Building along the coast requires grappling with four things: salt, water, wind, and sand. This combination of elements corrodes and breaks down pretty much any material, including fencing. Having spent the better part of a decade building on the coast, and another decade working inland, I’ve seen firsthand what a big difference being near the ocean makes. Outdoor structures installed on the coast in the same year as structures inland often look and perform as though they’re twice as old. While many people love the grayed, weathered wood of coastal buildings and fences, there are just as many homeowners who long for structures--fencing in particular--that will retain a fresh and new appearance for longer, and will stay solid and reliable for years without continuous maintenance.
Coastal Weathering: What You’re Dealing With
It’s obvious to most people that building on the coast brings with it a specific set of challenges. That’s because of a few key elements that the ocean provides. Each of these, alone, can speed up weathering, but together they are a force that can do damage to almost any material.
- Salt: When materials are exposed to salt corrosion, their surfaces are weathered by both its physical and chemical characteristics. Metal structures are particularly sensitive to the weathering power of salt. While water is the main accelerating force leading to rust, the ions in salt lead to chemical reactions that increase the speed of corrosion even further. These reactions are slowed by the presence of zinc.
- Sand: One theory of how the ancient Egyptians quarried blocks for their monuments, like the pyramids, was that they used sand guided copper saws to carve out blocks of stone. That this is actually possible is a testament to the weathering power of sand. While naturally, windblown sand lacks the concentrated force of sandblasting or using sandpaper, the everyday pounding of sand blown by wind can damage finishes and even wear away paint.
- Spray: Within this discussion, spray really translates as “more water”. Not only does ocean spray contain its fair share of salt, it also causes structures near the shore to get wetter more often than they would farther inland. It goes without saying that moisture resistance is essential when building on the coast.
So what does all this mean for your fence? It means that some materials may not last under coastal conditions at all, some may hold up but need frequent rinsing, sanding, coating, or other maintenance, and others--materials with enough protection--may look good for years without too much fuss.
The Best Fencing for Coastal Areas
Whatever fence material you choose for your oceanside fence, protection is always a game of keeping the elements off of the actual core material of the fence. Here are the best (in my opinion) contenders for an oceanside-friendly fence, and their pros and cons:
- Cedar and Redwood: Due to their natural moisture resistance, cedar and redwood are highly popular materials for coastal fence building. But that doesn’t mean that these woods don’t need protection from salt, sand, and sun. On the coast, even cedar and redwood need to be stained or painted, and restained and repainted on a regular schedule. I’ve had clients who don’t mind this, but for many, this is not a feasible option since the paints and stains designed to stand up to a coastal climate can be extremely expensive--often exceeding $100 per gallon. Wood fences also aren’t generally the best choice if you’re looking for a fence that doesn’t block the view. If you’re looking to preserve an ocean view, a steel or low vinyl picket may be more up your alley.
- Vinyl: Higher quality vinyl fencing can perform fairly well in the conditions of the coast. Being plastic, the majority of the fence won’t be affected by moisture, and can be tough against the salt and sand if well made. The weakness of vinyl fencing is in the fasteners. In my experience, the basic galvanized steel hardware often used on these systems is insufficiently protected from corrosion. Unless it has another coating such as a powder coat or e-coat, all hardware used along the coast should be made of stainless steel.
- Steel: In the past, steel has been a poor choice for coastal fencing, unless one wants to become a rust farmer. Rust is the biggest drawback of steel, and as was already mentioned, the presence of salt makes this tendency worse. That said, there are some notable exceptions to this rule. With multiple high-quality coatings, steel can be an extremely practical choice for fencing along a coast. A heavy coating of galvanization is important, but not enough. Even adding a powder coat won’t do enough if you’re looking to install the fence in a coastal area. For a steel fence that really lasts, my advice is to seek out a manufacturer that uses several coatings for redundant protection from moisture and UV.
Given the choice of these fencing materials, I will usually choose wood or galvanized steel over vinyl. While vinyl can be a great choice along with sturdy stainless hardware, many of my clients are seeking a more natural-looking material. The choice between wood and steel, however, is more about maintenance. A well-protected galvanized steel fence will trump most wooden structures when it comes to maintenance, as it won’t require the cleaning and repainting that wooden structures typically demand. This makes it, in my opinion, one of the best fences for use in wet areas such as locations near the coast.
If steel is your material of choice, I strongly recommend the steel fencing systems produced by Fortress Building Products. Their fences are provided with an e-coating (a super moisture-resistant coating used by automakers to protect the underbodies of cars), an extra layer of zinc, and a premium powder coating to create a fence built to last through just about anything. For more building materials that skillfully combine style and durability, I also recommend taking a look through Fortress’ larger catalog of building products, like fencing and decking.