The new federal law misses the mark.

(Photo credit: © Howey.)

On Jan. 4, 2011, PresidentBarack Obamasigned into law the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act. The law becomes effective in three years on Jan. 4, 2014.

This is basically the same legislation that was approved in the states of California and Vermont. For the past year, plumbing contractors in those two states have been living with this legislation.

For those of you not familiar with the reduction in lead legislation, it is a “feel-good” law requiring manufacturers to lower the concentration of lead in products that supply drinking water to less than 0.2 percent. However, it does nothing with regard to the amount of lead in the drinking water.

Since the early 1990s, the plumbing industry has utilized NSF 61 to evaluate plumbing products for the amount of contaminants the products contribute to drinking water. Lead is one of the contaminants. Hence, we already have requirements that products not contribute lead to drinking water.

The interesting aspect of this legislation came to light at a recent meeting at NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich. It was reported that some of the plumbing products that had less than 0.2 percent lead, as required by the new federal legislation, failed the lead contamination test in NSF 61. In other words, the 0.2 percent mandate is somewhat meaningless. A more appropriate measure is testing to determine how much lead actually gets into the drinking water.

However, we are dealing with senators and congressmen who don’t understand that aspect of plumbing. They would rather say they oppose lead in drinking water. Don’t we all! But I would prefer legislation that will really do something about the issue, such as mandating NSF 61.

The plumbing fixture manufacturers are not overly concerned about this legislation. They have addressed the lead issue by complying with NSF 61. In addition, within the legislation there is a mathematical means of calculating the concentration of lead. It basically allows the use of leaded brass with a concentration of lead greater than 0.2 percent if the total surface area of the entire product is calculated and the lead concentration comes up less than 0.2 percent.

Have you noticed that faucets are now coming equipped with long plastic supply tubes? If the tubes are longer, there is a greater surface area of a material that has 0 percent lead. It helps lower the overall concentration of the brass that has about 2.5 percent lead. That means that the brass has 12 1/2 times the concentration of lead that the federal legislation permits. But this becomes acceptable because someone runs the math.

You could say that it is silly. If you cut off the long plastic supply tubes to make them a reasonable length to connect to the water supply, you just made that particular faucet noncompliant with this new legislation. The math will no longer work out to make the concentration less than 0.2 percent. Now I ask you, if you cut the tubes, have you increased the amount of lead that gets into the drinking water? The answer is no. The same amount will get into the drinking water. That is why NSF 61 becomes so important. I prefer the cut tubes because it looks cleaner and more professional. Who wants long supply tubes or looped supply tubes clogging up the space under a sink?

So who really suffers from this legislation? It is the brass-fitting manufacturers. Unfortunately for the fitting manufacturers, they cannot do some mathematical magic to make it appear that brass has a concentration of less than 0.2 percent. The only surface area they can evaluate is the brass in the fitting. That means many of the cast fittings, as you know them, will disappear. There will still be brass fittings; they’ll just be made of a no-lead brass. In case you are wondering, it will change the way you solder. Some of the no-lead brass does not solder as well as the current brasses.

The legislation also will affect brass-body and bronze-body valves. You cannot put a coating on the inside waterway of these valves to reduce the exposure to lead. The valve must be evaluated with any coating removed. I am not a fan of this requirement, but no one asked me. The purpose of the coating is to provide a lead-free surface.

No-Lead Exclusions

There are certain fixtures, pipes and valves that are excluded from this legislation. If the water supply is not anticipated to supply drinking water, then the pipe, fittings and fixtures are not held to the 0.2 percent lead standard. The legislation even lists some of these instances, such as the water supply to a water closet, urinal, shower or tub filler.

Other exclusions include products that had very good lobbyists. The one I just don’t get is excluding 2-inch or larger main gate valves. Why? What makes these valves different from any other part of the water supply system other than good lobbyists to exclude them?

Will this affect you as a contractor? Yes and no. You will see some products that you are very familiar with disappear from the marketplace. You will see some products look strange (i.e., long supply tubes on faucets). Otherwise, the manufacturers have been gearing up for this.

The nice aspect about the legislation is that it is geared toward the manufacturer. There is no provision in the law for having a local plumbing inspector enforce the requirements. However, you may see someone try to introduce language into the plumbing codes for that very purpose. Let’s hope not. I try to think the plumbing codes are smarter documents. They don’t need useless, feel-good language.