It's a busy world. I'm a bachelor, and between work, keeping up with friends and family, and trying to keep my car running, even I don't have a lot of time for home improvements and repair. When I get the opportunity to visit my friends with children, they always start off apologizing for how the place looks. I think it's ridiculous, because they have kids and somehow all their laundry still manages to make it onto a hanger or into a drawer. That's something I only manage every other week or so.
When it comes to their homes' exteriors, though, their busyness does begin to show. Paint cracks for months without anyone noticing, decks and sidewalks don't get swept, and railings rot or rust to the point of being unsafe. Most of it is purely cosmetic, but decayed railings on a family home is a serious safety risk, and it's important to be able to tell if your deck railing is safe. Low maintenance porch railings can keep a busy family's home looking presentable and keep the entire family from taking a tumble.
Why Wood Is Not Low Maintenance
Traditional porch railings are usually wholly, or at least partly, made of wood. In days of yore (isn’t that a great phrase?), this was because wood was the most easily available material, and often was the only material available. These days wood is used because it is the least expensive choice. Your typical pressure-treated lumber is usually southern pine, and it requires painting or sealing to retain its looks, and to avoid splitting, rotting, or becoming a meal for insects. Even if maintenance is performed regularly, areas of the railing may still rot and need to be replaced. Finding the time to paint or seal regularly is a challenge, and is nearly impossible for families like the ones I know. Due to all of these issues, wood definitely doesn’t make for low maintenance porch railings.
It's true that there are more exotic varieties of wood, like ipe, that are vastly denser than pine and thus more resistant to rot and insects. Ipe and other exotic woods, however, cost vastly more than your typical pine, and are too expensive and too difficult to work (ipe is so hard it requires special tools to drill into it) for most people to seriously consider it. Western Red Cedar is less exotic and is naturally loaded with antifungal and insect-repelling chemicals that make it last. Outside of the Pacific Northwest, though, its price increases and its availability decreases, making it impractical for most homeowners.
The Best Materials for Low Maintenance Porch Railings
In our modern world, metals like steel and aluminum are abundant materials and offer greater strength than wood at a price that is comparable to wood. Metal railings won't rot or mold, but metals do have issues with corrosion. Even aluminum can suffer damaging corrosion in the right circumstances. However, modern techniques of metalworking and modern coatings have made great strides in combating corrosion, making metals good building materials for a humid environment. A well-made wrought iron-look railing given a quality coating is virtually maintenance free. The same technology that makes this possible, along with other developments, has resulted in several different types of railings that can be considered low maintenance. Some railing types that take advantage of these improvements include:
- Steel railings: These have the look of wrought iron but none of the inconsistencies that plagued 19th-century wrought iron. Steelmaking has improved to the point that cars noticeably don’t rust like they used to. This is the result of pre-galvanizing and e-coating processes. When applied to steel railings, these coatings make for truly maintenance-free porch railings.
- Aluminum railings: These come in a form similar to steel railings, with a similar wrought iron look. Aluminum is commonly thought not to corrode, but in fact it does oxidize. It’s just that aluminum oxide forms a patina that protects the rest of the piece, except when aluminum is in contact with a dissimilar metal like zinc or steel. Then, galvanic corrosion can result, which damages the structure of the metal in a way similar to rust. However, modern coatings again help by keeping dissimilar metals apart and keeping moisture and oxygen from starting the reaction in the first place.
- Cable railings: These use stainless steel cables instead of balusters, and come in both wood- and steel-framed versions. The wood-framed versions suffer from all the issues of wood, but steel-framed versions benefit from material improvements. One drawback to these railings is that stainless steel cables rely on tensioners to pull them taut and can loosen over time. Systems that integrate or conceal the tensioners can reduce the need to regularly tighten the cables.
All of the above railings are modern, and through modern material sciences have a reduced need for cleaning, painting, and maintenance overall. These improvements aren't just aesthetic, but also increase the safety of anyone who may happen to lean against your railings.
But just because modern metals and manufacturing techniques have improved doesn't mean all metal railings are created equally. There have always been those manufacturers that cut corners when creating their products. The durability and reliability of metal railings depend on multiple layers of protection to prevent corrosion from setting in. Railings from manufacturers that skip a step won't have that same resilience. In other words, a bargain railing system that promises low maintenance likely won't be able to fulfill that promise. Instead, harried homeowners looking for low maintenance porch railings should look into systems that have multiple layers of corrosion protection and a close attention to detail and engineering.
One company that pays just this sort of attention to even seemingly small details is Fortress Railing, which offers steel, aluminum, and cable railings through their Fe26 iron railing, Al13 PLUS aluminum railing, and vertical cable railing systems. The Fe26 and cable railing systems both feature pre-galvanized and e-coated steel. All of Fortress' easy-to-install railings also feature a high-quality DuPont powder coating. This multi-layered defense against corrosion and maintenance is mirrored in Fortress' other product lines, including their e-coated and powder-coated steel fencing and their fully-capped composite decking.