When choosing a flashlight for serious industries such as firefighting, rescue, oil & gas, and industrial; it’s important to ensure that it fits the specialized needs of your job.
A crucial factor often overlooked, is whether the flashlight is constructed in the right material. Safety, durability, and ease of use are just a few elements directly impacted by choice of material.
Flashlights are generally either made from aluminum or a polymer plastic material.
Before you commit to buying a flashlight, remember that it’s more than just a matter of personal taste, or look and feel. Form follows function, and this should also apply to the type of flashlight you’re purchasing.
If you’re firefighting or working in a hazardous environment, your flashlight having the correct material and construction could be the difference between life and death.
Let’s get into it and discuss the pros and cons of aluminum flashlights vs polymer plastic flashlights.
HEAT DISSIPATION AND ABSORPTION
Aluminum, like most metals, is a great conductor of heat. This is important for heat dissipation away from the bulb or the actual frame of the flashlight.
Powerful lights that generate a lot of heat require a good amount of heat dissipation, and aluminum is an excellent material to accomplish this.
But heat conductivity works both ways.
The ability of aluminum as an efficient conductor of heat works against you if you’re operating in a high heat environment, such as firefighting. Think about touching the hood of a car on a hot day. Now imagine the heat generated by a firestorm on metal.
That’s why firefighting flashlights, or any tools used for fire rescue, are not made of aluminum or any other metal. Aluminum absorbs the heat at a tremendous rate, so anything metallic in a blaze would become dangerous to the touch of human skin.
An aluminum flashlight left exposed to heat for even a very short time could cause burns if handled.
Polymer plastic flashlights do not conduct heat as quickly as aluminum. This makes a flashlight with a plastic body ideal for use in environments with a dangerously high temperature.
Because plastic polymer flashlights conduct heat much more slowly than aluminum, they are not only safer to handle but much better at protecting the batteries of a flashlight in extreme environments. Whereas aluminum housing for the battery unit would almost instantly transfer the heat to the batteries, potentially causing them to rupture, plastic polymer flashlights are more easily able to protect batteries at high heats for longer periods.
Be sure to learn more about the best flashlights for firefighters and search and rescue with our handy guide.
When shopping for a household flashlight, you really can’t go that wrong.
But when it comes to specific industries and jobs, you have to select the right flashlight with function and safety at the very top of your requirements.
An aluminum flashlight is fine when looking for your kid’s toy that the dog dragged into the backyard at night, but there are professional environments where you cannot use aluminum flashlights according to safety standards and safety certifications.
Simply put - if a certified light is required, then it cannot be made of aluminum.
According to the IEC 60079-0 standard for safety in areas with explosive gas mixtures present:
8.3 Group II
Materials used in the construction of enclosures of Group II electrical equipment for the
identified equipment protection levels shall not contain, by mass, more than:
- for EPL Ga
10 % in total of aluminum, magnesium, titanium, and zirconium, and
7,5 % in total of magnesium, titanium, and zirconium;
- for EPL Gb
7,5 % in total of magnesium, titanium, and zirconium;
CONDUCTING ELECTRICAL CHARGES
Heat is not the only critical factor when it comes to thinking about aluminum flashlights versus plastic flashlights. You also need to understand how the two types of materials conduct electrical charges.
An aluminum flashlight can be dangerous around loose electrical wires. If it is exposed to electrical wires in a hazardous environment, it can cause a short; potentially damaging property, or worse, a person.
Another significant advantage of the plastic polymer flashlight is that it is much less conductive and will not cause a significant electrical short. Plastic polymer is often used as an insulator and can accumulate a charge without harmfully discharging or conducting it to equipment or people.
However, for the plastic material to be safe according to the IEC certification test, certain additives must be added to the plastic resin to make it 100 percent compliant. This includes graphite fibers or certain organic chemical compounds.
According to the IEC standard, the housing for a flashlight must dissipate electrostatic charge build-up so that it cannot produce a spark by rubbing the process of static electrical charging, such as rubbing it on clothing.
To learn more about intrinsically safe flashlights for hazardous environments, be sure to check out our guide.
OTHER PLASTIC VS ALUMINUM FLASHLIGHT DIFFERENCES
- Aluminum flashlights generally fare much worse than their plastic polymer counterparts when it comes to the weathering that comes with regular use. Aluminum becomes scratched and warped a lot quicker than plastic polymer flashlights. When an aluminum flashlight is bent or dented out of shape, it’s a scar that will live on it for the rest of its life.
- Polymer plastic, however, when scratched, does not expose the natural color of the material beneath, because the surface color of the material is its natural color.
- Aluminum flashlights are generally heavier than plastic flashlights. This is a key consideration if you don’t want to add unnecessary equipment to turnout gear or other emergency kits that require you to keep the weight as low as possible.
- However, aluminum flashlights generally tend to conduct heat away from the LED emitter, making it the material for high output LED lights to be used for an extended time. This would make it ideal in search and rescue operations, for example.
FINAL VERDICT: POLYMER PLASTIC OR ALUMINUM?
Besides choosing the flashlight with the right beam distance, lumens, battery life, and factors such as water resistance, paying attention to the material it's made of is also a key consideration.
We highly recommend plastic flashlights certified for industrial use and designed for firefighting and other hazardous operations. But for outdoor search and rescue, aluminum products may be a great choice.
One takeaway from this article is to consider the environment that you will be operating in and any potential benefits or drawbacks that either aluminum or polymer plastic would have for your operations.