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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Aluminum Railings Vs. Cable Railings for Modern Apartment Complexes

I was in college when a brand-new luxury apartment complex was completed downtown. One year later, when I visited the property, the balcony railings had already 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 spots around.

Since I have experience in railings, the building’s property manager 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 she didn’t like the aesthetic. 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 specific 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, marine-grade steel.
  • The major drawback of cable is that cable railing systems often rely on tensioners to remain taut. Over time and without regular adjustment, these can loosen, leaving the railings slack. Loose cables are a code violation and could become a safety issue for tenants.
  • However, cable railing systems are available that don’t have these tensioners, and these 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, offering a similar strength for 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. However, aluminum’s protective patina is white, and can sometimes 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. Overall, 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 that don’t require 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 I mentioned is a high-rise, offering exclusive views to some of its residents, especially on higher floors. With their narrow cable balusters, cable railings are among the best railings to make the most of a view. 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 some, this might create concerns that they’re too trendy, and won’t be a timeless style. In my opinion, though, cable railings have a subtle look that recedes into the background while also feeling modern and upscale.

Aluminum railings, while offering less openness, are certainly tried and true. Their style and appeal is considered a bit more neutral or timeless, and can feel like a safer aesthetic choice.

In the case of this building, the manager opted for aluminum railings as the safe choice, though I argued that either option could feel safe – so 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 you’re looking for commercial-quality, highly durable and stylish railings, take a look at the aluminum railings from Fortress Building Products. 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 doesn’t depend on 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.


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