What to know to find a quality lead-free parts manufacturer
Learn to look for suppliers specializing in lead-free metal products
Finding the right manufacturer for quality lead-free parts can be a challenge. It starts by assessing the quality of the part production. Lead makes a metal easier to work with, so switching to newer, lead-free alloys requires specialized skills.
A parts manufacturer must first understand how to work with the more unforgiving lead-free, or low-lead, material, and then know how to use innovative approaches to adapt the manufacturing process.
It’s like knowing how to build a standard car engine in steel – versus having the experience to create a performance engine in high-grade aluminum. You’ve got to be an expert in the material, and know your craft.
For businesses that need to find quality lead-free machined parts for potable water systems, sourcing the best supplier is essential. The goal is to find manufacturers who use careful production strategies – designed just for lead-free metals – and who can supply the highest quality parts, at competitive prices.
So, what do you look for in a lead-free products supplier?
In this article, you will learn answers to:
- What exactly is a lead-free, or low-lead, metal alloy?
- What’s involved in making quality lead-free plumbing components?
- Why, and when, did lead-free metal become required in potable water systems?
Finally, get a Quick List of the information you need to know to search for, and source, a quality lead-free and EcoBrass® parts supplier.
(ECO BRASS is a registered trademark of Mitsubishi-Shindoh Co, Ltd. – http://www.mitsubishi-shindoh.com/en/products/material/ecobrass.html)
New lead-free requirements: improvements for health, but a challenge for industry
You may think that all pipes and plumbing components for potable water – meaning water for human consumption – have been lead-free for a long time. Yet, national US laws only appeared in 1974, and newer, stricter laws were established just in 2014.
Because the metal Lead (element symbol Pb) leaches easily into water, all plumbing components – that come into contact with water distributed for people – must be produced using lead-free alloys. This prevents exposure to lead’s toxicity through drinking water.
However, for manufacturers – and procurement professionals – looking to source Pb-free machined parts, this mandatory change to lead-free plumbing products created challenges both in production and for finding a quality parts supplier.
A quick history: Safe Drinking Water Act, 1974, and lead-free requirements of 2014
The Safe Drinking Water Act is the primary US law intended to ensure safe drinking water for the public. Originally enacted in 1974, it was the first time drinking water safety was regulated on a national level.
Then, in 2014, a new law – the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act – set stricter requirements related to the lead-free standards for commercial use and for the sale of items such as pipes, valves, plumbing fittings, fixtures, solder, and flux.
The most significant change with this law involved lowering the maximum lead content of metal alloys from 8.0% to 0.25%. A 3-year timeframe was allowed for compliance to help businesses and other parties transition to the new laws.
Push to develop new “no-lead” materials for potable water distribution
Lead in older water systems, and the concern for lead-exposure in humans and the environment
Lead (element Pb) has been used in water pipes since the time of the Romans, who built extended potable water systems. However, in the 20th century, the dangers of lead poisoning became more recognized and associated with exposure through the leaching of lead from water distribution pipes into drinking water.
Throughout the 1900s, water systems in many areas of the US were adapting to protect people from lead exposure. Instead of lead, some of the new pipes being installed were made of galvanized steel, copper and, later, plastic.
However, providing safe, clean water is still occasionally a challenge in many communities across the US. One reason is that the water distribution systems in some areas have aging infrastructures, many of which still include leaded pipes, or galvanized steel pipes (which consist of a coating over lead). The galvanized pipes can corrode over time (having about a 40-year life span) and then release accumulated rust or bits of lead that is beneath the original protective coatings.
Another worry is that any lead entering the drinking water supply from lead-containing plumbing components will also end up in rivers and oceans. Long-term effects of the metal lead spread in many areas of the earth’s environment is an added concern in working to reduce the use of lead in water systems worldwide.
The new lead-reduction laws created a demand for lead-free materials
As the national low-lead and lead-free laws took effect in the US, a demand was created for new materials that could replace the traditional leaded alloys used in water distribution systems for so many years. A variety of no-lead and reduced-lead alloys have been developed since the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
What is a lead-free metal alloy?
Today, metal alloys are produced by a number of metal suppliers and come in a variety of mixtures. The lead-free definition, per the 2014 US laws, requires an alloy to include no more than 0.25% lead content.
Concern about the machinability of the new alloys was common at first, since lead has traditionally been added to copper alloys to improve malleability. However, many new lead-free raw materials have been developed that work very well in creating precision, machined plumbing components.
Both traditional brass alloys (which combined copper and zinc, plus some lead) and bronze (primarily copper with tin) have now been made in no-lead mixtures that still provide the same machining results. Today, these alloys offer quality lead-free substitutes for the manufacture of safe, potable water system products.
Lead-free brass and bronze are the most commonly used materials – for producing valves, backflow preventers, faucets, and other plumbing fittings in domestic water systems.
Eco-Brass: One of the first brands of lead-free materials used in potable water technologies
One lead-free metal product that is currently a high-quality option for procurement in lead-free water technologies is ECO-Brass.
ECO-Brass is a high-performance no-lead brass alloy (copper alloy) that was developed and patented by the Mitsubishi Shindoh Company. The material became available in 2001 and is currently distributed in the US by the Chase Brass and Copper Company.
Beneficial characteristics of Eco-Brass include:
- Nearly no lead (maximum of 0.09%)
- High strength, equal to stainless-steel
- Machinability and forgeability, approaching that of standard leaded brass (70%+)
- Resistance to dezincification, similar to bronze
- Resistance to stress corrosion cracking
Application of Lead-Free (LF) brass parts in potable water systems and technologies
Since the stricter lead-free standards became US law in 2014, adjustments have been made to all public drinking water distribution systems and the potable water systems products that carry water for human-consumption.
There are a variety of components and technologies used today for the design of potable and domestic water supplies, and all must integrate parts made only of lead-free materials, such as Eco-Brass. These plumbing parts include: all pipes, pipe fittings, valves, flux, and fixtures; the materials used to solder and braze; and components within meters and pumps in a water distribution system.
Challenges of working with Eco-Brass to manufacture quality water systems parts
Why lead-free experience is required
While Eco-Brass is a high-quality raw material, working with lead-free alloys requires specialized skills.
Achieving the same quality standards in a finished component made of no-lead metals is challenging, and a parts manufacturer must have the appropriate expertise and experience.
Understanding the properties of lead-free metals
The element Lead (Pb) is a soft metal, and alloys that include lead tend to be more malleable and easier to work under certain conditions. Lead-free brass, by contrast, can be more brittle at high temperatures, and products made from these alloys can be more difficult to machine.
Experience in the full production process using lead-free alloys
A products manufacturer, and each machining technician, must be familiar with working in no-lead metals. The process requires greater care, compared to working with the more familiar leaded alloys.
Another important consideration is the proper segregation of lead-free and leaded materials and parts. Cross-contamination can easily occur from contact with leaded materials in equipment, coolants, or in the cleaning processes. Finished products must be kept separate, and scrap metals should be gathered and stored in different containers for recycling.
This last item – the careful recycling process of lead-free metals – contributes to cost recovery and helps in reducing pricing to customers. The lead-free metal recycling is also important in supporting green supply chain and sustainable manufacturing practices.
The ideal production process for quality lead-free parts
When a potable water system requires quality parts – to ensure accuracy and performance – knowledge of the lead-free machining and manufacturing process is essential. Each fabrication project must be planned carefully.
Experienced producers, such as Automatic Machined Products in Taunton, Massachusetts, understand what it takes. “The process of machining and manufacturing lead-free metal parts correctly is based on understanding a product’s specifications and the final assembly details,” says AMP President, John Holden.
The process also involves knowing how to handle the lead-free materials. For instance, Mr. Holden explains that the lead in a brass alloy works as a lubricant. When lead is removed from the mix, the metal changes properties, and the production process can affect the quality and finish of the end product.
Correct choices must be made in the tooling options used, machining speeds, and machine maintenance procedures. And to ensure the expected results, a manufacturing facility must use only top-of-the-line equipment, meaning advanced and powerful enough to work with the specific characteristics of the lead-free or low-lead metals.
Understanding both the material science and all aspects of machining technology is how quality parts can be produced. “Knowing how to adapt the manufacturing and exact machining processes is absolutely critical to producing quality LF, or lead-free, products.”
Understanding compliance standards for lead-free plumbing parts
Finally, a qualified supplier of lead-free parts must understand the requirements of NSF/ANSI 61 compliance standards. (NSF International is an independent organization that writes consensus-based national safety standards.)
An experienced manufacturer will have the ability to test and verify that the materials used, as well as the final parts, are lead-free compliant.
Overall, a quality lead-free part production process must involve:
- Having newer and advanced technology – meaning equipment that is more rigid and robust
- Understanding the properties and machinability of the low-lead materials
- Selecting the right tooling, as well as using optimal machine feeds and speeds
- Maintaining complete segregation of any source lead contamination, including in the machines, coolant, cleaning process, or material stock
- Having the ability to verify the lead content in the material or final product
Success with Eco-Brass sets the quality standard for Automatic Machined Products
How AMP delivered specialized parts for new water technologies
Automatic Machined Products described a recent opportunity to supply an existing customer with a new specialized part. The company’s reputation for manufacturing quality had been previously established after fulfilling an order for lead-free products.
Because working in lead-free metal requires greater skill, procurement specialists understand the value of a supplier’s ability to manage quality production using Eco-Brass. Once such a contract is handled well, it’s easy to know where to go for the next demanding project, in any material.
In this case, the customer returned to AMP because of their complete satisfaction with the production supply of lead-free plumbing parts. “So, for their next complex project – a rush order to supply 2 precision stainless-steel valve balls – this same customer did not hesitate to reach out to us again,” says Dan Gramm, AMP’s Director of Business Development.
Read more about this specialized machining project – to create a precision component within an advanced digital water technologies system – by linking to the Case Study, below.
Read about AMP’s specialized parts manufacturing process: Click here
‘Quick List’ for finding your next qualified Lead-Free parts supplier
What procurement needs to know – to successfully source quality Eco-Brass potable water system parts
1. What’s the required composition of a Lead-Free alloy?
Lead-free metal alloys are defined as having less than 0.25% lead content (per Section 1417 of the US Safe Drinking Water Act-SDWA).
The name brand Eco-Brass, from Chase Brass and Copper Company, currently includes a maximum of only 0.09% lead content.
2. What are the challenges of working in Lead-Free metals?
Lead-free metal alloys come in a variety of compound blends and have different properties.
Generally, however, compared to traditional leaded metals, lead-free alloys can be less malleable, more brittle at certain temperatures, and can respond differently to specific production process (whether machined, forged, or cast).
All of these variables will affect the lead-free end product’s finish, strength, and durability.
3. What to look for in a Lead-Free parts supplier?
When sourcing a manufacturer for a lead-free product, look for:
- prior experience in lead-free parts, with skilled technicians
- a facility with the advanced machining equipment needed to manage the specific part specifications and finish you want
- a good track record for completing projects on time
- knowledge about NSF/ANSI 61 Lead-Free compliance standards