Rack Maintenance in Coastal Environments

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If you own a bike, cargo, or kayak rack, we probably don’t need to tell you that there are some genuine risks associated with poor rack maintenance. If your rack fails, you will suffer damages to your equipment and or car. In a worst-case scenario, rack failures can lead to accidents, hurting yourself, your family, fellow road users, or pedestrians. You need to do regular and proper rack maintenance to prevent any of this fate from befalling you.

One of the essential checks when inspecting your car rack is to look for rust or any form of corrosion that may compromise the integrity of your rack and lead to failure. In its different forms, rust threatens most materials that modern bike and cargo racks are made of, some more than others. Where you live is critical in determining how likely your rack will rust.

Coastal environments present some unique challenges to car rack maintenance. If you live on the coast or plan an extensive stay or holiday at the coast you need to be even more diligent in checking and maintaining your bike or cargo racks.

Understanding the Coastal Threat

A few factors specific to most coastal environments are conducive to rust forming.

Rust and most other metal-related corrosion processes are electromechanical. The introduction of electrolytes can accelerate this process. Saltwater acts as an electrolyte; all you need to create saltwater is salt and water. Most coastal environments provide a ready supply of both.

High humidity is common in coastal environments. These increased moisture levels contribute to the water needed for saltwater to form. Combine this with inland coastal winds that carry fine salt particles, leading to “salt spray,” which deposits on surfaces. These salt deposits bind with the moisture to form a concentrated salt solution. This salt solution is the primary catalyst of rust forming in areas near the ocean.

Other factors contributing to the corrosion process are higher temperatures, which could cause metals to expand, allowing the saltwater to penetrate deeper.

Environmental pollutants like sulfur compounds from factories can lead to sulfuric acid, which will further attack the metal. These are not necessarily constrained to coastal environments only, though.

Types of Racks Commonly Affected

You may be wondering what types of racks are commonly most affected by rust. The type of rack has very little to do with whether it will be prone to rust. What matters is the material that the rack is made of. Whether it be a bike rack, cargo rack, cargo basket, or hitch rack, if it is made from steel, aluminum, stainless steel, or any other metal alloy, then chances are that it will be vulnerable to electrochemical erosion.

Rust and Corrosion Types – Identifying the Culprit

In coastal areas, the unique combination of salt and moisture creates a particularly aggressive environment for metals, leading to various types of rust and corrosion:

uniform corrosion

Uniform Corrosion

This is the most common type, where the metal corrodes uniformly throughout its surface. Over time, the metal becomes thinner and can eventually fail. The high salt content in coastal areas accelerates this process.

Pitting Corrosion

Pitting Corrosion

Highly dangerous pitting is characterized by small, pinpoint holes forming on the metal’s surface. The chloride ions in the saltwater environment are a significant cause. They penetrate the metal’s protective oxide layer, leading to localized areas of corrosion.

Crevice Corrosion

Crevice Corrosion

This corrosion occurs in confined spaces or crevices, like those found between metal joints or under deposits of dirt or sand. The restricted oxygen supply in these spaces in the presence of saltwater leads to aggressive corrosion inside the crevice.

Galvanic Corrosion

Galvanic Corrosion

When two different metals come into contact in a salty environment, the more “active” metal corrodes faster while the more “noble” metal corrodes slower. This is due to the electrochemical potential difference between the metals. An example is when aluminum (more active) is in contact with stainless steel (more noble) in a coastal setting.

Intergranular Corrosion

Intergranular Corrosion

This affects metals that have undergone heat treatments. The grain boundaries of the metal become anodic (more prone to corrosion), while the grain interior remains cathodic (less prone). Coastal saltwater corrodes these grain boundaries, leading to the metal to crack along the grains.

Stress Corrosion Cracking

Stress Corrosion Cracking (SCC)

A combination of tensile stress and a corrosive environment can lead to cracks forming and propagating in materials. Coastal areas with pollutants can exacerbate SCC in certain metals.

Understanding the specific type of corrosion can help you choose the proper preventive measures and materials suitable for your environment.

Materials & Corrosion

Quick Poll: My Current Rack Is:

The materials chosen for the design and construction of modern car racks reflect their need to be durable, lightweight, and weather-resistant. Here are the most common materials used:

MaterialAdvantagesDisadvantagesProtection
Steel– Strong and durable
– Often more affordable
– Can handle heavy loads
– Susceptible to rust and corrosion
– Heavier than other materials
– Coated with paint or powder coating for rust protection and improved appearance
Aluminum– Lightweight
– Inherently resistant to rust
– Durable
– Can corrode if exposed to certain chemicals or if scratched
– Might be less robust
Anodizing enhances corrosion resistance and surface hardness
Stainless Steel– Strength of steel
– Enhanced resistance to rust and corrosion
– Good for moisture or salt-exposed areas
– More expensive than regular steel
– Isn’t entirely immune to corrosion
– Often used in its raw form or coated for added protection and aesthetics
Composite Materials– Lightweight and durable
– Resistant to rust and corrosion
– Can be more expensive
– Might not offer the same load-bearing strength
– Generally require less protective coating, though UV protection might be added to prevent degradation from sunlight

Your transporting requirements around load-bearing capacity, weight, and budget will often drive your choice of rack material. I would suggest you add to the environmental conditions that your rack will be used in most frequently and explicitly, keeping in mind the effect of coastal conditions on rack erosion.

car rack rust prevention

Steps for Preventing Corrosion & Rust

Prevention is better than cure. Car racks are not inexpensive, so maybe as important is that prevention is undoubtedly cheaper than cure! Taking the necessary steps to prevent your car rack from rusting will improve its longevity and save you money. Here are a few things you can do:

Regular Cleaning

The single biggest, and probably the easiest, favor you can do your rack is to clean it regularly. It. is a simple step but will go a long way to increasing the lifespan of your car rack. Get into a simple routine and form some habits around cleaning. If you’ve used your rack in off-road or exposed terrain and it has accumulated dirt, cleaning it is a no-brainer. I suggest you clean it regularly in coastal areas regardless of whether you can see any dirt on it. Salt deposits that accelerate corrosion are often invisible to the naked eye, but they are nonetheless there.

Use fresh water to rinse off any debris and salt every week – or after every use. Remember to get into those hard-to-reach spots and focus on moving parts like swivels and clutches.

While rinsing your rack and leaving it to dry is a significant first step, properly drying it afterward with a soft cloth is first prize. Don’t forget that tap water is still water; if salt remains on the rack, it will still react and form an electrolyte. Drying your rack helps prevent some of this by removing the water from the equation and wiping off any salt residue that may still be stuck to your equipment after hosing it down.

Protection

Some products can help protect your bike or kayak rack from corrosion. Anti-rust treatments and sprays are regularly available at most larger retailers that sell car maintenance products. Applying some of this to your rack regularly is another affordable way of protecting your assets.

While you can use generic anti-rust products, waxes and coatings specific to certain metal types may be even more effective.

Inspection & Maintenance

Perform periodic inspections on your rack for early signs of rust or corrosion. Remove your rack from your vehicle to enable you to turn it over for a proper inspection. Look in the corners of the rack, inspect the welds, and inspect any screws or attachment points.

Remember, those areas of the rack that come in contact with either your car or the straps used to attach your bike or cargo often lose their factory-applied protective coats before the rest of the rack and are more likely to start rusting.

If you see any rust starting to form, address it promptly to prevent any further damage. Rust typically “grows” from a small weak spot where it began. Remove the rust and cover the area with rust-preventative paint or coating before that happens.

Storage Solutions

Your rack will rust in coastal environments regardless of whether it is installed on your car. Where you store your rack can play an essential role in helping prevent this. Storing your rack indoors in a dry, warm environment like a garage will allow it to dry off faster, shortening the time for saltwater to form. Reduced exposure to moisture and salt spray will have obvious benefits.

If you do not have a garage or are forced to store your racks outside due to space constraints, consider getting a protective covering for your rack, and remember to clean it regularly, even if not in use, regardless of where it has been covered.

Environmental Considerations

Finally, which is especially relevant to coastal areas, be aware of how and where your environment will most negatively impact your rack. Do not place your rack directly in the path of salty ocean winds. Store or keep it in an area somewhat protected from the elements.

Understand your seasonal changes and how they may impact your rack. If you are in an area that receives rain or snow during a season, try to move your rack under the roof, overhang, or into some form of protection if you have been storing it in the open. Remember, the opposite also applies. If you have a mainly sunny dry season, sleep somewhere where the sun will dry quickly. Stay away from cold, moist storage areas.

Conclusion

Coastal environments combine salt and moisture, making them particularly challenging for metal preservation. Constant exposure means there’s rarely a “drying out” period, allowing for continual corrosive effects.

Proactive and regular rack maintenance is essential in coastal environments. Preventing rust and corrosion will save you money and ensure you can use your rack safely for years. Recognize when your rack is beyond repair and replace it for your safety and others. When you replace it, choose a material ideal for coastal environments. Composite materials and technologies now available are almost entirely rust and corrosion-resistant.

Willem is an avid mountain biker and outdoor sports enthusiast. For years, he has been riding mountain bike stage races, including the grueling Cape Epic. As a father of three adventurous kids, he knows about packing a vehicle to haul his gear safely and responsibly from home to any exciting weekend or holiday destination.

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