How to Choose the Right Railing Material for Cold Climates

Jan 10th 2019

Sometimes winter can seem like it’s out to get you. When I was a child, my mother fractured her wrist two separate times in the same winter after slipping on the icy sidewalk. When I think back on this, I wonder why she didn’t slip on our porch stairs, which were usually (unless my dad cleaned them off) covered in even more snow and ice. But I think the reason is that we had sturdy railings on those stairs—as long as you had a good grip on that handrail, you weren’t going anywhere.

For older adults, slips and falls on stairs are a leading cause of accidental death, and even for younger people, stairs are often linked to falls. Pile some ice and snow on the issue and there’s an even higher likelihood of taking a tumble on your stairs during the winter. That’s why you’ll want to make sure that your stair railing is secure and durable.

The Problems That Winter Brings

Winter can bring all sorts of home maintenance headaches. Ice, moisture, and salt can be pretty destructive, including to the railings on your outdoor stairways. Cover those damages up with a blanket of snow and it can be an accident waiting to happen.

The salt we use for deicing roadways and sidewalks can cause accelerated corrosion and rust in metal railings, and water from melted snow and ice can get into your stair’s hardware and corrode the components.

With wooden stair railing materials, water can seep into small existing cracks and then freeze and expand. The expanding ice then forces open small crevices to create larger cracks, which can grow over the course of the winter. This is often an issue in states like Wisconsin, where drastic temperature swings can bring 50°F degree weather down to freezing in just a few days.

Winter can also bring other, less critical problems, like making certain types of railings unpleasant to grab onto. If you’re avoiding holding on to your stair railings during the winter because they’re so cold, those railings aren’t able to do their job of keeping you safe on the stairs.

Where Do You Need to Install a Stair Railing?

While not all stairs are required to have railings (a set of stairs with fewer than 4 risers is not required by code to have a handrail), in climates with severe winters, it’s wise to install railings on all outdoor stairs.

This is especially true if you’re older or have elderly relatives living with you, since falls and slips have the potential to be much more dangerous to seniors. In fact, a large number of stair-related injuries are associated with stairs having just one or two steps.

Choosing a Material for Your Cold Climate-Friendly Railing

When it comes to choosing a material for your stair railing that will look attractive and stay strong no matter what winter brings, there are a few good options, though each has its own benefits and drawbacks. Some railing and baluster materials offer conveniences in terms of longevity and maintenance while others may exhibit a one-of-a-kind look.

  • High-quality metal stair railings have the advantage of being extremely long-lasting and durable no matter how hard the winter. Aluminum components are convenient because they won’t rust or corrode easily. Some manufacturers are making iron railings using a special coating that will protect the metal even after it comes in contact with deicing salts. This corrosion-inhibiting finish uses the same process the automotive industry uses to protect vehicle undercarriages from road salt. The main downside to metal stair railings is that they tend to get very cold to the touch.
  • Wood is an all-time classic because of its low price point and versatility when it comes to style. It also has the benefit of not getting too cold during the winter—you won’t shy away from grabbing onto a wooden railing when it’s -7‎°F outside. But it has one major drawback: it decays, and ignoring maintenance will almost guarantee that it will need to be replaced at some point in your life. Harsh winters can speed this process up, since ice and snowmelt tend to soak into the wood during the winter. This can also cause the wood to warp if it is not sealed. Don’t forget about freezing water, either. When water gets into crevices and then freezes, it will expand, forcefully separating the material it’s in. If this process can break apart boulders, then your wooden railing posts aren’t going to stand a chance. Wood can last many years even in a cold climate, but it requires regular sealing, maintenance, and inspection.
  • Glass is an excellent material as almost nothing reacts with it. It won’t rot, rust, or slowly wear away, and glass balusters will block some of the wind, snow, and rain from coming onto your stairs. While it is possible to break glass railings, the glass used in railings is tempered, and therefore stronger than regular glass. Don’t worry though, if one is damaged it is possible to replace them. If you want the option of replacing glass railing balusters easily should they ever be damaged, purchase a railing that uses a drop-in installation system that makes it easy to replace balusters without dismantling your railing.
  • Typically made of stainless steel, vertical cable stair railings will last a very long time. They do not react easily with salt and are not likely to rust, especially when made with a high-quality, marine-grade stainless steel. One drawback to cable stair railings is that they create a very open balustrade and will not block wind or snow at all. This may be a consideration for those living in a very cold climate.

While glass and stainless steel cable are low maintenance and long-lasting, you must take into consideration the handrail and post materials for these systems, too. Be sure to pick a material with properties that are consistent with the reason you chose glass or cable in the first place, whether it be low maintenance or resistance to decay.