Stainless steel can perform exceptionally well buried underground for long periods. However, when in contact with moisture and aggressive chemicals such as chloride ions, sulphates and stray currents, it can cause localised corrosion. That is why buried stainless steel requires more consideration than above ground stainless steel materials.
Buried steel pipelines typically begin to experience soil corrosion when it meets one or more of the following conditions:
Apart from the salts such as sulphates and chlorides, the pH value of the soil in which the stainless steel is buried plays a major role in corrosion and degradation. More acidic soils may represent a serious risk to common construction materials including some stainless steel grades.
Soils acidity is produced by mineral leaching, decomposition of acidic plants, industrial wastes, acid rain and certain forms of micro-biological activity. If the pH level is kept great than 4.5, corrosion of buried stainless steel due to acidity is unlikely.
As a rule of thumb, well-drained soils are generally found to be less corrosive than poorly drained ones. Backfilling pipe ditches with sand provides reliable long-term protection in corrosive soils such as silt.
|Type of Soil||Physical Properties
(Particle size, plasticity, moisture, …)
(Main constituents and contaminants)
( Ω . Cm)
Fine: 0.02 / 0.06 mm
Medium: 0.06 / 0.02 mm
Coarse: 0.2 / 0.6 mm
|SiO₂, …||10,000 to 500,000|
Fine: 2 / 6 mm
Medium: 6 / 20 mm
Coarse: 20 / 60 mm
|SiO₂, …||20,000 to 400,000|
SiO₂, Al₂O₃, …
H⁺, Cl⁻, SO₄²⁻, HCO⁻₃, ...
|3,000 to 20,000|
Very plastic mixture
SiO₂, Al₂O₃, …
H⁺, Cl⁻, SO₄²⁻, HCO⁻₃, ...
|500 to 2,000|
SiO₂, Al₂O₃, …
H⁺, Cl⁻, SO₄²⁻, HCO⁻₃, ...
|1,000 to 2,000|
Corrosivity is directly linked to electrochemical reaction in soils. Soil resistivity usually lessens with rise in moisture and the concentration of chemical species. Based on the table above, sandy soils have a high resistivity to corrosion, with silt soils (coarse clay) being the most highly corrosive.
|Soil Parameter||Soil Corrosivity|
|1||Soil Resistivity (ohm.cm) [28-30]|
|> 20,000||Essentially Non-Corrosive|
|10,000 - 20,000||Mildly Corrosive|
|5,000 - 10,000||Moderately Corrosive|
|3,000 - 5,000||Corrosive|
|1,000 - 3,000||Highly Corrosive|
|< 1,000||Extremely Corrosive|
|2||Chloride Content (ppm) [28-30]|
|< 100||Mildly Corrosive|
|3||Sulfate Content (ppm) [28-30];|
|< 200||Mildly Corrosive|
Source: Research Gate
The level of moisture contributes to the soil resistivity, which then determines the reciprocal of conductivity for a particular soil. Low resistivity indicates that a soil will be a good electrolyte.
Stray current corrosion refers to corrosion from the current flowing through paths other than the intended circuit. Also known as stray current electrolysis and electrolytic corrosion, the outside source forces the current through the cell, and corrosion occurs at the anode where the conventional current leaves the metal. As it is externally induced, it is independent of environmental factors such as oxygen concentration or pH.
A common source is direct current driven trains or trams which can cause severe damage to pipelines if the rails, the system’s intended current return path, are not completely insulated from the soil. If an underground pipe or other metallic equipment picks up a portion of this current, it will corrode at the point where the (conventional) current leaves to rejoin the original circuit.
Alternating current is generally not a cause of corrosion but in rare cases a small portion of the AC may become rectified to direct current which then causes corrosion.
A common view with stainless steels underground is that one of the most important factors is the chloride ion (Cl) concentration in the soil and the soil moisture, which can contain different dissolved species such as sulphate ions.
Chloride contents are conducive to diminishing soil resistivity thus providing a more favourable environment for corrosion. They may be found naturally in soils as a result of brackish groundwater and historical geological seabeds, or from external sources such as chemicals applied to roadway. The chloride ion concentration in the corrosive soil electrolyte will vary, as soil conditions alternate between wet and dry.
Sulphates are generally considered to be less reactive compared to the aggressivity of chloride ion levels. The presence of sulphates may pose a risk as sulphates can be converted to highly corrosive sulphides by anaerobic sulphate reducing bacteria.
There are many types of bacteria known to cause microbiologically influenced corrosion of stainless steels in common soil conditions. These bacteria can be broadly classified as:
Aerobic: - Which requires oxygen to become active,
Anaerobic: - Where oxygen is toxic to the bacteria.
Sulphate reducing bacteria (SRB) is anaerobic and is the cause for most instances of accelerated corrosion damages to ships and offshore steel structures. Iron and manganese oxidising bacteria are aerobic and are frequently associated with accelerated pitting attacks on stainless steels at welds.
Despite the substantial additional risks, there are steps one can take to ensure the buried steel gives the longest service underground.
Where a structure is situated both below and above ground, undertake one of the following:
The three commonly used types of stainless steel are:
This category comprises grades that are highly resistant to corrosion. It covers 304, 316 and 317. Grade 304 and 316 are widely used in equipment and piping to handle freshwater. Observing these guidelines can prevent crevice and pitting corrosion. (For more information on the corrosion resistance of stainless steel, click here.)
Duplex Stainless Steel is a combination of ferritic and austenitic steels, resistant to pitting, stress corrosion cracking, and crevice attack. The presence of chromium, molybdenum and nickel makes Duplex Stainless Steel super resistance to carrion. Molybdenum, in particular, has been found to enhance the stability of the passive film thereby minimising localised corrosion.
Compared to Duplex Stainless Steel, this category of stainless steel has much higher levels of molybdenum and chromium content. This in turn give gives Super Duplex Stainless Steel a higher resistance to acid and chloride corrosion.
|Asset Type||Min SS Grade Required|
|Low risk SS component (1)||316|
|High risk SS component (with soil monitoring) (3)||As per Table 4|
|High risk SS component (no soil monitoring – further than 2km from a coastline or maintenance item)||2205 or petrolatum tape system wrapped or coated 316 (4)|
|High risk SS component (no soil monitoring – within 2km of a coastline)- maintenance items excluded||Super duplex or petrolatum tape system wrapped or coated 2205 (4)|
Regardless of the structure, there are many things to be considered during fabrication. Oversights in the processes can compromise the quality of construct. One of the common fabrication problems is embedded iron particles and filings that later initiate corrosion on buried steel structures. Other surface contaminants such as common salts, carbon steel, dust and grime also compromise the quality of the stainless-steel output.
Take welded stainless steel tube as an example. During pickling, an electrochemical process of removing contaminants, steel is heated by welding. Because of process malpractices, the damaged metal layer on the steel surface may not be completely removed, thereby sending to market stainless steel that is prone to corrosion. Of course, this risk can be easily and entirely eliminated by using a press fit system.
Clean or fine sand is the preferred soil for burying pipelines, cables, and other stainless installation because of its higher resistivity. Backfilling must be done in a way that aeration is always maintained. When soils are compacted, drainage and aeration problems result thus creating an enabling environment for corrosion.
Other than backfilling and compaction, organic materials must be avoided and should never be included as part of the fill. Such matter attracts microbial activity which if intensified can corrode stainless steel surfaces.
Prior to burying the steel pipe, consider wrapping in protective tape or bituminous coating to prevent external corrosion.
The long term effective use of stainless steel underground will depend on soil conditions, steel grade type and even fabrication practices of the stainless steel piping. Once installed properly, stainless steel can provide exceptional service underground, making it the go-to option for its resilience over plastics and copper, and its corrosion resistance over carbon or galvanised steels.
The technical recommendations contained in this publication are of a general nature, for education purposes and should not be relied on for specific applications without first seeking professional consultation. Whilst IBEX Australia has taken all reasonable steps to ensure the information contained herein is accurate and useful, IBEX Australia does not warrant the accuracy or completeness of the information and does not accept liability for errors or omissions.