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
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
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
"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."