Pumps and Systems, July 2009

Organizations affected by regulatory requirements to remove lead from pipes, faucets and plumbing fixtures are likely well-down the path of investigating material options to adhere to new legislation. Organizations not directly affected by legislation should still take a broader view and consider how "getting the lead out" could deliver benefits to their business.

January 2010 is the deadline for adhering to new legislation from California and Vermont. The California regulation Assembly Bill 1953 and corresponding Vermont regulation (S152) have established specific requirements to limit the allowable amount of lead in defined pipe, fittings and fixtures to no more than 0.25 percent. Companies affected by this regulation are redesigning products and components to be in compliance. This is no small undertaking.

Limiting the allowable amount of lead affects the full life cycle of a product from design through assembly because the solution is rarely a one-to-one substitution. It is not as simple as making the metal component in another material and being finished. For most companies, adhering to the legislation can have far reaching implications in product design and manufacturing as companies are faced with identifying potential solutions and evaluating material alternatives. Critical considerations start with cost and product performance and likely expand to concerns with corrosion, chemical and impact resistance.

Evaluating alternatives to adhere to the upcoming regulations for reducing lead content is a time consuming and complex process. Metals are a staple in many products because of their well-known qualities and characteristics. Metals perform well when product requirements demand structural strength, thin walls and chemical and heat resistance. Metals are also important materials for thermal and electrical conductivity. The use of metals in certain products, however, can have adverse impacts, including contributing to the lead content in the water supply.

Converting from metals to plasticsis a complex process. There are many considerations and complexities to evaluate in making an informed decision.

Plastics enable companies to eliminate and/or remove lead by converting identified metal components to plastics. This may not be an alternative for every metal application, but if a company is evaluating materials options, plastic is a viable consideration. Specific resins and additives to resins can dramatically enhance the performance capabilities of a plastic solution to mimic that of a metal.

A real challenge many firms face is how to undertake the evaluation of plastic as an alternative to metals. Many companies have in-house engineers that are well-versed and experienced in the physical and chemical properties of the metal world. The world of thousands of polymers and resins to evaluate, analyze and test is a different field of expertise. To switch from metals to plastics, polymer expertise is needed to work with the product  and engineering team to evaluate the plethora of polymers to best meet the product requirements. Expertise should include deep experience in design, testing and analysis and the manufacturing process to recommend families of polymers that will best perform  to the specifications. Companies should work with partners who have proven expertise in converting from metals to plastics.

Advances in plastics offer companies viable options to get the lead outby replacing select metal components and assemblies with plastic components. Plastics, especially engineered thermoplastics (ETPs), offer alternatives to metals that can deliver benefits beyond complying with reduced lead content.

Benefits of Removing Lead from Parts

Even companies not directly impacted by the legislation should consider getting the lead out of certain parts because removing lead could deliver real, measurable value.

Plastics can help reduce the overall weight of the product. Reducing part weight is a primary objective of many product design teams. The business drivers commonly referenced for undertaking new lighter product design initiatives include satisfying end user benefits (improved portability) and reducing transportation costs.

Many leading firms are leveraging plastic to support parts consolidation initiatives. With the added flexibility in part design that plastic enables, multiple metal parts can be consolidated and designed as one part, which converts to lower inventory costs and increased productivity as steps in the manufacturing and assembly process are eliminated.

Getting the lead out also gives industrial designers more flexibility in product design with plastic. Not only can secondary operations be eliminated and labor and operational costs lowered, but color can also be incorporated for product differentiation and additional cost savings.. Product design can also support more complex geometric shapes with plastics to support product performance requirements and desired aesthetics.

Advanced polymer engineering has made plastic a high performing material to increase the performance of a product while reducing weight, enabling more freedom in product design and enhancing performance in terms of corrosion, sound absorption and resisting dents.

Whether a company is or is not directly impacted by the California and Vermont legislation to reduce lead content in the water supply, consider plastics as an alternative to get the lead out of  operations, products and processes.