Change is the way of the world, and while some parts of it
have been slower to adapt than others, there's no avoiding it.
Such is the case in brass fabrication, particularly when lead
is losing favor.
When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed California Assembly
Bill 1953 in 2006 mandating that all faucets and plumbing
fittings sold in the state be lead-free beginning in 2010, he
jump-started a movement to overturn the entire copper and brass
fabrication industry and force it to consider a world without
traditional leaded alloys.
"For the first time in the history of the United States, a
political issue caused a change in what could and could not be
tolerated as an alloy in a specific application," Tim Strelitz,
president of Los Angeles-based California Metal-X Inc.,
AB1953, a state-wide initiative to reduce the lead content
of plumbing fixtures to less than 0.25 percent from up to 8
percent on wetted surfaces, was intended to minimize the
California public's potential exposure to the toxic metal. But
while California might have been the first step, it surely
wasn't the last. As other states introduced similar legislation
with mixed results, smart producers in all regions began to
look for ways to increase their commitment to lead-free alloys
Toronto-based Ingot Metal Co. Ltd. joined the lead-free
bandwagon early in its development, a move that has proved
worthwhile, according to Hy Shore, the company's director of
purchasing. "The fastest-growing segment of our business is
lead-free. These are definitely viewed as more progressive
alloys," he said, noting that his company expects demand for
lead-free products in the next few years to surge to the point
that Ingot Metal will be able to drop its leaded product line
Although a number of lead-free alloys have been invented
since the turn of the century, from Federal Metal Co.'s
trademarked Federalloy line to the Copper Development
Association's unpatented EnviroBrass family, perhaps one of the
better known is the trademarked Eco Brass, a
copper-zinc-silicon alloy patented by Japanese producer Sambo
Copper Alloy Co., now Mitsubishi Shindoh Co. Ltd. Four North
American companies have the rights to produce the material in
its varying forms U.S. licensee Chase Brass & Copper Co.
LLC and sub-licensees Ingot Metal, California Metal-X and
Concast Metal Products Co., Mars, Pa.
Spokesmen from all four companies said that current demand
for Eco Brass is through the roof, despite the poor state of
the overall economy. "With the economy being slow, I think more
people are taking the time to look at something like this,"
Concast president Al Barbour said.
But even with demand on the rise, lead-free alloys might not
be the product for everyone, producers said. Adding lead-free
alloys to a traditionally leaded product line provides a slew
of challenges, they said, and some smaller or less-flexible
producers might not be able to keep up. "You take a large
manufacturing operation and they're scared to death about
changing alloys," Strelitz said.
The biggest challenge for producers of lead-free copper
alloys is the issue of product segregation along all stages of
production, from the arrival of scrap to the packaging of
finished product, sources said. Managing both leaded and
lead-free alloys requires far more forward thinking and
management than running a single alloy, they said.
"You have to keep the scrap separate from all the other
leaded and low-lead alloys we produce, and we produce eight
other rod alloys. Plus, you don't want to get the silicon from
Eco Brass in the other alloys, since it changes the
properties," said Larry Muller, manager of metallurgy and
technical services at Chase Brass. Additionally, the company
must schedule casting production in such a way that
progressively lower-leaded alloys are cast sequentially,
virtually cleaning the machines of all lead before Eco Brass
makes its way into the casting process.
Such an added attention to detail can prove expensive, too.
"If I were to run Eco Brass in a rotary furnace I had just run
leaded alloys through, I would run through copper to clean up.
And that's a big expense one-half to two-thirds of that furnace
has to be washed out with a No. 2 copper to clean any lead that
is in the refractory," Strelitz said.
"We think it's the alloy that's going to be successful and
we think it's going to be very good for American industry, but
it's an uphill fight right now," he said.
But despite the challenges that go into removing lead from a
traditionally leaded product line, producers of Eco Brass
contend that the shift will be worth it in the long run. "In
brasses and bronzes, I see the use of lead diminishing," Shore
said. "No one wants to melt it, no one wants it in their plants
and consumers don't want it in their products, and I don't see
that reversing any time soon."