Aluminum Strength – Is Your Iron Guy Hiding Something?

Tallest Skyscraper in Europe Constructed with Aluminum Façade

Aluminum Strength vs Iron Strength. What’s this all about and how important is it?

(Please note that “iron” in the fence industry is the popular name for “steel”. Iron is an element. Hundreds and thousands of years ago, people made fences from raw iron. Technically “steel” would be any of several alloys of iron and a handful of other elements brought together to better influence a property of iron. They developed these over the years. These properties would include its strength, how ductile it is, corrosion resistance, etc. All iron fences and gates are actually steel. Iron evolved and changed to steel, but fence manufacturers kept with tradition, and have continued to call their fences iron.)

There’s a lot of iron fence and gate companies out there that feel threatened by the rise in popularity of aluminum as an outdoor building material. Sometimes their salespeople aren’t completely honest in their presentations. Some of them (not all) will withhold information, devaluate the importance of some information.  Occaisionally, some will outright lie in order to get a sale through.

We are going to devote a series of articles about these deceptions. Once you are aware of them, you’ll be able to see them in their presentations or sales arguments, and you’ll be able to resolve these situations.

Before I go on, I’ll note that there certainly are honest and transparent people in the iron fence industry. When you bring up these things to such people, they’ll acknowledge and you’ll see they understand. A dishonest iron person is more likely to be evasive around this information. You’ll likely be able to sense it.

Half-Truth and Withholding information About Aluminum Strength

We know a lot about custom building iron gates and fences. We built them for years, and have all the know-how. The installations you see here are a small sampling of what we manufactured and installed since 1994. Here’s a small sample of the wood gates and fences we created over the same time period.

You don’t always get “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” from an iron fence and gate guy.

The half-truth they’ll likely tell you: Iron guys will tell you that “Iron is stronger than aluminum and is, therefore, a better fence material.”

The full-truth they’re likely to be ignorant of or will withhold: The strength of the steel used in fence making is pretty equal to the strength of aluminum that is used in fence making. But, in fairness, most iron guys are pretty ignorant of aluminum fence, although they might pretend not to be!

Both steel fence and aluminum fences are made from materials of just about equal strength. No one is going to buy the strongest alloy of either material as it is not warranted in a fence.

People buy fencing as they are a deterrent to crime, and at that they are effective. In the rare times that there is a person who is intent on getting past a gate or fence, it is almost never by the use of force, so that strength would be important. Criminals will either get the key to the gate or figure out a way around it! It’s pretty much only in the movies where we see people using force to destroy a fence or gate to gain entry.

Practical Strength Requirement

Whether you get a residential iron or aluminum fence today, you are getting a fence or gate of comparable strength. We can make iron and aluminum gates of thicker material, and if you want a more “solid feel” to either material, that could be an excellent investment, but it is unlikely to be actually necessary.

There are different alloys of aluminum and different alloys of steel. There are very few fences made from the highest strength steel alloy or the highest strength aluminum alloy. That’s just due to it not being necessary. Past a practical amount, you don’t need greater strength in a fence or gate material and you waste resources and money. The military and governments use those fences that are made from the strongest stuff, and (maybe) some drug lord in South America!

But, just to “flex our aluminum muscles” here a bit, let’s show you, throughout this article, a few examples of aluminum doing some very impressive work in the strength department.

The aluminum Bradley Ingantry Fighting Vehicle
“…The XM723 weighed 21 tons, had spaced aluminum armor proof against 14.5 mm fire… (Michael Green & James D. Brown (2007). M2/M3 Bradley at War. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press. ISBN 978-0-7603-2523-0.)
the new, tilting “Pendolinotype” commuter trains.
The weight reduction enabled by the use of aluminum is a critical design factor in the new, tilting “Pendolinotype” commuter trains. “Pendolino” is an Italian word meaning “pendulum.”

An Objective Look from an Independent Source on Steel and Aluminum

The following is an excerpt from the article, Steel Versus Aluminum in Industrial Construction, from Construction Executive Website. I have italicized and given footnotes to the information I feel is most pertinent to fencing and gates. Ellipses (…) show a deletion of data that I considered irrelevant, but I’m supplying the link if you care to get all the information in context.

Steel has always ruled when it comes to industrial and construction equipment. Steel is strong and when you bend or weld it, it becomes stronger yet. However, steel is heavy and tends to corrode with road chemicals. There has been a push of late to reduce vehicle weight and reduce corrosion on equipment caused by road chemicals. One solution to these problems is the more extensive use of aluminum components.

The Two Main Advantages of Aluminum

The two main advantages of aluminum, when used in industrial equipment, are weight reduction and corrosion resistance.

Steel is two-and-a-half times denser than an equivalent aluminum item. So, for a 100-pound piece of steel industrial equipment, the same part made from the same thickness of aluminum will only weigh 40 pounds. This can be a huge advantage when a manufacturer’s goal is to reduce the overall weight of a piece of equipment. There are other factors that must be considered, but size for size, aluminum wins in the weight category.

this cast aluminum jack stand weighs less than 8 lbs but can hold up as much as 6400 lbs.
this cast aluminum jack stand weighs less than 8 lbs but can hold up as much as 6400 lbs.

There are aluminum classes, such as 6000- and 7000-series aluminum, that offer wonderful strength characteristics. These series of aluminum can be used in structural members when designed properly. An example may be a custom-designed aluminum extrusion that increases material thickness to support higher stress loads. This allows for “material-where-needed” engineering. The cost, however, of these series of aluminum may be prohibitive to many applications. (Note that Mulholland uses exclusively alloys in the 6000 series. The cost of these is not prohibitive to fencing.)

 

Ok, so, hopefully, your careful reading of this helps reveal the truth about an important aspect of discussion: the importance of material strength and fencing.

Steel has its uses in construction. There are situations where it is the desired material. But the strength requirements of typical fencing and gates are such that steel is not favored. Aluminum is the better choice in that the strength is comparable and adequate. Aluminum is the better material in that the maintenance requirements are so much less.