Stainless Steel Alternatives for DIYers
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There's a shortage of stainless steel in the U.S. Here's what's causing it, how it may impact your home improvement projects, and some viable Plan Bs.
Production of stainless steel fell sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic and hasn’t kept up with post-pandemic demand. Harry Moser and C.J. Nord, writing for the blog MetalMiner in November 2021, explain it this way: “Our nation is still under-informed about the shortage of this type of steel … This is a long-term, painful shortage.”
The shortage has serious ramifications for the aerospace industry, food production and medical equipment. For the DIYer, it means stainless steel kitchen appliances, plumbing fixtures, HVAC equipment and construction supplies will be hard to get for the foreseeable future.
Why Is Stainless Steel in Short Supply?
The stainless steel shortage results from several macroeconomic issues:
- Supply chain problems: Shortages of shipping containers, pallets and workers created bottlenecks at ports. The sharp increase in demand for shipping containers came on the heels of extremely weak demand during the pandemic. Shipping giant Hapag-Lloyd described it as a “black swan event.”
- Supply and demand: As the pandemic eased, demand for stainless steel products skyrocketed, creating a market bubble that drove steel prices as much as 300 percent above pre-pandemic levels.
- Reduced factory production: ATI Metals stopped producing 304 stainless steel (a highly sterile, widely used alloy) in January 2021. This resulted in a 30 percent reduction in domestic supply of stainless steel. If any U.S. mill decided to increase 304 production to cover the shortage, it would take a year for supplies to reach distributors. In addition, North American Stainless, Inc., which supplies 40 percent of the U.S. stainless steel market, had to reduce production because of a shortage of industrial gases needed to manufacture it.
What Stainless Steel Products Are in Short Supply?
The automotive and appliance industries have been particularly hard hit. Automotive manufacturers use stainless steel for hose clamps, seat springs and sundry small parts that account for 30 to 44 pounds of material in every automobile. Appliance manufacturers use it for some types of washing machines and other large home appliances, as well as for small appliances and microwaves.
Stainless steel also is the preferred material for cookware and utensils, and many kitchens feature stainless steel sinks, countertops and backsplashes. Because of its sterility and corrosion resistance, it’s also widely used for residential plumbing fittings and construction fasteners such as screws, bolts and other connectors.
It’s fair to assume all these products will become expensive or unavailable as the shortage continues.
What Are Some Alternatives?
Homeowners must trust manufacturers to make appropriate substitutions for stainless steel parts. Here are alternatives for standalone stainless steel items DIYers might need:
- Sinks: There are many alternatives, but if you prefer a lightweight metal sink, copper might fill the bill. Depending on the level of craftsmanship, a copper sink can cost three or four times as much as a stainless steel sink. If you choose a basic model, the purchase and installation costs are about the same.
- Backsplashes: You can find stamped and smooth backsplash tiles made from tin that cost less than stainless steel. You can also make a hypoallergenic and reflective backsplash from glass, vinyl laminate or white ceramic subway tile.
- Countertops: There are plenty of options for countertop materials. If you insist on metal, go with copper, zinc, bronze, brass or even pewter. You’ll pay premium prices, however, since all are considerably more expensive than stainless steel was pre-pandemic.
- Cookware: Alternatives include cast iron, copper, enameled cast iron, non-stick ceramic and carbon steel. Ceramic cookware, made from aluminum with a non-stick ceramic coating, is one of the more affordable options, with an entire set costing about $100.
- Cutlery: Carbon steel, which is harder than stainless steel, is easier to sharpen and costs about the same. Ceramic cutlery is another high-quality alternative.
- Plumbing fittings: If you need to replace a stainless steel plumbing fitting, use PVC or CPVC. It won’t corrode and can be seamlessly worked into any pipe network.
- Construction fasteners: Alternatives to stainless steel screws include galvanized and enamel-coated. They won’t last as long, but they’ll come close. Similarly, zinc-galvanized steel connectors are almost as good as stainless steel.