A Look at Railing Materials
A building without some form of guardrail or handrail is almost non-existent. The railing can barely be noticeable or it may be a major architectural statement. The purpose of railing however, extends far beyond just being cosmetic; it is a life safety issue. Can you imagine yourself several stories in the air on a walkway or relaxing on a balcony without the protection offered by a railing system? Aside from the safety that a properly engineered system infers, a well-designed railing will enhance your property’s value. However, if allowed to deteriorate, it will have the opposite effect.
Because railing is such a necessity, and often so visible, it is important that anyone considering which type of railing to use becomes familiar with the different materials traditionally used to fabricate railing systems. Each will have pros and cons. The areas that must be considered when selecting which type of railing system to specify can be grouped in the following categories:
- Style and Ascetics
- Strength and Durability
- Cost and Maintenance
Style is subjective and highly personal. Most systems are offered in several styles in order to accommodate varying design intents. We will assume that you’ll purchase a railing system that adds to the building aesthetics. The same is true in the area of strength. Any system specified must meet stringent building code requirements. You should always choose a railing system that exceeds those code requirements. Be cautious. Some rail systems claim to meet code but have not been tested by an independent and certified accredited testing facility. Additional concerns emerge when cheaper materials are used that may meet code for a short time when originally installed. However, as soon as time and the elements go to work, the materials lose that safety factor. Be concerned too, about a style that looks good, only to become an eyesore when the same corrosive and otherwise damaging exterior elements start taking their toll. As is common with many products, most rail systems come in a good, better and best grade. Be astute in this area. The rail system that reduces maintenance and lasts longer will end up being less expensive than the one that requires costly and continuing upkeep to look attractive and preserve safety.
Railing is a necessity but it’s also a commodity. It’s everywhere and often goes unnoticed unless it’s missing or has failed. There are multiple styles, types and materials available. The materials most commonly used to manufacture railing are:
Wood: Wood can look good and be strong, for a time. Depending on the wood selected, it can have low upfront costs, but long term maintenance and replacement costs need to be factored. Proper design will meet code. You should remember that with time, maintenance and insect infestation would occur. Both will happen and will prove to be expensive. Certain climates, especially coastal communities, are very destructive to most types of wood and therefore not the best choice.
Wrought Iron/Steel: The same is true with wrought iron and steel, both of which are widely used in the railing industry. Each can be strong, attractive and designed to be as decorative as your budget will allow. The negatives to metal are mainly in the areas of rust. With rust comes a loss of strength and a deterioration of appearance. Care must be given to the quality of the particular product and its finish. Getting what you pay for is true in this industry as well as others. Large sums of money can be invested in galvanizing and paint systems to prolong and protect the system. However, an eventuality that cannot be escaped is that in time expensive maintenance and replacement will occur. Did you know… Rust will begin to occur after only 4 days once a metal railing system is exposed to the elements?
Aluminum: Aluminum doesn’t rust like steel or iron, but it most definitely corrodes if the system isn’t coated and protected properly. It can be a cost effective, low maintenance solution when carefully selected. Understanding the finish grades being offered is key to long term low maintenance. Asking how the system will be finished (powder coat or wet paint) and the grade, warranty and life expectancy of the finish will save you money on refinishing and maintenance in the long run.
Thermoplastic/Vinyl: Plastics have come a long way since first inception into the building industry. Depending on the resins and processes used, today’s plastics are resistant to UV radiation, salt spray corrosion and atmospheric changes making it a cost effective, low or no maintenance alternative. Properly formulated thermoplastic railing should not be confused with PVC plumbing pipe. PVC plumbing pipe is a great product for running water through but as we all know, it cannot meet the needs of a UV radiation resistant, structural railing system.
Thermoplastic can be formulated in just about any color and does not have the same fading and chipping problems of paint, simply because there is no paint or finish to reapply; but like metal railing there are designs that should be avoided, such as any system that has glued seams or fittings. These types of systems allow water to freely enter the railing and in turn the structure it is attached to. You want to also look for a railing system that is fully reinforced and carries proof of code compliance.
Whichever railing material type you ultimately choose, do some homework first and educate yourself on the manufacturing processes and warranties being provided. Ask questions that relate to water infiltration, such as weep holes and fasteners used. Understand the performance of the finish and how it relates to your area of the country. These questions will help guide you to the right decision for your project and offer the best solution for years to come.