3 Ways to Avoid Tea Staining with Stainless Steel Railings

May 3, 2021

From the versatility to aesthetics to affordability and eco-friendliness, it is truly no wonder how stainless steel has become one of the leading materials utilized in nearly all aspects of the construction industry today. Created from a medley of iron, carbon, and chromium elements, this alloy is paraded and praised for being one of the most corrosion-resistant substances known to man.

Perhaps one of its top selling points is that the upkeep with this particular medium is relatively low, saving consumers a lot of time, money, and effort in the long run. However, when the incorrect grade is installed, or the steel does not undergo routine maintenance, it will not be totally impervious to discoloration, corrosion, and ultimately, rust.

But how does something with “stainless” in the name, stain, or worse –rust?

Stainless Steel With Tea Staining
Well, as most of us know, metal rusts and stainless steel is made up of metals that can and do corrode. When exposed to the “right” conditions over a period of time, the metal alloy bonds in the stainless steel break down. It starts with a slight discoloration often known as “tea staining,” and interestingly enough, those who live within a 15-mile radius of coastal regions are particularly at risk of this sort of corrosion as salt water and high humidity have been identified as a major cause, but it can happen anywhere. What’s more, not only does tea-staining look displeasing, it is the tale-tale sign that your stainless steel is on its way to becoming irreversibly corroded and rusty.

Fortunately, this issue has been studied extensively and plenty of solutions to delay –and possibly even reverse– the negative effects of tea staining do exist.

Best of all, keeping your steel stainless doesn’t have to be difficult, and these three simple tips listed below will help you avoid and identify common mistakes with stainless steel upkeep.

1) Choose the appropriate grade

There are many “grades” of stainless steel, and each of them has different lifetime expectations depending upon their Pitting Resistance Equivalent (PRE) rating.

Chromium is the element that gives stainless steel its rust resistance, so the PRE is determined by the quality of the chromium oxide used to coat the steel. The element, in turn, resists the most common causes of corrosion. Better resistance equates to a higher PRE rating, and ultimately, a higher grade of stainless steel. For example, someone residing in a humid, coastal area may have to use a higher PRE grade of stainless steel to get the same longevity as someone using a lower grade steel in a non-coastal area.

Though a high PRE rating doesn’t mean that the steel is entirely maintenance-free, it does offer a more hands-off option as you let the chromium oxide do the majority of the work for you.

It is important to note that the chromium oxide is the first line of defense for stainless steel, and depending on how the steel is treated will determine how long –and well– the chromium oxide holds up against corrosion, which brings us to the next point.

2) Keep up on maintenance

Maybe it is not feasible for you to change the grade of your stainless steel features after the fact, but all hope is not lost. With proper maintenance, including washing, waxing, and applying steel-specific oils, even the lowest of grades of this alloy can remain relatively free from stains and rust.

There are many cleaners specifically made for cleaning stainless steel that can be purchased easily at most stores that have a kitchen or home department. However, it should be noted that some of the waxes and oils can attract dirt and dust, which will need to be wiped off and taken care of accordingly. In addition to scheduled maintenance, rinsing contaminates from the steel’s surface immediately after contact is highly recommended.

Avoid scrubbing any of the steel surfaces with scratchy materials like steel wool or wire brushes to keep the steel’s chromium oxide barrier intact. It’s also wise to refrain from allowing abrasive objects such as jewelry (rings and bracelets in particular) from scraping against the surface of your stainless steel features, as they are known to cause both deep and surface scratches that can damage the chromium barrier.

If you are not comfortable inspecting and maintaining your steel fixtures, you may choose to hire a contractor or metal specialist in your area to perform your conservation efforts.

3) Avoid known corrosive substances

Out of all railing materials available to architects, stainless steel is the strongest and most durable. To prove this, let’s take a look at its tensile strength compared to aluminum. Tensile strength is measured as force per unit area, and in the International System of Units (SI), the unit is the “pascal” (Pa); a multiple is called “megapascal,” or MPa. The ultimate strength for stainless steel is 590 MPa versus that of 300 MPa for 6061-T6 aluminum.

With a fatigue performance that is twice as great as aluminum, a stainless steel railing will provide many more years of safe, aesthetically pleasing use than an aluminum system.

Stainless steel may resist many chemicals, but not all. Salt and bleach, which both contain chloride ions, are two of the most common corrosive substances to come in contact with stainless steel. As stated above, those in coastal regions are at a heightened risk of experiencing this type of corrosion due to the salty, humid air. Regular waxing and wiping can delay this particular problem, but the only real solution to the problem is avoiding salty air altogether.

Additionally, sulphuric and hydrochloric acids are known to corrode stainless steel with prolonged contact, both of which are a known byproduct of pollution and acid rain. Even human sweat can contain some contaminants that could corrode the substance. Excessive exposure to high heat or low oxygen levels, such as in areas with tight cracks and crevices, will surely leave the metal at a heightened risk of staining and rusting.

Stainless steel may not be completely stainless, but it remains to be one of the best materials around. Prolonging the life of your stainless steel fixtures does not have to be a complicated or costly endeavor.

If by chance, you do notice discoloration or rust already appearing on your stainless steel fixtures, it is imperative to take care of the problem as soon as possible before further damage is done. When caught early, tea staining may be reversible, or at the very least, delayed. Alternatively, if it’s left without treatment, the metal will likely continue to deteriorate to a point beyond repair, and a complete replacement will be the only feasible solution.

LEARN MORE – GRECO designs, engineers, manufactures, and installs architectural railings and engineered metal products throughout Canada and the United States. To learn more about what we do and how we do it, visit www.grecorailings.com