With the ringing in of the new year, California also rang in its lead-free plumbing legislation. All plumbing products supplying potable water must be lead-free, by California definition, within the state. Lead-free means having a concentration of lead that is less than 0.25 percent lead.
While this only applies to the states of California and Vermont, manufacturers are switching their product lines across the United States. For the major manufacturers, it is easier to market one product line rather than a separate product line for California and Vermont.
This brings to an end the use of many brass and bronze fittings. The brass most affected is yellow brass, which has approximately 2.5 percent lead. Many bronzes also have a concentration of lead that exceeds 0.25 percent. These two materials have been the mainstay of plumbing for the past 100 years.
However, leaded brass and bronze fittings will not disappear. The new law only applies to potable water distribution systems. You can still use leaded brass and bronze fittings on DWV systems, hydronic systems and sprinkler systems. When a manufacturer introduces products for hydronic and sprinkler systems, which are water systems, they do not have to state that the fittings are not permitted for potable water systems. However, most manufacturers are providing this indication to avoid future litigation.
There are a number of brasses and bronzes that do not contain lead in concentrations exceeding 0.25 percent. I won’t bore you with the technical names of these brasses. To date, these no-lead brasses are being used in PEX piping systems and certain adapter fittings. I have not seen a complete line of no-lead brass fittings for use with copper tube, just a few adapter fittings.
Every copper fitting manufacturer has been busy introducing a full line of wrought fittings that can be used in California. Of course, wrought fittings are copper, not brass. Thus, there is no concern regarding lead.
From all indications, the replacement brasses and bronzes are excellent for soldering and brazing. But don’t expect to see a full line of these fittings for copper tube in the near future. The manufacturers are happy with the wrought fittings and the no-lead brass fittings seem to carry a higher price tag.
NipplesAnother area of concern is brass and chrome-plated nipples. I have spoken to a few nipple manufacturers and they have indicated that currently they will not be selling in California. When I asked about going no-lead, I received an “ugh,” on the other end of the phone.
Some manufacturers have introduced no-lead brass and chrome-plated nipples. But again, only a small line of these. From what I have been told, it is more difficult to machine the nipples when they are lead-free.
Faucets, Valves And Fixture FittingsThe faucet manufacturers will have an easier time complying with the California requirements. Faucets, valves and fixture fittings are evaluated mathematically based on the exposed surface area. A brass having greater than 0.2 percent lead can be used if the entire surface area using all of the materials is less than 0.2 percent.
You will find manufacturers promoting compliance to AB 1953 using Annex G of NSF 61 claiming no-lead. Again, this doesn’t mean that no-lead brass has been used. It simply means that they meet the requirements of the law.
One group of products that do not comply are residential fire sprinkler heads. All of the manufacturers produce residential sprinklers using a brass body. The brass in the sprinklers is a leaded brass.
What this means is that, as of Jan. 1, multipurpose piping residential fire sprinkler systems will not be installed in California and Vermont. All systems will have to be stand-alone systems, isolated from the potable water supply.
Again, speaking with some of the manufacturers, they will be offering stainless-steel body residential sprinklers. The stainless steel meets the no-lead requirements. However, these special sprinklers will cost more.
The other alternative would be for California and Vermont to view the sprinklers on a drop or riser connection as products that cannot contaminate the water supply. They have already added exceptions for other products installed in a potable water system.
National IssueIf you are saying, “Who cares about California and Vermont?” don’t! The no-lead movement is not restricted to these two states. Manufacturers are not sticking their heads in the sand. This is spreading across the country; perhaps not in the fashion that California has chosen, but it is growing.
NSF 61 has given manufacturers until 2012 to lower the extractant levels of lead by more than 50 percent. Products that currently comply may not after 2012.
ASPE recently issued a policy statement saying that it supports the goal of zero lead in drinking water. However, ASPE also stated that this should be achieved by scientific verification. Basically, ASPE implied that it should not be political; it should be technical.
The technical document currently used is NSF 61. With the lowering of the lead extractant level in NSF 61, changes will continue. Manufacturers will continue to switch to lead-free brasses and bronzes. Others will look for alternative materials to use, including a variety of plastic materials.
Long ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement saying that no levels of lead are good in the body. We should all agree with this statement. Hence, we must do everything possible to assure that your customers are not receiving any lead through their potable water supply.
This is not a green issue; this is a health issue. As all of you know, the plumber protects the health of the nation. That includes getting rid of lead in the drinking water. Be a part of the solution and support the lead-free goals.