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I was at my local bike dump looking for a spare set of wheels for an older bike I have. He said that they have lots of steel wheels but very few aluminum. Whats the deal on this?

What are the differences between steel and aluminum wheels? Why are aluminum wheels more desirable?

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What size rims and brake type? – sillyyak Mar 31 '11 at 13:41

10 Answers 10

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Steel has been the standard for cheap bikes for a very long time. Weight is a prime factor, as noted above. In addition, steel rusts.... If you go to someplace where lots of bikes are parked outside for any length of time, like the university where I work, you can pick out the cheap bikes instantly by the nasty rust that starts forming with great speed.

Really cheap bikes have as much steel as possible; even the wheel hubs and such will be made of that material.

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There have been some great all steel bicycles. Raleigh for instance was proud of the all-steel bicycle. However yes, Aluminium is much more expensive. – Danielle Madeley Dec 8 '15 at 3:58

Steel makes for a heavier rim; the modern-box section design works well for taking advantage of aluminum's lower density. Furthermore, since steel will rust, the rims are typically chrome-plated. The chrome plating makes rim brakes almost useless in the wet, which is exacerbated by the poor pads used on most of the classic bikes that shipped with steel wheels. In contrast, steel rims are almost indestructible - they can be bent out of shape and re-bent repeatedly and will wear much longer than aluminum rims.

As far as your specific case, many older bike-boom era bicycles were built with "Schwinn"-sized wheels, ISO 590 or ISO 597, both labeled as 26 x 1 3/8". As far as I know no manufacturer makes aluminum rims in that size, so finding a replacement wheel for an older bike usually means either getting new brakes and converting it to a modern size (ISO 559 or ISO 584) or finding an old wheel that's not too beat up. The latter is usually pretty easy, cheap bikes ship with steel wheels that are often simply discarded.

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Others have answered the second part "what are the differences..."

Here's an answer for the first part "why not many at the dump"

In in my city 2015 light grade clean steel is worth $0.02/kg. Aluminium extrusion is worth $1.83/kg. Brass like nipples is $3-$4/kg and stainless steel is about $0.90/kg.

Recycling metal pays money, but I'm not going to drag a whole ton of steel there for $2 profit. So plain steel goes in the city recycling bin, and the rest goes in sorted barrels for a yearly trip to the metal man's yard.

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Downvotes are fine - but a comment would be more explanatory. – Criggie Nov 25 '15 at 18:50
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I guess it's because you've addressed the first part of the question - "why aren't there many aluminium wheels at my local bike dump", whereas everyone else has answered the second part - "what are the differences between steel and aluminium wheels". I think you've made an excellent point, but maybe you need to indicate which part of the question you're answering. – Simon MᶜKenzie Nov 27 '15 at 0:19
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@SimonMᶜKenzie Good point - edited now. – Criggie Nov 27 '15 at 4:34

Well, Al will be lighter, and I think I read somewhere that steel rims get really slick when wet (this is assuming that you are using rim brakes).

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sillyyak is right. The weight of wheels makes a big difference. I've had (in the distant past) scary moments when not able to stop as fast as I'd like when braking on steel when it is wet. I notice a huge improvement in stopping in the rain on aluminum. On bike forums ( http://www.bikeforums.net/archive/index.php/t-449632.html ) everyone says aluminum is superior for weight and in the rain:

Alu wheels are a major, major improvement you can make to an old bike for not much cost. Better braking, especially in rain, and much lighter and faster. Used to be, steel wheels were much cheaper to make than alu ones. Nowadays, all wheels (basically) are alu, so even cheap alu ones will be a lot better than what you've got.

and so does this girl: http://simplybike.wordpress.com/2010/09/29/steel-vs-aluminum-wheels/

on rainy days, it makes a world of a difference. This is what has brought me to ride the aluminum wheeled Grand Prix to work more often – it can stop quickly and efficiently in the rain. The steel rims do stop, but it sometimes is difficult to come to a complete stop on wet roads, and it feels more like a slowing down than a breaking. I squeeze on the brakes as hard as I can and the bike still rolls forward a little more than it should. The roadbike with the aluminum wheels, by comparison, presents no such problem. Breaking with the aluminum wheels on wet roads feels much like it does on dry roads.

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It's well-known that steel rims do not work as well with rim brakes as do aluminum rims, especially in the rain. This has nothing to do with the weight difference, but is due to the difference in coefficient of friction. – Daniel R Hicks Dec 4 '15 at 1:49
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thank you, captain obvious. There are two issues here: Weight and difference in braking. I'm trying to address both issues. in this 4 year old post. – mcgyver5 Dec 4 '15 at 2:35

It's been my experience, rehabbing bikes for "Christmas Anonymous" and other charities, that steel wheels do not maintain "true" as well as aluminum wheels. (I've no ideas why this is the case, but I've definitely seen it.)

Beyond that, steel does not brake as well with rim brakes.

And, of course, aluminum is apt to be "siphoned off" for separate recycling as a higher value metal.

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That's interesting. I wonder if the slight springiness of even non-spring steel means there's some residual stress that can work its way out over time. This might explain one of my bikes as well. – Chris H Nov 26 '15 at 7:42
    
@ChrisH - Of course it may just be inferior materials -- if you're cheap enough to use steel rims you're unlikely to use the best grade steel. – Daniel R Hicks Nov 26 '15 at 15:00
    
Could be, my bike with steel wheels is (best guess) around 25 years old, when I'm guessing steel was more common. – Chris H Nov 26 '15 at 15:09

Many good answers with varied pros of aluminum.
One more point here: Steel is a flexible material and can lose it's shape easily. If you ride with low pressure (not inflated) your rim will bend almost immediately. On the other hand if aluminum rim will be damaged, it can't be repaired.

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Why minus? Am I wrong? Isn't it a difference between the wheels? – Alexander Nov 30 '15 at 7:50

Steel wheels are heavy, cheaply made, single wall construction only, not very durable, usually out of round even when new. Most steel wheels are built with hubs that only accept freewheels not cassettes. Most commonly found on department store bicycles. Aluminum wheels are stronger, especially "double-wall" construction, lighter and more round. They are commonly used on "bike shop" bike brands and come in an array of configurations and sizes. They are more expensive but well worth it in the long run.

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Steel will never fatigue if stressed to less than 40% of its Ultimate Tensile Strength; aluminium fatigues at any stress level, provided the stress be cyclic. Aluminium rims depend on the rims being discarded for other reasons before they crack up. For more information, check MIL-HDBK-5 "Metallic Materials and Elements for Aerospace Vehicle Structures" (edition G is easiest). Older bikes are built to last longer or indefinitely with relatively little maintenance...

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I'm not sure this answers the question, except perhaps in a very indirect way. Even can you possibly find an online reference for that? It sounds authoritative but I'm not so interested that I'll buy a legacy book to read about it. EPI claim, for example "It is a simplistic rule of thumb that, for steels having a UTS less than 160,000 psi, the endurance limit for the material will be approximately 45 to 50% of the UTS if the surface of the test specimen is smooth and polished" where you have none of their caveats. – BlamBlamBlam Feb 12 at 1:26
    
You can add links - like this lib.ucdavis.edu/dept/pse/resources/fulltext/MILHDBK5H.pdf but we prefer the answers to be self-contained, and the links to be only additional supporting material. Your quoted number of 40% does not appear in this edition. The phrase "Ultimate Tensile Strength" appears twice, but only in relation to fasteners, on pages 8-111 and the table on 8-114. Please check your information and edit the answer with all possible accuracy. – Criggie Feb 12 at 9:07

If you plan to keep your bicycle "stock", choose appropriate rims and tyres regardless of their material. Steel rims make sense if your bike is a vintage one or a cruiser.

The main aluminium advantage is a lesser weight but you must you pay for lesser weight due to cost of aluminium.

Also a marketing is present here: a man who buys cheap bike is also expected as a man who will search for a cheap parts to repair this bike. So steel rims are what this man will search for.

UPD (from my comment below):

regarding original question: the main aluminium advantage is a lesser weight but you must you pay for lesser weight due to cost of aluminium. Also a marketing is present here: a man who buys cheap bike also expected as a man who will search for a cheap parts to repair this bike. So steel rims are what this man will search for.

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That's a fair point, but doesn't answer the original question of why aluminium wheels are more desirable and therefore less common at the bike dump. – Criggie Nov 25 '15 at 12:13
    
regarding original question: the main aluminium advantage is a lesser weight but you must you pay for lesser weight due to cost of aluminium. Also a marketing is present here: a man who buys cheap bike also expected as a man who will search for a cheap parts to repair this bike. So steel rims are what this man will search for. – Maksym Shysha Nov 25 '15 at 13:18
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You should edit that into your answer. – Batman Nov 29 '15 at 2:22

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