Austenitic grades are those alloys which are commonly in use for stainless steel applications. The austenitic grades are not magnetic. The most common austenitic alloys are iron-chromium-nickel steel and are widely known as the 300 series. The austenitic stainless steel tube, because of their high chromium and nickel content, are the most corrosion resistant of the stainless steel group providing unusually fine mechanical properties. They cannot be hardened by heat treatment, but can be hardened significantly by cold-working.
The straight grades of austenitic stainless steel pipe contain a maximum of .08% carbon. There is a misconception that straight grades contain a minimum of .03% carbon, but the spec does not require this. As long as the material meets the physical requirements of straight grade, there is no minimum carbon requirement.
The “L” grades are used to provide extra corrosion resistance after welding. The letter “L” after a stainless steel tubing type indicates low carbon (as in 304L). The carbon is kept to .03% or under to avoid carbide precipitation. Carbon in steel when heated to temperature in what is called the critical range 800 degrees F to 1600 degrees F precipitates out, combines with the chromium and gathers on the grain boundaries. This deprives the steel of the chromium in solution and promotes corrosion adjacent to the grain boundaries. By controlling the amount of carbon, this is minimized. For weldability, the “L” grades are used. You may ask why all stainless steel are not produced as “L” grades.
There are a couple of reasons:
“L” grades are more expensive
Carbon, at high temperatures imparts great physical strength
Frequently the mills are buying their raw material in “L” grades, but specifying the physical properties of the straight grade to retain straight grade strength. A case of having your cake and heating it too. This results in the material being dual certified 304/304L; 316/316L, etc.
The “H” grades contain a minimum of .04% carbon and a maximum of .10% carbon and are designated by the letter “H” after the alloy. People ask for “H” grades primarily when the material will be used at extreme temperatures as the higher carbon helps the material retain strength at extreme temperatures.
You may hear the phrase “solution annealing”. This means only that the carbides which may have precipitated (or moved) to the grain boundaries are put back into solution (dispersed) into the matrix of the metal by the annealing process. “L” grades are used where annealing after welding is impractical, such as in the field where pipe and fittings are being welded.