Aluminum or Steel Stairs: Which Metal Makes Better Stairs?

It's safe to say that stairs play a pretty important role in any construction project, however, they are often ignored and tacked on at the very end. While doing so may seem like common sense in the moment, a poorly designed or implemented staircase can actually entail major costs down the road.

After all, aluminum/steel stairs and other platforms handle a lot of traffic and carry a lot of weight. A flimsy material can lead to maintenance costs, or even worse, injuries. Meanwhile, the time and expense of installation vary much based on the material.

These factors are even more important in an industrial setting. Most businesses of this type employ metal stairs, with the two most popular materials being steel and aluminum. Metallic installations are resistant to rot, pests, weather damages, and do not shift or expand with the temperature. But which material is better?

Well, the answer to that question is usually situational. What is the material’s intended use? There are several key differences between steel and aluminum that make each one suitable for different situations.

One of the primary factors is cost, both in terms of upfront installment expenses and long-term maintenance.

Corrosion is the main disadvantage of steel stairsPros of Steel Stairs

Steel is less expensive, being an alloy that must be forged rather than mined. In terms of bulk, you can get more steel than aluminum for the same amount of money. However, there are other factors at play that may influence the final bill.

For example, steel is heavier than aluminum, which complicates transportation. However, for many, the resilience of steel more than makes up the weight. Steel is unrivaled in terms of strength and durability, making a steel stair the ideal choice for an environment with heavy equipment around or high weight loads.

Depending on the setting, aesthetic can also play a factor in which material you choose. Carbonized, also called stainless, steel tends to be shiny with a hint of silver on the surface.

Cons of Steel Stairs

However, just because steel can take more of a beating doesn’t necessarily mean it’s got the longest lifespan.

The luster of steel has a certain appeal to it, though that may be mitigated by the dangers of rust, which can only be warded off with a coat of paint.

Steel will eventually begin to corrode and rust, especially in an environment that’s extraordinarily moist or damp. Typically, steel needs to be treated with a special paint to prevent this from happening, increasing both time and cost. Even in a best-case scenario, this paint is likely to peel or chip through normal wear and tear and will need to be retouched regularly to keep the installation secure. The most popular brand of rust protection for many years was a zinc-based paint. However, this paint is susceptible to sulfur fumes produced by burning fossil fuels. Installations located in densely populated or high traffic areas quickly dissolved, exposing the vulnerable metal underneath and hastening the rusting process.

It’s also worth noting that resiliency is not always a benefit. Extremely tough, rigid metals like steel are often not particularly flexible. This makes them a poor choice for large installations or ones that have to conform to unusual angles and shapes. No matter it’s the strength if stretched or twisted too far, steel will snap.

Pros of Aluminum Stairs

Aluminum stairs can withstand harsh elementsIn contrast to steel, aluminum is much lighter. It means that while it’s more expensive to purchase, it is also cheaper to transport and install. This lighter mass also makes an aluminum stairway more adaptable, perfect for mobile installations that may need to be adjusted or transported from one location to another.

And while steel is rigid and resilient, aluminum is highly malleable and flexible. These qualities allow the material to be spun out into a wide variety of different shapes and sizes while still retaining its sturdiness.

Aluminum is more cost-effective not just because of its lightweight but also because of its longevity. It is because aluminum naturally possesses a stable oxide layer, about 4 nm thick. This layer protects the metal from rust or corrosion. This means that while it’s more likely to dent or buckle due to impact or extreme weight, aluminum requires less maintenance and upkeep than steel installations, which resist physical damage but can be worn down over time.

Another positive is that the oxide layer forms adhesive bonds easily, making aluminum easier to glue or paint than other metals.

Cons of Aluminum Stairs

The trade-off here it that aluminum is less sturdy than steel, though it is still reliable for most purposes.

In terms of appearance, it tends to have a grayish hue to it. This is due to the oxide layer, which dulls the metallic shine somewhat. Aluminum’s malleable surface resists oxidation but is more vulnerable to nicks and scratches.

Aluminum also costs more per unit, though it is cheaper to transport and easier to build with.

Why is Aluminum Better?

When choosing the type of metal for your industrial platforms and stairs, it’s essential to consider the environment and intended purpose as well as the over-all cost.

For example, steel is the best bet if you plan to be moving heavy equipment and cargo around. However, if you expect your stairs to be transporting only people, in reasonable numbers, then aluminum should be your choice. It costs more per unit but is cheaper to transport and install, plus it can be constructed to fit a variety of shapes, from winding stairwells to a simple step platform. It also requires lesser maintenance schedule, thanks to its natural corrosive resistant layer, meaning your aluminum metal stairs can withstand weather elements and can last almost a lifetime even if it is installed outdoors.

Sustainability of Metal Stairs

Many businesses nowadays are becoming more environmentally conscious, which means sustainability may be a major factor in determining which metal to use.

In general, both steel and aluminum are considered highly sustainable, since, with proper care, they can be reused and recycled almost indefinitely.

That being said, oxidation plays a significant role in how reuseable the metal is and what the process is for recycling it. As a result, aluminum offers a considerable advantage in the sustainability field, though steel is still a viable option as long as it is properly maintained.

So remember, plan ahead and consider your over-all needs early on in the design process. That way, you can estimate your staircase cost effectively and integrate that number into your working budget.