Steel is the best material of choice for glass railing systems, but the huge differences in types of steel can be surprising. This is what you need to know for determining the best material for your next custom railing system project.
In the design and manufacture of railing systems, three types of steel dominate:
- Carbon steel
- Grade 304 stainless steel
- Grade 316 stainless steel
Whether you choose carbon or stainless steel for a railing system, you should take your application and total cost of ownership in consideration before deciding the material to be used, along with the following factors:
- The environment in which the railing system is to be placed,
- The amount of traffic the railing is expected to bear,
- Expected maintenance level,
- Project budget and so on.
- Carbon steel rail system
Advantages: rugged, durable, lower prices.
Disadvantages: low corrosion-resistance
Best for: indoor railing systems
Maintenance: the surface should be protected with paints and other materials
Carbon steel contains up to 2% carbon and is hard and strong. It is the least expensive of the three main steels used in railing systems and is best suited for indoor use with minimal exposure to environmental contaminants.
However, unlike stainless steel, carbon steel has a low corrosion resistance, which means a protective layer is required. The most popular method of protection is powder coating, which prevents corrosion and is available in a variety of colors.
Although carbon steel is a cheap option, it does require regular maintenance to keep it in an optimal condition. The maintenance of the carbon steel railing system should include frequent checks for overall wear, and exposure of bare carbon steel surface should be avoided which can, without proper maintenance, rust and corrode rapidly. Poor maintenance of carbon steel railing systems can lead to costly repairs or repaints, and thus should be avoided if the budget is adequate.
- 304 stainless steel handrail system
Advantages: resistance to common rust and corrosion
Disadvantages: susceptible to corrosion in chlorinated or saline environment
Best for: indoor or protected railings and non-harsh outdoor environments
Maintenance: they should be washed regularly with soap and water
Stainless steel is easier to maintain and does not require a protective coating, but is usually more costly than the carbon alternatives. While considering stainless steel options, it should be noted that although more than fifty stainless steel options are available today, professional-grade railing systems typically use either 304 or 316 stainless steel.
304 stainless steel is usually used for indoor applications. If color is required, it will readily accept a paint or powder coating, but this grade of steel generally does not require a protective coating and finishes ranging from satin to more elaborate options such as mirrors can be used instead. In addition to aesthetics, these finishes are practical; for example, satin finishes are easy to maintain, while mirror finishes are extremely resistant to corrosion. In addition to indoor applications, 304 stainless steel can also be used in outdoor environments that are not too harsh or extreme, or in places where the railing system needs to be protected from the environment.
The 304 stainless steel rail system is easier to maintain than the carbon steel system. For maintenance, it requires only rubbing it with soap and water regularly. Although the price of 304 stainless steel is higher than that of carbon steel, much less maintenance and upkeep is required. This material is ideal for indoor applications that require aesthetics and low maintenance.
- 316 stainless steel handrail system
Advantages: highest corrosion resistance.
Disadvantages: high prices.
Best for: outdoor or extreme environments and industrial applications.
Maintenance: almost no maintenance is required.
Regardless of the grade, the chromium in stainless steel resists corrosion when it interacts with the surrounding air. It oxidizes to form a very stable protective layer, preventing further oxidation or rusting. This, however, does not mean that stainless steel does not rust and corrode at all. When used near swimming pools or in areas with perchlorate such as salt waters or exposed to the air in coastal areas, chromium does not always form a protective layer quickly.
Stainless steel 316 can cope with harsh environment because its nickel content is slightly higher and the molybdenum content of 2% can further enhance its corrosion resistance. In turn, these added alloys make 316 ideal for more durable materials needed for outdoor applications or places with harsh environmental factors. Similar to 304 stainless steel, 316 does not require any protective coating and a variety of surface treatments can be done to provide a suitable appearance for any application.
316 steels are the most popular choice for outdoor and industrial applications due to their reliable performance under harsh conditions. Although no material is completely resistant to corrosion, stainless steel 316 can withstand many years of use if maintained properly.
Interior railings are most affected by the volume and the type of traffic in their locations. It should not be assumed that cheap carbon steel is the best choice for indoor applications because although carbon steel systems may perform well in low-traffic environments, high-traffic indoor applications (such as airports, shopping malls, health care facilities or educational institutions) often require harder and easier to maintain materials. In many areas where hands may often slide along the railing, the usage of 304 stainless steel should be considered.
304 stainless steel may be the best choice for interior and exterior railing system designs – especially if the application is away from large amounts of salt water and is not exposed to extreme conditions. Although 304 stainless steel is usually used for indoor applications, it is also suitable for protected outdoor applications. If the customers want trouble-free railings on kerbs, 304 stainless steel also offers a wide variety of finishes with little or no regular maintenance.
For outdoor applications or in the presence of extreme temperatures or heavy rainfall or in coastal areas, 316 stainless steel is usually the best choice. For example, a railing system for a beachfront hotel would require 316 stainless steel exclusively to withstand the harsh conditions.
Choosing a cheaper material or finish can save money upfront, but can raise the costs long after the installation. In addition to installation costs, one should also consider future maintenance, cleaning and painting costs while choosing materials best suited for any application. One may also find that upgrading to better materials reduces the total cost of ownership