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Copper tubing trying to push automotive market uphill

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Although it is a growing niche market—and one with opportunity for further growth—promoting the use of copper-nickel tubing for hydraulic brake lines and other small-diameter automotive fluid lines (power steering, transmission, cooler and fuel lines) has been an uphill battle, especially in the United States, despite its excellent corrosion-resistance properties.

There has been, and continues to be, some success in the aftermarket, but its cost has made domestic automakers gun shy about designing it into new vehicles.

"I continue to be encouraged by its potential," said Bill McGregor, a consultant for Small Tube Products Co. Inc., Duncansville, Pa., which is said to be the only domestic producer of Alloy C70600 copper-nickel tubing in the 3/16-inch-and-below diameters needed for hydraulic brake lines. It is "a much more superior product" than aluminum/polymer epoxy-coated steel tubing, which is its major competition, but it also is more expensive.

The tubing shouldn't be confused with pure copper tubing, which Fred Anderson, president of brake line distributor BrakeQuip LLC, Knoxville, Tenn., said isn't legal to use for brake lines as it work hardens and deteriorates quickly. "It cracks with vibration and is a safety hazard," he said. "But the addition of 10-percent nickel makes a big difference. It makes the tubing much more corrosion resistant and makes it much more workable—even more workable than steel tubing. It is easy to bend and is very hard to kink and if you put a metal polish on it, it actually looks like chrome."

The corrosion resistance of copper-nickel tubing is its real selling point, especially given that brake lines are located at the bottom of the vehicle, under the chassis, and thus are exposed to stones, gravel and other road matter, according to Bob Weed, vice president of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) markets for the New York-based Copper Development Association. "Also, in the northern climate it is susceptible to chemicals on the roadways, especially salt used to melt ice and snow in the winter," he said.

The problem with coated steel tubing is that if there are any dings in the coating, the whole tube could be exposed to corrosion, Christian R. Byar, director of marketing at AGS Co., Muskegon, Mich., said. This results in either a section of the brake line—or even the entire line—needing replacement.

"We have heard a lot of negative feedback about steel brake lines," said Timothy Beachboard, owner of Federal Hill Trading Co., Oxford, Mass. "We have heard about some snow plows that have used them and their brake lines haven't even lasted one season. They corrode when the coating on the tubing is damaged in any way, and that happens no matter what the coating is—whether it is epoxy, plastic (such as polyvinyl fluoride) or Galvalume. Rusted brake lines are a huge problem."

But copper-nickel tubing doesn't need a coating because it is essentially immune to corrosion, McGregor said, and it has nearly identical physical properties to steel, including tensile strength and burst pressure. The growing use of anti-lock brakes also works in favor of copper-nickel product, he said, because the pulsing pressures that occur with those braking systems could lead to premature ruptures of steel brake lines. "But that doesn't occur with copper-nickel," he said.

Despite these positives, demand growth has been dampened by copper-nickel tubing's cost and availability. Not only does it cost twice as much, or more, than coated steel tubing, but price volatility of both copper and nickel compounds the problem. "We can't maintain a stable pricing structure for the brake line," Anderson said. "If the price was more stable and we could guarantee a certain price for a year or so, it would allow us to grow the market more."

The availability issue is something of a Catch-22 situation, Anderson said. "There are a lot of tube mills that produce copper-nickel tubing, but not in (small) diameters," he said, noting that the only domestic producer is Small Tube Products Co. "There used to be another company that did so as well—Linderme Tube—but it closed about two years ago. Now, most of the major suppliers are in the United Kingdom." Even in Europe, supply reportedly is limited, which is one reason why Volvo Car Corp. stopped using copper-nickel tubing in 2002.

"I think more tube mills would produce copper-nickel in (small) diameters if demand wasn't so restricted," Anderson said.

"It is only used in original equipment in high-end cars because it is so expensive," Beachboard said, and the lion's share of that is in European-produced vehicles.

However, there is potential for use among domestic producers with European ownership or influence, McGregor said. "Chrysler, for example, could possibly be more open to using copper-nickel tubing, given that Alfredo Altavilla, chief executive officer of Fiat, has recently become one of its board members. Also, certain domestically produced cars have been influenced by European design," he said, pointing to the Ford Fiesta, first introduced in Germany, as an example.

But right now, U.S. demand is coming almost exclusively from the aftermarket for both U.S.- and foreign-made vehicles, Byar said. "While the cost is substantially higher than steel, some people are willing to spend that for the peace of mind of knowing that they don't need to repair and/or replace their brake lines. This is true whether they do their own repairs or have someone at a garage do it for them. We get close to a 50-50 mix of do-it-yourselfers and professional mechanics," he said, estimating the total volume of rigid steel and copper-nickel fluid transfer lines sold in the U.S. aftermarket at about 20 million pieces annually.

Weed estimated that copper-nickel brake and power steering line demand has been increasing at an average rate of 8 to 10 percent per year, while distributors say they have seen as much as 30- to 50-percent increases from a very small base.

The potential for growth in the U.S. OEM market would be greatly increased if one automaker would put its hat in the ring, Anderson said. "If one U.S. OEM would install it in their vehicles, I think it would trigger others to do so as well as it would give that automaker a competitive advantage."


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