Industry Insights

Guest Editorial: Safe Water

Originally published: November 2014

By Martin A. Little

Moving to lead-free products isn’t just an obligation—it’s an opportunity

MM-1114-guest-leadThe movement to create a sustainable environment, followed by regulations addressing health concerns, has been a driving force of change for industry. One of these health goals is to bring potable water to the masses. Consumers and government regulators have clamored for lead-free copper alloys to be used in potable water handling applications.

The conversation about lead in drinking water started well over 40 years ago. In 1974, the U.S. government passed the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to minimize chemical and bacterial contamination of drinking water, and to protect the quality of potable water. The SDWA empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for potable water quality and to control the entities that implement these standards.

California became the first state, in 2006, to legislate essentially lead-free plumbing materials. Others—such as Vermont, Maryland and Louisiana—passed similar laws limiting lead content in materials that come into contact with drinking water. New regulatory standards quickly followed, such as NSF/ANSI 61-G and NSF/ANSI 372.

In 2011, President Obama signed into law the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which revised the definition of “lead-free” in the SDWA. This incorporates in large measure the requirements of the 2006 California law. As of January 2014, the maximum lead content of plumbing products was lowered from 8.0 percent to a weighted average of 0.25 percent for the wetted component base. Compliance is determined by a wetted surface area average calculation, or by simply using “no lead” materials for sections that have contact with potable water. The new law applies to products being installed or sold after January 2014, including meters, pumps, valves, pipes, fittings and fixtures. This requirement has precipitated a monumental change in material specification, costs and scrap flows.

Meeting the challenge

Since implementing the new federal law, lead-free products have become the industry standard. Following decades of traditional manufacturing practices, this new regulatory environment has meant a radical change in process, supply chain, lead times and quality for many plumbing supply manufacturers.

Some found the new requirements to be an opportunity to expand their customer base. Many replacement alloys have been brought to market in the past 20 years, including bismuth-based bronzes (C89835), silicon-based bronzes (C87850), high tin bronzes (C90300) and aluminum bronzes (C95400, C95500). All these alloys have advantages in applications and meet the 2014 lead reduction requirements.

An important concern of both manufacturers and customers was quality: Would new products be able to perform as well as the leaded materials they were replacing?

Lead-free alloys have proven to be more than acceptable, maintaining the same lubricity, tightness, wear, strength, hardness and machinability of standard lead products, while delivering consistent and reliable performance. Those that complied by eliminating the use of lead have been surprised to find the end result is a better quality product and one accepted by the market.

Improved lead times

Initially, people anticipated lead times for converting to lead-free products would be excessive. Instead, alloy manufacturers and end-product manufacturers aggressively challenged product development to deliver alloys meeting and exceeding lead-free requirements within the industry’s standard lead times. Success has been achieved in products such as C89835. Once confidence in quality is attained, manufacturers are able to begin stocking lead-free materials, and thereby strategically position themselves to respond to anticipated volume needs of the industry. This supply chain confidence enables manufacturers to deliver key products on demand while expanding their product lines and size offerings.

In finding a replacement for standard lead products, alloy manufacturers are sensitive regarding product and production costs. Despite efforts to remain efficient and reduce costs, the reality is lead-free alloy production is more costly than the production of lead alloys; lead is the lowest cost element in leaded bronze.

In addition, maintaining strict scrap segregation for alloys containing bismuth or silicon adds to the cost. Nonetheless, demand from plumbing suppliers continues to grow.

There are more choices today than ever and, most importantly, more opportunities. After making the same copper alloys for decades, the switch to lead-free alloys has come on rapidly. As Ben Franklin said, “When you are finished changing, you’re finished.” History says we are not finished. It’s just the beginning of an opportunity. MM

Martin A. Little is executive vice president of sales and marketing for Concast Metal Products Co. since 2011. His career in the metals industry spans 30 plus years, focusing on both sales and purchasing on a global basis.

Source: Modern Metals