As I See It

Lead-free plumbing poses conundrums for different parties

I recently had the pleasure of touring the Watts Water Technologies brand new lead-free brass foundry in Franklin, N.H. It’s a great story — a new foundry in America supplying a lead-free plumbing product for American contractors. U.S. plumbing manufacturers are fine with the lead-free brass law that takes effect on Jan. 4, 2014. They’ve had years to comply with the law.

The new law will make it illegal to sell or install pipes, fittings and fixtures in applications that convey water for human consumption that have a weighted average lead content exceeding 0.25%. The previous national standard was 8.0% lead maximum.

At first, plumbing manufacturers were concerned; they worried that the wetted surfaces of faucets would have to be either stainless steel or plastic. Since then there have been a number of innovations, such as lining the interior of faucets with PEX, and the metallurgy of low-lead brass has made big advances.

But while manufacturers have been able to gear up for the change in the law, it still poses problems for the rest of the industry.

At the recent Plumbing Industry Leadership Coalition in Washington, representatives of the wholesalers’ American Supply Association were clearly concerned that their members would end up with worthless leaded brass inventory next January.

Moreover, low-lead brass fittings cost 30% more than the existing leaded brass products.

Here’s where things get tricky for contractors and engineers. If an engineer is going to specify products for a job, will the price increase blow the budget and kill the job? Should he spec the job now or just hold off? Should he have to price the job now anticipating that all the plumbing brass will be purchased in 2014? Contractors have to consider when they are installing product in a long-term project. How do you estimate a job that goes into next year? As soon as the calendar turns over to Jan. 4, 2014, all of that leaded brass inventory is junk unless it’s suitable for use in hydronic systems or irrigation or fire protection. Should both contractors and engineers plan on handling the matter through change orders?

Sean McGuire, director of industry programs at the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, told attendees at the PILC meeting that he thinks it’s going to come down to whether local plumbing inspectors chose to enforce the lead ban in January or if it will take time for them to get up to speed.

When it comes to getting up to speed, even the Environmental Protection Agency was caught off-guard. Word was at the PILC meeting was that when industry representatives asked EPA about a rulemaking, the agency was not aware of the 2014 effective date of the law. Dain Hansen, director of government relations at the International Association of Plumbing & Mechanical Officials, says he’s heard that EPA won’t have its lead-free plumbing rulemaking finished until next April, four months after the ban takes effect. The agency has to go through its formal rulemaking procedure and it is way behind schedule. EPA currently addresses Frequently Asked Questions about the law on its website at http://1.usa.gov/bixFoT.

Without the rule in place, what do contractors comply with? What would inspectors enforce?

Many contractors aren’t up to speed either, according to the results of a survey conducted by Brasscraft Mfg. (http://bit.ly/XRQf8i). The recent survey by Brasscraft shows that a significant number of plumbers are not prepared to comply with the new federal requirement. According to the online survey conducted earlier this year, 26% of respondents admitted having no knowledge of the upcoming changes and 24% are not aware they cannot use existing leaded brass inventory into 2014.    

The PHCC Education Foundation’s Cindy Sheridan was in New Hampshire at the Watts foundry opening in her role as a representative of the Get The Lead Out Plumbing Consortium. The Consortium has done a terrific job training contractors on the requirements of the law. Much of the training is based on the industry’s prior experience with low-lead state laws already in place in California, Vermont, Maryland and Louisiana.

The Consortium’s website, http://www.gettheleadoutplumbing.com/, is an invaluable resource for contractors. Contractors would be wise to use the Consortium’s training and expertise as we transition through this uncertain period.

Follow me on Twitter @bobmader

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