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Industry Evolution

When the largest oceangoing luxury liner of its time set sail to the open sea, the Titanic was believed by most to be constructed of the very finest materials available. It is now known that the steel used for its hull did not have the tensile strength to withstand an encounter with a large chunk of ice, that notorious iceberg. 1500 people paid dearly for that lack of technical knowledge.

Steel is an indispensable, scientifically advanced product. We could not enjoy many of the modern conveniences and buildings that exist today. Steel is still widely used in ship construction despite the Titanic experience. Why? Because the correct grade and type of steel in the right application does work. Although not as tragic, some have purchased “Plastic” railing for use on their buildings structures, believing it to be the right product, structurally sound and “maintenance free”, only to discover that it fails to meet their expectations. The problem? Some Engineers, Architects, Managers, Board and Association members are specifying railing based on misconceptions and prejudices that have not kept pace with the evolution of the industry. Just like the Titanic, the wrong material is sometimes used. A discerning Architect or Engineer would never specific a residential light duty product when the demands of the project require a system for more extreme commercial use. A rail system suitable for the average family patio should never be used in a commercial application subject to abuse by people, the environment and other load conditions. Whereas the wrong grade and quality of steel was the culprit with the Titanic, the wrong type and quality of plastic have left many with failed, broken, and often dangerous railing.

While steel can be the best material for ocean going vessels, so can plastic be for railing. However, like steel it must be the “right” plastic for the application. Let me explain. While steel is available in many different grades and qualities, so are plastics. To conclude that all plastics are equal would be the same as accepting tickets for a cruise on the sister ship to the Titanic, set to sail in the iceberg infested north Atlantic! While most give little thought to plastics, try to imagine a world today without them. Plastics are used in every industry imaginable. The types of plastics are as numerous as their uses. The same plastic that you wrap your sandwich in or put your garbage in would not work as a computer housing or bumper on your car. It would be close-minded to conclude that a plastic doesn’t exist that can truly offer us a maintenance free, safe and beautiful railing system. It is important that we understand the differences in plastic compounds if we want to make the correct decisions when specifying or purchasing handrail.

Plastics are a marvel of technology. When properly formulated, plastics can satisfy any cosmetic, structural or maintenance need inclusive of Railing. Railing is a commodity, so prolific in use that it often goes unnoticed unless it’s missing, in need of repair or replacement. So the questions; what is the right type and quality of plastics to be used in railing. What plastic resin and compound will offer a product that will not fail under UV rays or other extreme conditions?

The most common and familiar plastic known to most is PVC or polyvinyl chloride. PVC is a marvelous product when used appropriately. For example, when used to run water through, as in your indoor plumbing or underground sprinkler system, it has few equals. However when exposed to the elements, we have all seen what eventually happens to your outdoor furniture or any other product made from PVC left exposed. When long term weatherabilty and strength is needed then something other the PVC resins are required.

Systematic research, time and experience has helped scientists identify plastic formulas that do offer characteristics needed for outdoor use and abuse. We have all seen examples of this. The “red” taillights on your car, the bumpers, moldings, etc. all withstand the elements. Outdoor signage in every color imaginable likewise provide decades of not fading service. This plastic is Acrylonitrile Styrene Acrylate or ASA. ASA is a type of acrylic. It is being specified in major stadiums, entertainment parks, public transportation centers, hotels and other commercials facilities and anywhere liability and cosmetics are a factor. Informed engineers and architects are using ASA.

When thinking of what railing system to use in your design or remodeling, add to your research the advantages inherent with ASA. When ASA is used as part of the rail “system” it offers longevity, functionality, and will add to the appearance of any structure.

Obviously there is more to know about ASA and its application to railing. Types of ASA, their co-use with other types of plastics, proper fabrication and internal support methods all contribute to the manufacture of a quality railing. We will leave that portion for a future discussion.