I was in college when a brand new luxury apartment complex downtown was completed. It was the most luxurious address in the city, and when a girl I went to class with expressed interest in the place, I managed to score both of us a viewing in order to impress her, even though there was no way either of us would ever be able to afford a unit in the place. I blame this incident for her present career as the manager of an even newer luxury high-rise a little to the north of the one we viewed together. She made it a point to invite me to the grand opening of the place.
A year later, when I visited her again, the balcony railings had started to rust. They were custom fabricated for the complex by a local company and were made of perforated metal welded to square tubing and painted turquoise. They lacked any sort of additional rust protection beyond the paint, and a year later, even after they were repainted, were an embarrassment to what was supposed to be one of the most enviable addresses around. Since I have experience in railings, she sought my advice about installing balcony railings that wouldn’t need painting or at least wouldn’t rust. She rejected my suggestion of steel because the steel railings she had started with had rusted, and because (and I quote), “Steel is too dark.” She narrowed it down to aluminum railings vs. cable railings to replace her expensive custom ones.
Comparing the Durability of Aluminum and Cable
When made by a quality manufacturer, both aluminum and stainless steel cable railing systems are virtually maintenance free. Still, they each have advantages and disadvantages in different situations. We’ll run down a few of the major practical points you should know about these materials:
Cable railings are made of stainless steel cables stretched taut between rails.
- Stainless steel cables are left bare and this can be an advantage in terms of appearance and maintenance because there is no appearance coat that could become damaged.
- The stainless steel cables in cable railings are extremely corrosion resistant, especially when they’re made of high-quality, such as marine-grade, steel.
- The major drawback of cable is that many cable railing systems rely on external tensioners to remain taut and these can loosen without regular adjustment, leaving the railings slack. Loose cables are a code violation and could become a safety issue for tenants.
- However, cable railing systems that have hidden, internal tensioners are available and are the best choice for cable railing systems in large buildings and public places.
Aluminum railings are similar to basic steel railings in form but use a lighter metal for their structure.
- Aluminum has an advantage in weight compared to any iron-based metal structure, being significantly lighter. This makes these railings easier to transport and install and can result in significant money savings on both.
- Aluminum has excellent corrosion resistance. Aluminum oxide forms a protective layer over the rest of the metal, keeping it from corroding further. However, aluminum’s protective patina is white, and can create a spotted look in dark appearance coats.
- One disadvantage of aluminum is that it’s a softer metal than steel, and tenants can be hard on all parts of a building, including the railings. On the whole, though, this is more of an appearance issue than a structural or safety issue.
Potential issues with both aluminum and cable railings are well known, and well-built systems have taken these issues into account when designing the railings. There are cable railings use internal tensioners to stay taut and there are fully welded aluminum railing panels that are plenty strong. Since these two options are comparable on a practical level, the next thing my friend considered was aesthetics.
The Aesthetics of Aluminum Railings Vs. Cable Railings
The apartment complex my friend manages is very modern, very luxurious, very exclusive, and very new. The reason they opted for custom-built railings that didn’t last was to advertise these things in every detail. In this, cable railings have an advantage. With their narrow cable balusters, they are the best railings to make the most of a view, which is a definitive plus on downtown high-rises where the views of the skyline are a big selling point. These are also the sort of industrial chic railings that we tend to expect downtown.
Cable has a drawback in being very new to use in homes. Cable barriers have been used on bridges and as temporary guardrails on construction and industrial sites for a long time, but their use in upscale homes only goes back to 2012 or so. For my friend, this creates concerns that they’ll go out of style and she’ll need to explain why she had to request funds to replace the railings for the third time in just a few years. I don’t think this will happen. Rather than tiring the senses, cable railings have a subtle look that recedes into the background while at the same time reading as modern and upscale.
Aluminum railings don’t have cable railing’s openness. They are tried and true and have a look that has appealed for decades–centuries, if you count wrought iron and steel railings with the same basic form. You could call their appeal timeless. That isn’t something to be discounted when the building in question is a new apartment complex in a crowded downtown that may take twenty years to make back the money it took to build it. For the first couple of years, the building may trade on the excitement of the new, but in ten it will need to keep drawing people in because living there is truly luxurious.
My friend opted for aluminum railings as the safe choice, though I argued that either option was a safe choice as long as she chose a high-quality manufacturer. Still, I think she and the building’s tenants will be happy for a long time with the aluminum railings she chose. If, like my friend, you’re looking for commercial-quality, highly durable and stylish railings, take a look at the aluminum railings from Fortress Railing. They’re carefully engineered with strong welds and a high-quality powder coat to protect them from moisture and UV damage.
Fortress also offers a marine-grade stainless steel cable railing system that uses hidden tensioners to keep the cables taut. This kind of careful engineering to prevent maintenance issues is the cornerstone of Fortress Building Products’ design philosophy, and can be seen in their other products, such as bamboo-based composite decking and fencing.