As of Aug. 6, the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits anyone from "introducing into commerce" any faucet – or fitting, piping or fixture, for that matter – that is not lead-free.
Meanwhile, officials from the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute were busy lobbying Congress to "urge a more liberal interpretation" of the law, said Craig Selover, chairman of PMI's Safe Drinking Water Committee, as well as vice president of engineering for Delta Faucet Co.
Currently, the term ìintroduce into commerceî does not draw any distinction between wholesale and retail sales. So far the Environmental Protection Agency, overseer of the lead-free law, has taken a narrow definition of the term.
"We've been working on trying to get a realistic interpretation that would say ëintroduce into commerce' is only when the manufacturer first puts the product into distribution,î Selover explained. ìIn our minds, that is introducing something into commerce. If the product is just moving within the distribution chain, it is already in commerce."
Without a clarification, that leaves plumbing contractors in the lurch. To be sure, plumbing manufacturers have adhered to NSF Standard 61, Section 9, a voluntary standard that limits the amount of lead leached from various ìend point devices.î In other words, products designed to provide drinking water, such as kitchen, lavatory and bar faucets; hot water dispensers; drinking fountains; residential ice makers; and supply stops. The standard has received the official blessing of the EPA.
"There is a wide variety of products today that is certified as being in compliance with the standard in all aspects," Selover added.
Wholesalers and contractors can easily look for one of two certifying marks that essentially guarantees products are all right to use as of the Aug. 6 deadline. The marks either bear the NSF seal of approval or that of Underwriters Laboratory, an accredited third-party certifier for the standard.
The confusion rests in the time lag between when plumbing manufacturers started producing compliant products and finally were able to officially mark the products.
"In many cases, it took six months to a year – and in some cases longer – to get all of the formal certification activities done," Selover said. ìMany of these products were made the same way and are still compliant. There is nothing to prevent anyone from selling the products after Aug. 6. But they don't bear a certification mark."
That could leave the distribution channel with a confusing sorting out process, particularly wholesalers with slow-moving inventory.
"There is probably quite a bit of product that is compliant but doesn't bear a mark because of the time when it was made," Selover explained. "And it is going to be really important for manufacturers to work with wholesalers to make sure that where there is a non-compliant product, wholesalers can rotate their inventory so they can relieve themselves of such products before Aug. 6."
For Delta's part, Selover says the company has just started working with its wholesalers to identify non-compliant product. "Older product that is more decorative in nature and that has cast spouts are most likely not to be compliant," he added. ìThose are the kinds of product both in our lines and other manufacturer's lines in which we have had to change from a leaded material to material that used bismuth or some other process."
Selover also added that the months up to the deadline should help clear out compliant, but not marked product from the distribution channel. ìThese products turn over pretty quickly," Selover explained. "As long as wholesalers have reasonably good stock rotation policies, most of that product, by August anyway, should have rotated to where it is all marked with a UL or NSF mark."
For contractors, the easiest way through the issue is to stick with products that bear the NSF or UL mark. Then work with wholesalers to sort out models that are compliant, but don't bear any mark.
In addition, keep in mind the law only covers products designed to provide drinking water. Tub spouts, laundry faucets and shower valves, to name a few, are not covered by the law. The law also specifically exempts products used in manufacturing or industrial processing.
However, with the deadline just months away, PMI has been working with Congress in hopes of obtaining legislative relief from the commerce clause. The American Supply Association has also alerted its membership on the issue and encouraged them to write letter to their congressmen.
"I think we've probably gotten to the where it's going to be hard for us to get the EPA to act strictly on its own initiative to help us," Selover said. "We are running really low on time. We need to address inventory rotation issues to put everybody in the best position they can possibly be in."
There may not be any ìfaucet policeî ready to cart off plumbers after the deadline. But Selover added there could be something probably worse unless the issue gets clears up – bad PR. "I don't think any local wholesaler wants to be facing the 6 o'clock news" explaining why they were selling illegal products, Selover said.