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Aluminum Versus Steel
Steel or Aluminum for Your Commercial Vehicle Equipment?
September 18, 2017

If you’ve ever spent any amount of time on Expertec.ca, you know that nearly every item we install can be had in steel or aluminum.  Different manufacturers forecast different usage scenarios for their products, just like different companies have different requirements and clients to serve.

An electrical contractor may use very similar equipment to a phone or cable system installer, but the contractor may be out on unimproved roads or construction sites while the phone installer is more “at home” in the city and carries lighter, smaller equipment.  They may both drive the same van, but the overall weight and fuel economy they expect might be completely different.

As different, say, as aluminum and steel.

We hear it all the time – “which one is better?”

There’s no single answer for that, because every installation and customer of ours has different needs.

Let’s back up a little, though.  Aluminum weighs roughly 35% of a similar volume of steel, and, depending upon the alloys used, can rival steel in strength.  Now, to make aluminum as strong as steel requires some pretty high-dollar alloy, so, unless you’re flying a plane, most manufacturers expect an aluminum item to not be as strong a steel.  What does that mean in the real world?  Actually, very little.  If you take a hammer to a steel tool box, you’ll dent it.  Do the same to an aluminum tool box, and you’ll dent it, too.  You can most likely “pop” the dent out of the steel and never think about again, but you may or may not be so lucky to do so with the aluminum box.  The malleability of the steel doesn’t appreciable affect the strength of the steel, while it does with aluminum.

But how often do you hammer on your tool box?

No, the real advantage of aluminum is in the weight savings.  As fuel costs have continued to rise and the nature of fleet vehicles to idle or run for long periods of time on the jobsite has diminished, smaller, lighter vehicles have come to be used in many new roles and the usage of aluminum in interior panels, shelving, and even roof racks has become second nature.  Chevrolet and Ford use a tremendous amount of aluminum even in their new full sized trucks to save weight and that translates into better economy and higher payloads for smaller engines.

Of course, in the winter, salt on the roads leads to corrosion and while many people like aluminum due to its corrosion resistance, the truth is that salt eats up aluminum just as bad as it does steel, but the aluminum looks better oxidized than steel does rusted.  Make no mistake, both metals can be destroyed by road salt.  Steel can be painted or powder coated over to protect it and aluminum can be anodized or powder coated to afford it the same degree of protection.  Chrome looks nice, but still demands cleaning and polishing regularly to prevent rust.

Of course, stainless steel is available, too, and is often used in the fasteners that steel and aluminum products use.  Stainless looks great, is very low maintenance, and is stronger than aluminum.  By its very nature, stainless cannot be made as strong as most steel alloys, so, while there are limited applications for stainless out there, it doesn’t offer a good compromise between either aluminum or steel.  It’s not as light as one nor as strong as the other.  Of course, it is shiny…

So, should you choose steel or aluminum for your next upfit?

There is no “right” answer, but there are some guidelines.

  • Is weight a factor? If your vehicle is going to spend more time driving and less time hauling, and fuel economy is going to be important, then aluminum offers you the ability to squeeze in a little better fuel economy and a little more payload.  In the half-ton truck market, this could be a very important consideration if, from time to time, that vehicle might be pressed into duty hauling at the upper edge of its ratings.  At the same time, a small van like the Transit, with its four-cylinder powerplant, would respond better to aluminum components instead of steel.
  • How are you using it? A great example is the service body or a flatbed.  They are available in steel or aluminum, and offer a lot of benefits in both metals.  If you are building a “hauler” to exclusively tow a fifth-wheel, then the added strength of a steel bed is superfluous and an aluminum bed makes a lot of sense.  If your truck will be hauling everything from engine cores to welding rigs, then steel may offer a strength advantage.
  • A good piece of powder coated steel needs very little maintenance over the years.  Wash it, clean it, add in a little wax, and it will handle anything you throw at it.  Diamond-plate aluminum, on the other hand, does require some polishing and buffing to keep looking great.  Understanding how much time and effort that you have to put into a piece of equipment before you buy it can either seal the deal or squash it, so knowing how much time you are willing to spend on upkeep can be important for your purchase.
  • For many of our larger clients who outfit dozens or scores of vehicles, the decision also firmly rests with what they currently operate.  The interchangeability of many components allows them to be moved from one vehicle to another easily as new chassis are acquired or damaged ones are parted out.  If you’ve always used aluminum, then your decision may rest on your ability to easily fit it to other vehicles in your fleet.  Ultimately, steel is easier to cut and weld than aluminum and the equipment or skill needed to do so is in nearly every shop.  Aluminum is a whole different set of challenges, and that may very well drive a buying decision.

In the end, the products any company needs will inevitably be made out of steel and aluminum and the decision on which metal to use can hinge on any number of variables.  At Expertec, our advice has always been to tell us what your challenges are and let us help you to craft the solution that meets your needs.  Our chief aim in any upfit is to provide a solution far superior to a guess in a catalog and our experience working with both of these metals and their deployment in many different scenarios allows us to give you an expert opinion founded in the real world.