The Difference Between H-Beams and I-Beams Explained

10 January 2020

H-Beams and I-Beams are both named after the way they look when viewed in a cross-section. However, if you put images of the two side by side, it might be difficult to tell the difference, especially if you have little experience in construction or warehouse rack design.

Still, the two types of beams are fairly different in terms of their advantages and disadvantages, which is why it’s important to be able to distinguish between them in order to make an optimal choice. When you buy a new pallet racking system for your storage space, for instance, you should decide between the two based on what you intend to store, how heavy your inventory is, as well as whether you handle bulky or awkwardly-shaped items.

How exactly should you make this decision? Below, you’ll find all the necessary details to draw an apt comparison of H- and I-Beams.

What Is an I-Beam?

An I-Beam is a structural component used to support very heavy weights. Its name is derived from the fact that, when viewed transversally, such a beam looks just like the capital letter “I.” As such, an I-Beam is comprised of two main elements – a vertical element referred to as the “web” and two horizontal elements called the “flanges.”

In an I-Beam, the flanges are tapered, which leads to a slight inclination towards the inside of the beam. Although I-Beams can and are employed with heavy loads, the nature of their flanges means that they display a shortage in torsion resistance. In other words, I-Beams are not suitable for extremely heavy weights, which are best supported with H-Beams. However, the former are significantly lighter than the latter, which makes them ideal in situations where heavy-duty load support is not required.

What Is an H-Beam?

To most people, an H-Beam seems almost identical to an I-Beam. Indeed, the two share many common elements, including their basic shape when viewed transversally. Upon closer inspection, however, you’ll notice that, even though H-Beams also feature a “web” and two “flanges,” the latter are considerably longer than in the case of an I-Beam and, more importantly, they are not tapered.

As such, there is no inclination towards the inside of an H-Beam, while the two flanges are parallel to one another. In addition, the web is thicker than with I-Beams, which offers additional stability and weight support. Due to these differences, an H-Beam has significantly better mechanical properties and is capable of enduring extreme loads, both in construction and inwarehouse racking. However, an H-Beam is also heavier, which must be taken into account in order to ensure the structural integrity of a warehouse racking system, for example.

I-Beam vs H-Beam Comparison

The differences between I-Beams and H-Beams might seem small, but they have important consequences in terms of how the two structural components can and should be used for optimal support. To have a better idea of when you should use which of these steel beams, consider the following distinctions and guidelines:

  • The flanges of I-Beams are tapered, whereas those of H-Beams are not. This affects how much weight the two types of beams can handle safely since the inclination in I-Beams results in poor torsion resistance, while the parallel angles in H-Beams permit the support of heavy-duty weights.

  • Most I-Beams are relatively small in height, width, and length, which means they can only bear a single-directional force. H-Beams, on the other hand, are thicker and have deeper grooves, which helps them withstand force from two different directions.

  • Due to their innate instability, I-Beams can only be employed as beams, whereas H-Beams can also be used in the construction of load-bearing columns.

  • I-Beams and H-Beams are manufactured in different ways. Because of this, the latter can be built up or, in other words, to any size or height. The former, on the other hand, require special milling equipment and can only be built as high as this equipment allows.

  • One direct consequence is that I-Beams can only be found in lengths between 33ft and 100ft, whereas H-Beams can span up to 330ft per beam.

Although other distinctions can be made between these two types of structural components, the differences presented above are usually sufficient to help warehouse designers and architects make the correct choice.