Lead‑free means problem free

By Steven Webb

In January 2011, the US Congress enacted the passage of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, which sent shock waves throughout an entire industry. It dramatically lowered the federally mandated level of permissible lead, from a weighted average of 8.0% to 0.25% in the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures used to convey water for human consumption.

Those affected – from manufacturers and municipalities to engineers, contractors, plumbing professionals and code enforcement officials – expressed serious concerns about the new law. It was described as a “paradigm shift”, “game‑changer” or more broadly, as “the biggest change the industry has ever seen” by analysts. They concluded that implementing it would be a lengthy process, involving considerable litigation and other difficulties.

However, the consensus of several IAPMO members across the country who were contacted for this article was that none of the major problems that were anticipated actually materialised after the lead‑free mandate took effect on January 1 2014. They also agreed on how well the industry responded to the legislation. They reflected on why the transition was so successful and what, if anything, could have been done to make it even better.

It’s Cool in California

California was the first of four states to enact legislation with “lead‑free” requirements that were identical to those in the subsequent federal mandate. Based on his prior experience “enforcing similar provisions”, Marty Cooper, chief building official for Foster City, says that from his perspective, “it has been a smooth transition for the state of California”.

When the California law first went into effect in 2010, he reports that they encountered “initial supply problems while transitioning to lead‑free,” but at this stage believes, “the industry has clearly made the transition” with no product recalls or obstacles to implementation.

From an enforcement perspective, Cooper reports smooth sailing for the new mandate, while noting that, “Because of the variance in piping systems out there, the lead‑free labelling might be harder to see on a fitting. But so far, we have not had any difficulties involved in identifying those materials.”

Cooper also credits the Copper Development Association for helping plumbers avoid snags in implementing the new law, by providing classes to instruct them in the correct method for installing the new products that have “heating properties that are different from those with lead” and require different soldering techniques. 

Not a Problem in Nevada

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring state of Nevada, Jordan Krahenbuhl, a plumbing and mechanical specialist working for Clark County, is even more succinct when it comes to describing his state’s reaction to the new lead‑free mandate. “It’s a non‑issue,” he says. 

“It appeared to me that everybody started saying ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling’,” Krahenbuhl says. “But in reality, my understanding was that for at least five years the manufacturers were getting things in compliance – they were all way ahead of the game.

“I contacted representatives from all three of the major listing agencies to confirm this, and not only was the process (of conforming to the legislation) self‑regulated, but manufacturers had already listed to the guidelines. So far, lead‑free products are performing well and I have yet to hear of any problems or anything negative about enforcing the mandate. There’s not much to it, really.”

Business as usual in Maine

According to senior plumbing inspector for the state of Maine, Dana Tuttle, “The switch here has gone well. I just had to understand what the requirements are, which I understand to mean there’s no lead in brass that’s intended for human consumption for either drinking or cooking. We really didn’t expect the world to change.”

He does point out, however, “It’s still difficult to understand what they’re saying; for example, concerning things like water meter requirements, certain size meters, certain valve sizes, relief valves in water heaters and relief valves for water heaters. And while as state inspector I’m not going to regulate these issues – it’s up to the manufacturers and distributors. It’s just that these questions are being asked of me that I haven’t found the answers to yet.”

As for specific concerns, Tuttle has heard some, although he “can’t even exactly remember what they were; maybe threads in fittings not being as malleable as they were. It’s really nothing new,” he concludes.

“When I got into the trade, it was all 50‑50 solder up until 1986. This new low‑lead transition has gone smoother than it did back then when we transitioned to 95‑5 or 0.2 lead in solder, which is lead‑free solder.“

No complaints in Massachusetts

Executive director of the board of state examiners and gas fitters in Boston, Wayne Thomas understands the industry’s initial reaction to the new lead‑free standard. “As a contractor, I would have been concerned myself three years ago, because until you see the implementation process and how it’s going to work, you don’t know what to expect.

“But we have a pretty good ability to reach everyone we license by providing continuing education for plumbers on a yearly basis and twice yearly for inspectors. So, we began educating inspectors about it in January of 2013 and plumbers in May or June that year. We also leaned on manufacturers – who ultimately did a good job of getting information out to installers – to provide us with handouts and literature we could share. So by the time we got to January 2014, not many people in the industry didn’t know about the law and how it would work.”

Thomas remembers he did get questions early on (mostly in his classes) about what needs to be lead‑free and what doesn’t, but when he asked inspectors if they’d had any problems determining whether water was intended for human consumption, they hadn’t. 

“And while we did hear – I think it was from a contractor in California – about how you had to be careful with the new fittings because they’re more brittle and could possibly crack, I haven’t heard any complaints about that either,” he says. “All in all, it’s worked out well. It’s been nearly a year now, and we have 20 000 licensees and about 600 inspectors who would certainly be calling us if there was a problem.”

Giving credit where its due

In explaining why the dire consequences predicted regarding implementation of the lead‑free mandate failed to achieve fruition, all those interviewed credit the three‑year lead-time and a concerted effort by manufacturers to ensure their products were compliant. While typically noting some grey areas within it, they also feel the California law – that became the basis for the national standard – was partially responsible for its success, because, as Cooper points out, “everyone in the industry was working at the same table with the legislators to make sure it was a good law”.

In speculating whether anything might have been done differently, Tuttle suggests that perhaps the new law, as well as the industry’s role in creating and enforcing it, might have been communicated more proactively. “More education to the public might have helped,” he says. “The consumers should know about the law so they understand that lead in the plumbing system is not good and that it is a health concern. Something that the plumbing industry does care about and is making sure their plumbing systems are safe from and sanitary, as well as ensuring they have a clean supply of potable water.

“Because the industry really has done a good job of making sure things are done to standard.”


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