The enemy that never sleeps

You can’t fully appreciate the menace that is rust until you and your belongings spend a lot of time in the water, on the water, or near the water.

Until we moved here, the only battles I fought with rust were in the toilet, where the iron in the water left those nasty streaks. Now, though, I fight rust everywhere. Pliers stop opening and closing. Bolts become inseparable from nuts. What starts as a tiny chip in the paint on the truck turns into a gaping, corroded hole. All this, the moment you turn your back.

I fight rust everywhere.

The phenomenon of oxidation has turned me into stainless steel’s biggest fan. I look at the anchor chain on the boat, which is thoroughly coated with rust, and then I look at the cleats and fittings, which are shiny and smooth, and I am forced to conclude that no metal thing on this earth should be made with anything but stainless steel.

Things like chains, hooks, screws, nails, wrenches, shovels, anchors, and clamps, naturally. But I’m also thinking I-beams. Vehicles. Sculptures. Just think what a better place the world would be if nothing ever rusted.

The problem, of course, is expense. Stainless steel gets its stainlessness from chromium, which forms an invisible protective layer of chromium oxide when it reacts with air. The higher the chromium content, the better the protection. Low-grade stainless is 11% chromium. High-grade is 28%.

Carbon steel costs something like $700 per 1000 kilograms, which is 7 cents per 100 grams. 100 grams of pure chromium will set you back some $32. When you’re talking I-beams, it starts to add up.

Luckily, there is another way.

It wasn’t until embarrassingly recently that I knew that “galvanized” didn’t just mean “caught the attention of and motivated to action.” I thought crowds could be galvanized, individuals could be galvanized, even the electorate could be galvanized, although not lately. I had no idea that steel could be galvanized.

But it can, and it should.

Galvanization uses zinc to do chromium’s job, and uses it as a coating rather than as an integral part of the metal. It’s a three-step reaction: zinc reacts with oxygen to form zinc oxide; zinc oxide reacts with water to form zinc hydroxide; zinc hydroxide reacts with carbon dioxide to form zinc carbonate. It’s the zinc carbonate that forms the layer with the dull gray finish that protects the carbon steel beneath.

Zinc is cheaper than chromium, and dipping or plating is cheaper than alloy manufacturing, so galvanized steel is much cheaper than stainless. It’s generally only marginally more expensive than ordinary steel. Of course, it’s not as rust-resistant as stainless steel, but it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the ungalvanized stuff.

We found this out the hard way, with the chicken coop.

Now, you’ve heard me say it more often than is consistent with modesty: Our chicken coop is all that. Kevin designed it, borrowing bits from various other coops and putting them together in a way that works for us and for our chickens. It’s spacious, convenient, and attractive.

But it was inevitable that we made a few mistakes. Our ridge vent faces the wrong way, so a heavy snow blocks it. There are a couple of places where the framing didn’t quite line up and we had to fudge it a bit. There are two lumps running half the length of the roof where I didn’t stagger the shingly things properly. (The other half, which Kevin did, looks perfect.)

The biggest mistake, though, was using chicken wire that wasn’t galvanized. That was a mere two years ago, and now our wire has rusted clean through all along the bottom edge, just where a varmint would be looking to get in.

For a couple months now we’ve been patching it with (galvanized) staples, but we were starting to worry that our stopgap measure wasn’t stopping the gap any more. When your chicken wire rusts through, the only answer is to tear it out and replace it. Which Kevin and his son, Eamon, did over the last couple of days.

Me, I’m still working on the streaks in the toilet.

9 people are having a conversation about “The enemy that never sleeps

  1. amanda blum says:

    most consistent thing i hear when people see my car w the Mass licence: “so…… lots of salt in Mass?”

  2. Every time I come here, I learn something new. It’s so fun! I’m still living in the wrong state and still chickenless, but I’m noting this lesson about chicken wire rusting. Who knew?

    Amanda: I’m a Floridian, but when I lived in Mass, everyone kept telling me that I had to have my car washed periodically, and who the heck has time for that? Eventually, it was a lesson learned the stubborn way. I wound up having to give the car away to charity, for parts. I’ll have to change my wicked ways when I move back up there…

  3. Here in Vermont, of course, we have a lot of salt on the roads in winter. There on the Cape, you’ve got the stuff in the air…year round!

    I’ve never lived near salt water, but the stories my uncle tells me are sobering. One involved a guy who left a pricey shotgun in its case, just sitting in some closet. When he finally checked on it months later, it was rusted beyond repair, pretty much glued to the inside of the case by that sleepless orange devil.

  4. amanda blum says:

    wait. i could have avoided all this by JUST WASHING MY CAR?!?!?!?! (actually, it was pretty bad when i bought it, so not a chance, but if there was ever an argument for starting to give a shit about these things, that was it). for the record:

    Back bumper
  5. Miostly galvanizing is done as part of a manufacturing process, where the part to be galvanized is cleaned, often with an acid dip to remove all oils and dirt, then dipped in hot galvanize (zinc).

    The local welding store and some other places have spray can of ‘cold galvanize’. It will galvanize steel. The cleaner the steel is, in a metal purity sense, the better the result. It will beat untreated iron and steel but come up a bit short of hot-dip galvanizing. Welding and torching galvanized metal creates metal vapors that it is better to not inhale, and can deplete calcium in the body.

    But as for stainless steel being the only marine metal? Brass will corrode a bit, but there is brasso and other metal polishes to maintain a bright finish. Brass and bronze won’t corrode as bad as steel even over time, in a salt environment.

    In heavy winter locations where salt is used will-he, nil-he, new cars are often offered an ‘undercoating’, an extra layer of some protectant a bit tougher than paint, for the undersides of the car. This slows corrosion from the salt. This is the reason most car washes in snow country that stay open in winter, include a rinsing off underneath the car. Happily, many places have recognized that salt has little benefit over sand on most road conditions. And sand won’t rot your car.

  6. I don’t want to ask this, but the accounting nerd in me has to: Did you spend more on the plain wire and the staples to repair it than you would have paid for galvanized wire in the beginning? I always find it just hateful when I not only have to re-do the work, but I also discover i spent $5 to save $2! Cars, coops, shed roofs, whatever! The people who came up with an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure were absolutely correct in my world.

  7. I should have noted that salt in the water makes it all the worse. We back our truck into salt water to launch boats on a regular basis, and aren’t nearly assiduous enough in cleaning. Tovar, we need to borrow a page from your uncle’s book and do a little more hosing down.

    Greg, the worst part of all this is that galvanized chicken wire doesn’t cost much more than non-galvanized. Couldn’t tell you exactly how much, because we didn’t price it out, but it’s probably just a few dollars for the entire amount we needed. We didn’t use non-galvanized because it was cheaper — we just didn’t realize we needed to specify, and we bought what there was. We won’t be making that mistake again.

    But there are other mistakes we’ve made because we went the cheap way. Some day, I’ll tell you about the first trailer we bought …

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