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Faucet and fitting fabricators are racing to shed lead

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At the demand of both eco-friendly customers and gavel-heavy legislators, faucet and fitting fabricators have begun to offer lead-free alternatives to traditional leaded products—a move that has proved challenging but fruitful.

"Consumers are interested in it. Municipalities are interested in it. They're more and more interested about what's in their water," said Charlie McTargett, vice president of product development at Delta Faucet Co., Indianapolis. "I think you're going to find people adopt these products readily across the country."

Jeff Baldwin, engineering manager at T&S Brass & Bronze Works Inc., Travelers Rest, S.C., agreed. "Regardless of the science, lead is a hot political button. No-lead, or extremely low-lead, products are the PC (politically correct) answer, no doubt about it."

Although new standards for lead-free fittings in California and Vermont don't go into effect until January 2010, fabricators are already starting to see an uptick in demand from within those states and beyond, and they're quickly adapting their product lines in an effort to stay ahead of the curve.

Delta Faucet, for example, has been expanding its trademarked Diamond Seal Technology line, a lead-free PEX-C tubing that meets the legislated requirements. PEX refers to cross-linked polyethylene. "We were working on Diamond Seal Technology for the last seven years or so, and we knew at the time there may be changes to our industry. Clearly, over the years we've seen that coming on the horizon," McTargett said. "When we got nearer to putting this in production, the California thing passed into law and then it became a no-brainer."

The company also has been looking into no-lead and low-lead materials and hopes to have a full metal line by the two states' Jan. 1 deadline.

Fittings fabricator American Standard, Piscataway, N.J., also recognized the need to provide lead-free products in anticipation of the Jan. 1 deadline—and federal legislation that the company sees as likely to follow. "We're going across the nation with the no-lead product. It's not feasible for us to just segregate in California and Vermont," Dave Meisner, leader of American Standard's faucet business, said. "Besides, I suspect within the next two years or so the standard will be nationalized."

Rather than developing a line of plastic fittings like Delta, American Standard has begun casting its products out of a brass-bismuth alloy that fits the lead-free requirements. "We knew we didn't just want to start changing everything to plastic," he said. "Plastic doesn't hold up to high-pressure situations or the extreme freezing of pipes. We will continue to provide brass waterways."

While some fabricators have adapted to the demand for lead-free product by exploring plastics as others have remained true to their metallic roots, both can attest to one thing going lead free isn't without its challenges.

According to companies that have experimented with lead-free alloys, removing lead from the material severely lowers the product's machinability, creating a slew of problems in the workshop.

"Bismuth is a good substitution for lead, although it is a harder material to work with; it makes the brass alloy harder and, therefore, it's a little harder to cast, and it's a little harder to machine and it's a little harder to buff and polish," Meisner said, noting that due to the hardness of the material the company's tools also need sharpening more frequently.

McTargett also noted the difficulties of machining lead-free brass rod. "It takes a little longer to machine those, which translates to a slight cost increase on the components," he said.

To Baldwin, cost is one of the biggest deterrents to the voluntary adoption of lead-free products, even in California and Vermont. "The demand is still fairly low because consumers do not seem willing to endure the extra costs until the January 2010 implementation takes full effect," he said.
ANNE RILEY


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