When it comes to construction and structural design, material selection plays a foundational role for an entire project. The materials chosen have to consider the scope and use of the structure being built as well as the environmental conditions the structure will be exposed to. Over the years, there have typically been only a few options when it comes to structural building materials—wood, aluminum or steel.
However, with the ever-increasing cost of steel and aluminum imports and their susceptibility to corrosion and wood’s vulnerability to moisture damage— there has to be a better option, and there is.
Fiberglass reinforced plastics (FRP), are an excellent and very capable alternative to traditional materials and offer quite a few benefits in cost, safety, durability, and strength.
FRP Vs. Steel
Strength – You might be surprised to know that in terms of strength, FRP is quite comparable to steel. In fact, due to its greater flexibility, it actually has a higher impact resistance than steel. Steel is very rigid and heavy and that is the reason many industrial environments choose steel—but that is also its weakness ironically.
Because it is so rigid, whenever something hits steel, there is no give so this makes it more susceptible to denting and damage from impact. Since FRP has greater flex it withstands impact without sustaining damage or denting—making it the better alternative in industrial workplaces.
Safety – Workplace accidents occur all too often in workplaces of all types, but most often in industrial environments such as factories and plants. Out of the top ten code compliance violations in 2017, OSHA lists structural, construction and fall protection standards as the most cited. Naturally, most companies don’t fail to meet standards knowingly—it’s typically due to unsafe materials such as metal within a high voltage area or other dangers.
With FRP you don’t have to worry about structural breakdowns or material weakness because of the nature of FRP itself. FRP, unlike steel, does not conduct electricity, does not interfere with safety radio equipment, will not corrode, and is very strong as already mentioned.
Steel as you now know is also very rigid and can cause a lot of back problems for workers that must walk across steel floors, grating, and other structures often. FRP has greater flex and gives a softer response to foot traffic which reduces fatigue and improves productivity.
Durability – Since steel corrodes from numerous substances and airborne particles, it has a very limited duty life in high exposure environments. FRP simply does not corrode and does not need to be replaced nearly as often as steel. In fact, it can handle acids, saltwater, petroleum and many other corrosive substances without any effect on its strength whatsoever. This means that even in the harshest conditions, FRP can be expected to last upwards of 20 years or more, meaning a far greater return on your investment.
Cost – While steel is a little less expensive upfront, that is only the cost of the materials as installation is not factored in and steel is very heavy—requiring heavy machinery and reinforced foundations to install steel grating or other structural pieces. Not only that, but steel does not hold up as well as FRP products in many industrial environments, especially corrosive ones. So, while the materials may cost less upfront, the difference is more than made up in installation and maintenance costs over time and FRP ends up having a much lower overall cost.
FRP Vs. Aluminum
Strength – Aluminum can be used in some industrial applications where there is not as much of concern with load weight—applications such as tank lining, HVAC duct and other “light” applications. This is due to aluminum having no defined fatigue limit, it will eventually fail, guaranteed. Engineers must actually assess their implementation based on loads and a fixed life for aluminum structures. Contrary to aluminum, fiberglass has a much higher strength-to-weight ratio and has no fatigue limit, it just works.
Safety – Aluminum, like steel, is highly conductive which poses a hazard in high voltage areas, is vulnerable to impact, and can cause back problems for workers due to its rigid nature. Aluminum, however, is a very low strength metal, so severe impacts can not only dent it but break or severely deform structures, posing a fall hazard in an accident. FRP is non-conductive and even though stronger than aluminum—it’s has enough flex to be ergonomic for foot traffic.
Durability – Due to its low strength, undefined fatigue limit, and impact vulnerability—aluminum trails behind FRP in terms of durability in the workplace. Also, while aluminum is resistant to corrosion from some substances, it is highly susceptible to corrosion from many common acids and heavy metal salts. FRP, on the other hand, is not vulnerable to corrosives of any kind. Aluminum can be severely damaged and warped by even a moderate impact and is generally not considered a heavy duty material.
Cost – Aluminum is low in both material cost and installation due to its light weight. However, because it is not very durable and has limited duty life, you will replace aluminum more often than steel and a lot more often then FRP which can last upwards of two decades or more.
FRP Vs. Wood
Strength – Wood simply cannot hold a candle to FRP in any category, especially strength. FRP is far stronger than wood, does not chip or crack from impact and does not splinter either.
Safety – While wood is not conductive, that is the only common trait it shares with FRP products. Wood can splinter and crack with extreme heat, moisture or dryness. In applications such as waterparks and pool areas, this can cause a hazard for guests who often walk barefoot. Wood also requires dangerous chemical coatings to resist fungus, mildew, and rot. FRP needs none of these dangerous chemicals as it is not vulnerable to these things.
Durability – Because wood can be cracked, splintered or rot it is generally viewed as the least ideal solution for structures that will be in harsher environments. Wood needs special coatings to be resistant to moisture and must re-applied every few years. Termites are another external issue as a wood bridge can be taken out by termites in as little as 3 months. FRP simply outlasts wood and is much tougher against harsh environments.
Cost – Sure, wood obviously is less expensive than fiberglass—but only at the point of purchase. When you factor in the installation costs, maintenance, special sealants needed and normal wear and tear replacement—it costs a lot more. Fiberglass is almost always going to be a bit more cost upfront but in the long term saves you quite a bit over wood and every other material.
The Case For FRP Is Clear
FRP is a versatile, low cost, low maintenance and resilient material that outperforms wood, steel or aluminum in all categories. The ROI and longevity of FRP grating, structures, and industrial shapes is reason enough to make the smart move to the future of industrial construction—FRP.
Contact one of our consultants today to see how DEFI Fiberglass products can help your business cut down on accidents, operational overhead, and facilities maintenance today!