Get the lead out!

May 3, 2013
Time was — that phrase meant pick up the pace — you’re moving too slow! Come Jan. 4, 2014, it will take on a new meaning — one with consequences and, at present, confusion.

Time was —that phrase meant pick up the pace —you’re moving too slow! Come Jan. 4, 2014, it will take on a new meaning — one with consequences and, at present, confusion. I’m referring to the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which amends the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s quite specific in its language and mandates that all products must reduce their lead content for wetted surfaces from 8% to .25% maximum. This certainly explains why we’ve been getting offers substantially below prior pricing for all manner of fittings and valves —a virtual fire sale with bargain-basement prices. No thanks.

Is there an issue? Have the products we’ve been installing failed to protect our clients? Are we inadvertently poisoning our customers? I had the opportunity to ask that question recently during a webinar on this new law. According to the host, the answer was “No,” and I wanted to know if the valves and fittings failed tests for lead previously and what the lead content has been. Eight percent we were told, along with that their products had, in fact, passed the testing.

Here’s the bad news for legitimate plumbing contractors who play by the rules: lead free products will be more expensive because the metal is harder and wears out the manufacturers’ metal-working tools faster. These new products will be a bit more difficult to solder with the fittings/valves more easily scorched and ruined; and valves will have white-only handles. Don’t break a handle, we were warned, because no replacement handles will be available! The host suggested contractors should purchase lead-free products and practice soldering before attempting that on a jobsite. He noted they are producing lead-free products in press-style as well as slip-grip style.


It’s all in the law’s revised wording, but it boils down to this: if the end use includes, or was intended for, drinking potable water, then any products installed after Jan. 4, 2014, must be certified and in compliance with the new law. That leaves lots of room for the use of leaded products: toilets, bidets, flush-valves, urinals, bathing modules, dishwashers, washing machines, hydronic systems, and —this one surprised me —hose bibs (who doesn’t drink from a hose bib on occasion —especially kids?) and in the branch lines serving these fixtures.

Contemplate this scenario: you’re plumbing a new home and you plot out the potable system identifying all fixtures where lead-free must apply. Will you be in a competitive bidding war to gain or retain the builder’s work? Will you and/or your employees maintain dual inventory and be careful to ensure the drinking-potable lines and no-drinking-potable lines fittings/valves are no-lead/leaded? The reasonable and expected standard of care responsibility falls squarely on our shoulders. Our suppliers cannot know where we will be installing lead-bearing products and engineers and architects can provide themselves total CYA (cover your ass-sets) with a simple disclaimer ensuring we, and we alone, are responsible.


I expect to lose bids for installations. Take BFP (backflow preventers) for example. The no-lead BFP cost is substantially higher than the ones with higher lead content. No permit and no inspection required in my area, so it’s going to be a rougher transition for those among us who will be in compliance. For those jobs where inspectors will be checking on installations for code-compliance, you’d be wise to download and print the exceptions slide and have a copy to present an inspector if they decide the law applies to the entire potable distribution system:

Suppliers are in transition and shared their concerns during the webinar: “What if we sell a lead-bearing product to an installer who breaks the law? Will we be liable too?” In this lawsuit-happy nation, the obvious answer is: no doubt you’d be named in the suit. After all, they have much deeper pockets than do we plumbers. It was suggested they develop a disclaimer for all of their customers to sign, once again placing the burden back where it actually belongs —on installers.

We’re not the only ones exposed. I spoke with Rob Bissey, distribution services manager, at York Water Company (YWC) about impacts this new law has had or will have. Their inventory is set up for just-in-time purchasing and, as a result, they are well positioned and have already transitioned to no-lead fittings and water meters as have all but one of their suppliers, who is transitioning and will have a full inventory of no-lead products prior to Jan. 4, 2014. I asked Rob about the lead content in the YWC distribution network of piping. As it turned out, the YWC had conducted an exhaustive study in the early 1980s. They tested for lead content in three types of homes: ones with lead water services and some additional lead piping in the potable lines; 1970s era copper with 50/50 solder; and 1980s era homes where lead-free solder had been used. All three types tested below the EPA threshold for lead content with one group coming close to exceeding the maximum. If you’re thinking it was the homes with lead service lines and some lead water lines think again, it was the homes with 50/50 solder.

So maybe there is something to this new lead law after all. Plumbers didn’t adopt the credo The Plumber Protects the Health of the Nation lightly, and no professional plumber would intentionally poison their customers. According to CBS News, more than half-a-million children have lead poisoning: one in 38! No matter the source, that’s far too many.          

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Dave Yates

Dave Yates material in print and on Contractor’s Website is protected by Copyright 2017. Any reuse of this material (print or electronic) must first have the expressed written permission of Dave Yates and Contractor magazine.

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