tear they’ll put on a railing will vary. If toughness is the only consideration, steel is the better choice for a downtown high-rise.
However, several (or more) stories is a lot of vertical distance to bring a heavy load of steel, whereas lightweight aluminum is more convenient to move and install. Another point to consider is that not all downtown high-rises are rentals, and people who own their residence tend to take better care of it. Both these things bring aluminum back into consideration.
In short, determining what sort of railing works best in a high-rise depends on who will be living there and whether or not the elevators will be working when it’s time install the railings. This makes the downtown throwdown too close to call.
The Overall Champion? Steel
Thanks to its superior strength, steel wins the competition between railing systems, but only by a single bout, and only due to conditions on the playing field. Steel is rugged, dependable, and classically good looking. Aluminum has a few major advantages, though: it is light, and outside of regions with high exposure to salt it doesn’t suffer as badly from corrosion issues. Outside of galvanic corrosion situations, aluminum is very resistant to corrosion, while rust on steel can spread quickly once it gets started. This makes aluminum’s coastal defeat over corrosion an upset. The truth is that both materials are excellent choices for a railing as long as you choose a quality, well-designed system with a manufacturer that stands behind it.
The Al13 aluminum and Fe26 steel railings by Fortress Railing are two carefully-engineered systems that are pre-welded and then given high-quality Dupont powder coatings that will stand up to any climate. The Fe26 line is made of pre-galvanized steel which is given a rust-resistant e-coating before being powder coated for unparalleled corrosion resistance in climates from coast to coast. This attention to detail goes into all Fortress Building Products, from railings to decks to fences.