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In 2021 Lighter, Aluminum Wheels Still Outweigh Steel

It may be a new year, but the longtime debate in the truck wheel industry continues. Which is better—aluminum or steel wheels? It’s a favorite topic among experts that breeds detailed conversations, including the differences between the two metals, advantages and disadvantages of each, as well as their respective manufacturing processes. As the global leader in aluminum wheel innovation, we clearly have crowned our winner, but let us break down all the reasons why aluminum wheels still outweigh steel.

The Ultimate Simple Solution

Spec’ing lighter weight forged aluminum wheels is all you need to increase overall fuel efficiency and oftentimes more importantly, reduce maintenance costs. Despite what some may believe, forged aluminum wheels are not the aluminum cans that are shredded in the recycling process. Their mechanical properties give the wheels the high yield strength and great elongation that make them tough. Also, as low operating costs are critical, the urgency for fleets to find solutions that contribute to improved freight efficiency, reduced maintenance costs and increased productivity becomes greater than ever. Not only lighter in weight than steel, but forged aluminum wheels are also stronger and more durable to increase freight capacity and improve maintenance savings for increased productivity and, ultimately, lower lifetime operating costs.

Fuel Efficiency and Weight Savings

Equipment managers should consider overall lifetime operating costs when spec’ing wheels on new equipment since forged aluminum wheels can improve quick and continuous “payback” in fuel savings or freight productivity combined with maintenance savings. For added fuel savings, wheel manufacturers offer innovative technology, which assists in increased weight loss. For example, forged aluminum wheels significantly reduce wheel weight versus a comparable steel. 

It’s no secret that the lighter the truck, the more cargo it can legally carry. The weight of an Alcoa forged aluminum 22.5” x 8.25” hub piloted wheel is 39 lbs. vs an equivalent steel wheel at 68 – 82 lbs. Therefore, this upgrade takes advantage of this significant weight reduction to further improve fuel efficiency. Forged aluminum wheels’ strength, durability and low weight also deliver environmental advantages to complement their financial benefits. With larger payloads due to the weight savings, trips are reduced, and, since forged aluminum wheels are infinitely recyclable, they will never see a landfill.

Maintenance Advantages
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Maintenance is also a hot topic among equipment managers, especially as it relates to refurbishing, curbing damage, and tire and brake life. Aluminum wheels do not require the continuous refurbishing for which steel wheels do such as removing rust, re-painting, touch up or other labor-intensive steps. In addition, aluminum wheels are not painted like steel wheels, ultimately eliminating the need for spray paint and touch up. In harsh environments, equipment managers are required to dismount tires, paint or touch up and remount tires every year to avoid that common rusty appearance found on so many steel wheels. As additional maintenance on steel wheels can result in higher overall lifetime costs, aluminum wheels can improve the appearance of the truck or fleet over a rusty or paint chipped steel wheel.

By their very nature, wheels spend their entire lives in a hostile environment. Several forged aluminum wheel manufacturers also offer additional options for further lowering operating and maintenance costs. Proprietary surface treatments from wheel suppliers can be integral to the production process of the forged aluminum wheel so it is durable from the start and built to last when properly maintained. A comprehensive production process ensures that wheels will not crack, chip or corrode. And since specially treated aluminum wheels do not need to be polished, they work hard to lower maintenance costs since they shine up quickly with a simple soap and water scrub and keep the vehicle looking newer for longer. Combining the advantages of lightweight forged aluminum wheels with these easy-to-clean benefits helps to lower lifetime operating costs and provide value to equipment managers.

Forged aluminum wheels offer the strength equipment managers can rely on, even in the harshest environments, both improving maintenance and furthering the life of the equipment. Additional surface treatments offer maintenance advantages, such as those treated to reduce or eliminate rim flange wear, common among equipment in the refuse market. Some types of aluminum wheels feature a specially treated rim flange that reduces wear and extends wheel service life for heavy haul and shifting load applications. This design feature makes these protected wheels most appropriate for applications where loads are heavy and prone to shifting, causing tire walls to rub against the wheel rims.

Improved heat dissipation also contributes to longer tire and brake life. It’s a fact: aluminum dissipates heat better than steel. For example, when a refuse truck stops-and-goes 600 to 800 times a day, often in already high temperatures depending on the states it operates, the benefit of aluminum giving up heat faster is key to dissipating heat away from the brake thus keeping tires from wearing out.  Steel holds onto the heat and the heat continues to rise even after parking the trucks, while aluminum wheels give up the heat faster helping quickly cool down the system and prevent heat damage to the tire and brakes.

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In any heat events like a fire or brake related incident, it is important to understand the impact the heat has on the wheel. Consider aluminum wheel manufacturers that put two heat indicator sensors on the wheel--one at the end of the roll stamp and one in the middle of the wheel. They will turn brown to inform you that heat is going through the wheel, and when they become black, you know that too much heat went through that wheel and the wheel should be removed from service. 

Enhanced Image and a Smoother Ride

In addition to bringing an element of pride to both the fleet and the operators, the enhanced image forged aluminum wheels provide, also offers operators a smoother ride. Forged aluminum wheels are 100% machined, which eliminates runout and vibrations leading to a more comfortable trip. 

When considering wheel choices, value should always be the goal. Forged aluminum wheels present lifetime advantages over steel wheels. Although steel wheels are less expensive at the time of purchase, they become more high maintenance over time. Decisions come down to short-term versus long-term planning and navigating the available choices to ensure value over the life of the equipment.

To hear more from Alcoa Wheels experts on aluminum vs. steel wheels, check out our Behind The Wheels podcast episode, Aluminum Wheels vs. Steel Wheels: An Age Old Debate.

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