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Brass alloy producers shedding lead

Keywords: Tags  brass alloys, Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, Eco Brass, Mike Strelitz, California Metal-X, Mike Buyarski, Federal Metal, bismuth alloys

NEW YORK — Suppliers of brass alloys and pipe are changing their product lines before new federal lead regulations go into effect, with industry players anticipating that lead will soon become obsolete, market sources have told AMM.

All new potable water fittings must contain less than 0.25 percent lead by 2014, when the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act comes into force. Suppliers have begun exploring a range of lead-free products in order to comply with the federal law.

"People are futzing around with everything right now, trying to come up with alternatives," Tim Strelitz, president of Los Angeles-based California Metal-X Inc., told AMM.

A number of different alloys have hit the market as potential replacements for lead-containing materials, including Eco Brass, a lead-free copper-silicon-zinc alloy. Producers also are selling various copper-zinc-bismuth alloys to both municipalities and private companies. Even distributors who sell to a wide range of end-markets are switching their product lines over to incorporate more environmentally friendly alloys.

"We have seen a pickup in the lead-free product line—I would say 10 or 15 percent," a bronze continuous casting plant’s sales manager told AMM.

Cleveland-based bronze and brass alloys producer Federal Metal Co. went from manufacturing about 60 to 70 percent of its products with lead to making less than 40 percent of its products with lead once lead restrictions began to fall into place, vice president Mike Buyarski told AMM.

Many producers and buyers who anticipate further regulations want to stay ahead of the curve and have already begun using products that don’t contain lead. Some aim to go "green," while others are simply preparing to recycle more profitably without using lead.

"Where we’ve seen the biggest increase is where companies want to go green, period—not as a result of federal law," said the casting plant’s sales manager. "They are preparing for future laws and regulations."

Lead-free alloys are more expensive, however, and cost concerns might push some end-users to explore other materials.

"It’s more cost for our customers," Buyarski said. "Lead-free alloys cost more, that’s for sure. Some of your water meter guys have already experimented with plastic."

Municipal water engineers also are looking at copper-bismuth pipe, while high costs have led retailers to turn largely to cheaper, high-zinc/low-copper alloys, industry sources said. For example, municipal piping systems have not embraced Eco Brass largely on concerns that its relatively high zinc content could make it vulnerable to dezincification, but it is cheaper than bismuth alloys and has twice the tensile strength, Strelitz said.

Recyclers also could start feeling the squeeze from the new regulations. Recycled products often contain lead, which would make them useless to pipe makers, forcing them to buy nonrecycled materials.

"The no-leaded products tend to screw up the scrap markets," the casting plant’s sales manager said. "Lead is the most common product that contaminates the metal. So it’s very, very expensive, and it’s almost impossible not to have a scrap supply that’s not contaminated with lead. It takes such a tiny bit of lead to make you not comply with the lead rule."

Pipe producers are mostly sanguine about the transition, however, citing warranted environmental concerns about leaded products and the positive aspects of lead-free alloys, including their production efficiency.

"We don’t like leaded alloy," said Strelitz, whose company sells Eco Brass. "We think they were wonderful; they had their day and we built a country on them. But we’re in the 21st Century, and we have the ability to replace them with much more environmentally friendly alloys. Today we’re experiencing serendipity, and that’s because we’re able to create an alloy that’s more efficient than previous alloys."

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