Blog/Focus: Facility Design

10 reasons why stainless steel products are the best choice for healthcare design teams and facility managers

By Bruce Keclik / Special to Healthcare Facilities Today
October 22, 2019

         Few industrial or commercial environments are subjected to more demanding performance specifications or challenged to maintain more stringent hygiene standards than hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, and continuing care facilities. When specifying building products and fixtures to comply with the healthcare industry’s demanding requirements, and selecting equipment that enables healthcare facilities to function at an optimum level, design teams and facilities planning professionals must consider numerous factors in real time.  Being able to trust in the reliability, durability and ROI of a specific product is paramount to allowing decision makers to make informed product choices that stand the test of time and pay dividends for years to come.  For a myriad of reasons, generations of healthcare decision makers have chosen the inherent advantages of products composed of commercial grade stainless steel.  

            Stainless steel products such as sinks, specifically wash stations, scrub sinks and patient room sinks are not only produced from one of the most environmentally sustainable metals commonly used in construction, they also provide many functional and health benefits. Following are the Top 10 reasons why stainless steel products are the best choice for healthcare design teams and facility managers: 

Reason #1: Stainless steel continuously heals itself
            Used for many industrial, architectural, chemical and consumer applications for over half a century, stainless steel is essentially a low-carbon steel, which contains chromium at 10.5 percent or more by weight. It is this addition of chromium that gives the steel its unique stainless, corrosion-resisting and enhanced mechanical properties. The chromium content of the steel allows the formation of a rough, adherent, invisible corrosion-resisting chromium oxide film on the steel surface. If damaged mechanically or chemically, this film is self-healing, providing that oxygen, even in very small amounts, is present. This is a significant point, considering that other solid surface materials such as: corian, porcelain, and vitreous china are often plagued by micro cracks, typically originating where the material meets the perimeter of the drain.  These small fissures, invisible to the naked eye, are perfect breeding grounds for bio-load bacteria that thrive in warm wet environments such as sinks, drains, and related surface areas. Micro cracks do not occur on self-healing stainless steel surfaces. 

Reason #2:  Stainless steel is formable into virtually any shape, size and type of surface

             Type 304 Austenitic Steels are non-magnetic stainless steels that contain high levels of chromium and nickel and low levels of carbon. Known for their formability and ease of fabrication, Type 304 stainless steel can be cut, welded, formed, machined, and fabricated as readily as traditional steels, making it highly suitable for the widest range of applications in all kinds of products and architectural work. Composed of 18 percent chromium and 8 percent nickel, Type 304 is sometimes referred to as 18-8 stainless, and it is nonmagnetic and cannot be hardened by heat treatment. There is virtually no end to the number of applications for stainless steel in a healthcare facility. From medical devices, trays, bed pans, and bedrails to chairs, tables, countertops, handwash sinks, scrub sinks, drinking fountains, soap dispensers and more; stainless steel is the worldwide material of choice in healthcare facilities. 

Reason #3:  Stainless steel offers the highest degree of cleanliness of any surface

             Stainless steel surfaces have greater hygiene value and require lower concentrations of disinfectant to achieve the level of hygiene required. This is particularly important in healthcare environments which are filled with chemical compounds such as iodine, bleach, peroxide, dyes, human tissue, blood and bodily fluids that can play havoc on solid surface sinks, countertops, tables, bathroom fixtures, as well as fabric covered chairs. In fact, the efficiency of cleaning agents on stainless steel is three to four times greater than on polymers or aluminum. When properly cleaned and maintained, stainless steel surfaces reduce bio-burden that can cause disease and infection. The ability to easily clean stainless surfaces makes it the first choice for strict hygiene conditions, such as food service, hospitals, clinics and medical office buildings.

Reason #4:  Stainless steel provides lasting beauty, resistance to scratches and stains           

            The bright, easily maintained surface of stainless steel provides a modern and attractive aesthetic appearance that lasts year after year. Stainless Steel is common to residential kitchen environments and consequentially the look lends itself well to patient room "Healing Environments." Experience has shown stainless steel to be a superior material versus polymer solid surfaces, porcelain or vitreous china because it is highly resistant to chipping, cracking, staining, scratching, as well as overall porosity issues. Stainless steel withstands everyday usage in heavy use commercial environments without the need for repair. By comparison, other solid surface materials, such as corian and various polymers, are prone to scratching and microscopic cracks. These surfaces must be sanded regularly to remove these imperfections and to prevent accumulation of hazardous bio-load bacteria. Sanding generates airborne dust particles that can be a health hazard through inhalation, as well as creating depressions in the material that can lead to further issues over time. By comparison, stainless steel retains its original aesthetic appearance regardless of heavy usage conditions or exposure to materials that scratch and stain. 

Reason #5: Stainless steel delivers unsurpassed structural strength and durability 
            Steel is one of the strongest materials known to man.  Compared to other types of solid surface products, Stainless Steel has a remarkable strength to weight advantage that makes it ideal for healthcare environments that rely on liquid containment and sanitary conditions. Stainless steel lavatory sinks can withstand impacts and thermal extremes, making them the best choice for medical, laboratory and industrial applications.

Reason #6: Stainless steel offers greater impact resistance than other solid surfaces
            The austenitic microstructure of Type 304 stainless steel provides superior toughness, making these steels particularly suited to Healthcare environments. No need to worry about dropping something heavy into a metal bowl sink, because experience shows that Stainless Steel is far superior to ceramics, porcelain, vitreous china and other solid surfaces used in producing sinks and other medical fixtures and equipment.

Reason #7: Stainless steel is highly resistant to corrosion
            The corrosion resistance and other useful properties of the stainless steel are enhanced by increased nickel/chromium content and the addition of other elements such as molybdenum and nitrogen.  It is essential for the healthcare design professionals to know the nature of the environment and the degree of corrosion that will be present, since the corrosive impact on surfaces is determined by exposure to chemicals and their concentration, atmospheric conditions, temperature and time. Generally speaking, lower-alloyed grades of stainless steel resist corrosion in atmospheric and pure water environments, while higher-alloyed grades can resist corrosion in most acids, alkaline solutions, and chlorine-bearing environments. Specifically, Type 304 stainless steel is used extensively in healthcare environments because it resists organic chemicals, dyestuffs, and a wide variety of organic chemicals. By comparison, Type 316 stainless steel, with its increased nickel content and addition of molybdenum, is desirable where the potential for severe corrosion conditions exist and pitting is to be avoided, such as in chloride environments.

Reason #8: Stainless steel is more hygienic and easier to clean than other solid surfaces  
            The hard metallic surface of stainless steel makes it difficult for bacteria, mold and microorganisms that can cause disease to adhere and survive. In addition, innovative die-drawn technology enables manufacturers to produce seamless products, fixtures and other equipment that do not accumulate bacteria-filled debris or waste.  Its easy cleanability makes it the first choice for strict hygiene conditions. Stainless steels, mainly Type 304, have largely replaced traditional sink materials such as vitreous china because it can be kept scrupulously clean and withstand aggressive chemicals. In fact, the continuing safety of using stainless steel in healthcare environments has been confirmed in a new study commissioned by Team Stainless. Researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University and AgroParisTech found that there was no discernible difference between the efficiency of disinfection across the range of grades and finishes, and whether or not the stainless steel was new or aged. This confirms the effectiveness of disinfecting stainless steel against bacteria associated with HAIs and its ongoing suitability as a material for use in clinical environments.

Reason #9: Stainless steel products deliver the most cost-effective, long-term value
            When the total life cycle costs are considered, stainless is very often the least expensive material option due to durability and low maintenance. Stainless steel sinks typically last 15 to 25 years and are most often replaced because of interior renovations or upgrades rather than degradation of the sink itself.  In addition, Stainless steel requires only minimal maintenance, which is both economical and good for the environment and society. Overall, due to reduced repair and maintenance costs, long-term savings can be in the range of 30 to 40 percent compared to alternative materials. Discerning engineers, specifiers and designers weigh the long-term value of stainless products against the potentially higher initial costs and conclude that, over the total life of a project, stainless is typically the best value option.

Reason #10: Stainless steel is 100% recyclable and readily available in the U.S.
            Last, but certainly not least important, stainless steel is 100% recyclable and readily available from domestic steel mills. In fact, over 95% of newly milled stainless steel comes from reclaimed stainless steel scrap, thereby completing the full life cycle. There is a well-established “closed loop” infrastructure in the USA, which supports the life cycle of long-lasting stainless steel.  The longevity of stainless is the result of the alloy composition and, therefore, it has a natural corrosion resistance. Nothing is applied to the surface that could add additional material to the environment.  Further reducing its environmental impact over the full life cycle is the fact that the naturally hygienic qualities of stainless steel do not require harsh cleaning chemicals that would otherwise be washed down the drain, thereby reducing long-term environmental impact.  The life cycle of stainless steel products contributes to resource minimization, since new resources are not needed as often to replace corroded or failed products. When stainless steel products do eventually complete their service life, there is less concern about disposal since this material is 100% recyclable

            In summary, there are many good reasons why stainless steel fixtures and equipment are the best choice for high traffic/high use installations. Stainless steel’s superior features and benefits in commercial and healthcare applications greatly reduces HAI (hospital acquired infections) and SSI (surgical site infections).  Within the medical industry and overall commercial segment, stainless steel is used for its high corrosion resistance, formability, strength, manufacturing precision, reliability and hygiene… all of which combine to make stainless steel of particular importance for safe, cost effective operations.

Bruce Keclik is a product engineer for Franklin Park, IL-based Just Manufacturing. 

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