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The Federal Lead-Free Plumbing Bill: Q & A

On January 4, 2014, Federal Bill S.3874, The Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act went into effect. The Federal bill addresses a public health and safety issue, and is an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The bill dramatically reduces the amount of lead content from 8% to 0.25% weighted average with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipe, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings or fixtures installed on potable water systems anticipated for human consumption.

This new federal bill will provide singular direction for plumbing fixture manufacturers, distributors and plumbing contractors across the United States who have had to navigate varying state legislations currently in place in California, Vermont, Louisiana and Maryland.

 

Q: What’s Lead Free?

A: By definition, the new compliant alloy is not 100% lead free. Lead Free or low-lead more specifically, means not more than 0.2 percent lead when used with respect to solder and flux and not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes and pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures. Brass can contain as much as 8% lead, but in practice, has really only contained 5%. The general industry term for this brass is 85-5-5-5 (or eighty-five-three-five) brass, because it contains 85% copper, and 5% each of lead, tin and zinc.1 Still, many companies have not manufactured components using even 5% lead. For more than 20 years, all plumbing fittings that supply water for human consumption have had to meet NSF/ANSI Standard 61. This standard measures for over 100 contaminants known to affect human health, one of which is lead. The new legislation deals specifically with the lead component of NSF 61, and provides an improvement to the existing standard. Lead is used in the manufacturing process because it is essential to curing brass, and is applied to the exterior of a fixture.

Q: How Does the Bill Affect Manufacturers, Distributors and Contractors?

A: Companies in the United States who manufacture water fountains, bubblers, bottle fillers, kitchen faucets, bar faucets, manual lavatory faucets, water supply stops, pipes, valves, fittings and any other plumbing fixtures that will come in contact with water anticipated for human consumption will be prohibited from selling noncompliant products after the January 4, 2014 date. Many large plumbing manufacturers, such as Elkay and Halsey Taylor, known manufacturers of water coolers and stainless steel sinks and faucets, have been proactive about eliminating the older alloy and have already gone through the certification process. The same can be said for American Standard, also well known for plumbing fixtures. American Standard began the process many years ago and the company is already selling certified plumbing fittings. “Being ahead of the curve,” says Pamela Hamilton of Elkay, “and as proactive as you can be is important. At Elkay, all components for water coolers and faucets were compliant by 2010.” Distributors will still carry dual-use plumbing items and those items needed for nonpotable applications, such as industrial, sewage among others.

Some manufacturers ran dual manufacturing lines with certified product for the states that had already adopted the legislation, and other lines manufacturing similar noncertified product for the rest of the country that had not yet adopted the legislation. This was done primarily to deplete existing inventory and as a cost-savings measure, but this practice came with the high risk of mixing inventory, not to mention the expense of running dual manufacturing lines. In the end, all manufacturing lines will have to be switched over in time for the deadline for any items intended for potable drinking applications.

Companies that manufacture items for both potable and non-potable applications will still have to run dual manufacturing lines. For these manufacturers, there are many more implications of the new law that deserve consideration. First, the new alloy looks exactly like its higher-lead predecessor. So there’s an added challenge of managing the two types of alloy for different purposes without mixing inventory. Second, while the new alloy looks exactly the same as the higher-lead version, it behaves much differently. Lead has lubricant properties, which makes an alloy with a slightly higher level of lead more malleable and easier to work with. The lower-lead alloy is a harder material, causing premature wearing of machine tooling, it’s harder to work with, and increases scrap rates. According to Tom LaGuardia of Milwaukee Valve Company, lower-lead valves are more brittle. For the end user or installer he says, they don’t thread as easily. This makes them susceptible to cracking. In short, the metals look similar, but they machine, forge, cast and work in service differently. The new alloy goes through cutting tools faster, and pours at a different temperature too, which changes production cycle times. In the end, while it’s safer for potable water use, all of these behavioral factors mean added costs to the manufacturer, the installer and ultimately the consumer.

The time it takes a manufacturer to achieve compliance really depends on the manufacturer’s volume and speed, and every company is different. American Standard began the process in 2008, and by 2009 they were completely compliant. Chris Gaddis of American Standard describes the process his company went through: “We knew that when California and Vermont passed this legislation it wouldn’t be long before all 50 states adopted [it]. So we took the impact up front knowing this was going to become a national standard. We made the decision to make the change across all product lines. It makes it easier to sell to our customers, and allows the end users to buy with confidence. We basically took everything that had to be compliant and changed the manufacturing lines, got the inspectors in there to look at what we were doing, test the product, and finally get the certification.”

Distributors of plumbing fittings that fall into the potable drinking water category must have these fittings and any replacement parts completely phased out of their inventories by the January 4th date. After this date, resale of these items in the United States will be against the law.

Installers are responsible for ensuring that faucets used for human consumption are certified. Reputable distributors will document specific purchases, and will ask for confirmation as to what specific plumbing parts or faucets will be used for. The documentation will be kept, and plumbing and building contractors who make these purchases will be responsible for being honest with their distributors.

Q: Certified or Compliant — What’s the Difference?

A: When it comes to plumbing products that are intended to dispense or convey water for human consumption through drinking or cooking; consumers should always look for products that are certified low-lead. The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) is the one of several well-known certifying bodies. Certification is the highest standard a manufacturer can achieve with respect to compliance to the new law. If a manufacturer is compliant, it means they did not go through the process of getting certified by a third-party water quality listing or agency, but that they stand by their products as being compliant, meaning they meet the no more than .25 percent lead content requirement. As of 2010, California and Vermont can only purchase certified items for potable water use. Maryland adapted the low-lead law in 2012, with Louisiana following in 2013. ANSI accredits eight third party certifiers for product compliance to meet the new low-lead law requirements. NSF, Truesdail Labs, UL, WQA, IAPMO, CSA, Intertek, and ICC.

Q: How Do You Know It’s Certified?

A: For consumers to be sure the products they are using are safe, Chris Gaddis of American Standard advises: “Choose products by manufacturers who have done the diligence to go through and get the certifications. That way [you] can buy with confidence and understand that [you] are getting a product that has been vetted and certified by a third-party agency.” Consumers will be able to find labels or emblems on packaging that guarantee certification.

To be sure, some parts of the legislation remain unclear. For example, many still question how the new legislation will be enforced, as compliance can sometimes rely on the word of installers as to how certain products will be used. There are also questions about certification. For example, is a fixture still certified if it’s repaired with a replacement part that is only compliant? The good news is that legislation designed to protect public health that started in California will now be federal law. And while there is still a little uncertainty, the new law helps shed light on the danger of lead and goes one step further in keeping it out of our water supply.

Sources:

  1. "No-Lead Brass Is in Your Future!" David L. LeBlanc. InFlow-Line Magazine. Spring 2011.
  2. Interview with Pamela Hamilton, Elkay.
  3. Interview with Chris Gaddis, American Standard
  4. Interview with Tom LaGuardia and Elias Rizk of Milwaukee Valve Company