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The great debate: aluminum vs. steel wheels

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Accuride 41012 Aluminum Wheel High ResTruck wheels are made from one of two metals: steel or aluminum. Today, new advancements in lighter-weight steel wheels are clouding what was, traditionally, a clear choice. As with any great debate—be it about politics or equipment productivity—the type of wheel you pick depends on the issues that matter the most to you: Does your application require the strongest wheels or the lightest weight wheels? And when is it best to sacrifice one for another? Let’s chart both sides of the wheel issue and detail the spec’ing options.

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Some wheel manufacturers concentrate on making one type or another, such as Alcoa, which exclusively makes aluminum wheels; while others, like Accuride, produce both.

Aluminum wheels have the edge when it comes to weight—having lighter-weight wheels means more load capacity provides fleets with the flexiblity to add weight in other areas staying within legal limits.

“Aluminum wheels don’t chip, crack or peel—peeling paint or rust from steel wheels compromises the mounting surface,” says Brian Thomas, marketing communications manager for Alcoa, makers of forged aluminum commercial vehicle wheels and wheel accessories for Classes 2 through 8. “As paint or rust ‘washes out’ of the mounting surface, the mating of the wheel and the hub isn’t as strong or consistent.”

Typically, steel wheels have the edge when it comes to strength and durability, and are still the go-to choice for heavy-haul and severe-duty fleets for that reason. Steel wheels also typically cost significantly less than aluminum and will require less cosmetic maintenance than their aluminum counterparts.

Additionally, the gap in weight between steel and aluminum wheels has narrowed in recent years. Lighter-weight steel wheels, like the ones offered by Maxion, could save an average of 10 to 12 lbs. compared to conventional steel wheels in most applications. Keep in mind that for standard box trailer configurations, the trailer usually cubes out before hitting weight limits. So the lower cost steel wheel option could be preferable in terms of durability if you’re running an LTL operation. In general, the amount of weight savings required to move the fuel economy needle are so great that the benefit of being able to haul additional payload far out-paces fuel cost savings.

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When spec’ing wheels, consider these factors when making equipment selections:

  • Improved freight efficiency and fuel economy;
  • Enhanced image and appearance;
  • Proper wheel installation;
  • Curbing damage and rim flange wear.

Ultimately, ensuring that the wheels that meet the expected vehicle load ratings is of the utmost importance.

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Protecting against corrosion

Aluminum wheels are usually more resistant to corrosion than their steel counterparts. However, Accuride believes it has mitigated some of that gap in corrosion with its recently released EverSteel line of wheels. The EverSteel wheels come with a five-year warranty against corrosion, and feature a new technology that doubles the life of the company’s existing Steel Armor line. The wheels employ a new four-step treatment process, which is as follows:

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  1. First, EverSteel metal surface treatment is applied to the bare steel to protect it from harsh daily wear and tear;
  2. This is followed by a zinc phosphate pre-treatment that prepares the metal for maximum adhesion;
  3. Then an enhanced cathodic epoxy electrocoat optimized for sharp-edge and overall corrosion protection is applied; and
  4. Lastly, Accuride’s Steel Armor premium powder top coat is applied.

“Corrosion is an ongoing and costly issue for fleets working in harsh operating environments across North America,” Rick Dauch, president and chief executive officer of Accuride, said. When introducing the EverSteel line, he added that the new standard of corrosion protection provided by EverSteel wheels “will enable our fleet customers to achieve significant savings in wheel refinishing costs and the associated downtime.”

How application impacts wheel selection

According to Maxion Wheels, makers of aluminum and steel wheels for light, medium and commercial vehicles, as well as off-road, military and forklifts, the main factors that play into deciding which kind of wheel to specify include:

• Load rating or capacity requirements;
• Tire size and inflation pressure;
• Vehicle payload;
• Appearance and ease of maintenance;
• Warranty and field service support from a supplier.

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Maxion also recommends its MaxCoat Extra multi-layer finish for battling corrosion and keeping wheels’ appearances up, offering a five-year finish warranty as standard with MaxCoat Extra.

According to Alcoa’s Thomas, fuel efficiency is another factor that can be improved by a fleet’s choice of wheels. “Spec’ing lighter-weight forged aluminum wheels is a simple solution for increasing the overall fuel efficiency and oftentimes more importantly, improving the freight carrying capacity, of a vehicle,” he says. “Also, as gas and diesel prices remain a continued focus and freight efficiency becomes more critical, the urgency for heavy-haul equipment to find solutions that contribute to fuel economy, reduce maintenance costs and increase productivity becomes greater than ever.”

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