By Kevin Westerling,
It was a long buildup to the federal lead-free rule, characterized by some last-minute changes, but the moment has finally arrived.
Now that “lead-free” is the law of the land, are you in compliance? As of January 4, 2014, any sale or new installation of noncompliant products can result in punitive action such as fines or the forced replacement of parts. Avoiding that fate is contingent upon knowing the rule, and knowing what to look for before purchasing or installing equipment. Hopefully this article will help.
Under the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act, signed three years ago (Jan. 4, 2011), lead-free is defined as “not more than a weighted average of 0.25 percent lead when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings, and fixtures.”
Wetted parts include any materials that come into contact with water anticipated for human consumption, including meters, expansion tanks, backflow preventers, flexible connectors, strainers, and assorted gauges, fittings, or valves. There is one notable exception: the EPA recently made fire hydrants and fittings exempt, responding to pleas from municipalities who argued that replacement would be expensive and unduly necessary in that hydrants aren’t typically used as potable water sources. The rule, of course, does not apply to wetted parts in non-potable applications (e.g., manufacturing, industrial processing, outdoor watering, toilets, and now fire hydrants).
Lingering Questions Remain
Rather than a formal rulemaking process, the EPA published a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQs) — with a revised version released in December — to address concerns and (supposedly) clarify the nuances of the law. The trade association Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI), however, asserts that parts of the document remain “open to interpretation,” including the question at the very heart of the rule: What constitutes a pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting, or fixture?
Phc News reports that PMI recommended the EPA include definitions that align with national plumbing codes for the revised FAQs, but the EPA chose not to heed the advice. The lack of clarity, said PMI, further confuses a sometimes complicated set of obligations and contingencies, particularly with regard to repairs and replacement parts (FAQs #23-30). According to the assertion, the FAQs make it difficult to understand both when and what components need replacement under the new rule.
How To Identify Lead-Free Products
When it comes to commerce and first-time use, the rule is decidedly clearer: new components must be lead-free. There is no mandate from the EPA for suppliers to acquire certification, but there are a number of organizations that do provide such certification. The EPA created a document to help identify American National Standards Institute (ANSI) accredited third-party certification bodies and insignia. Some suppliers, meanwhile, have devised their own (non-accredited) marking system to proclaim their products lead-free.
If you are still unsure, and you have a flair for math, the EPA provides these bullet points for determining the weighted average lead content of a pipe, pipe fitting, plumbing fitting, or fixture:
- For each wetted component, the percentage of lead in the component is multiplied by the ratio of the wetted surface area of that component to the total wetted surface area of the entire product to arrive at the weighted percentage of lead of the component.
- The weighted percentage of lead of each wetted component is added together, and the sum of these weighted percentages constitutes the weighted average lead content of the product. The lead content of the material used to produce wetted components is used to determine compliance.
- For lead content of materials that are provided as a range, the maximum content of the range must be used.
As murky as the lead-free rule seems in parts, it is equally unclear how vigilantly the rule will be enforced, or the price to be paid for violations. Some level of leniency might be expected considering the lack of formal rulemaking or component definitions, but that’s a risky assumption. Though it is ultimately overseen by the EPA, the rule will be enforced at the local level, so the levying of penalties and/or corrective action is subject to the discretion of local officials. Violators of the rule must also be wary of state lead-free laws, as well as the potential for civil lawsuits.
If you adequately prepared ahead, you will likely avoid any penalties or unnecessary expenses due to the rule change. If the law snuck up on you, take what you can from the information provided here — and (hopefully) further updates provided by the EPA — to get, and stay, compliant.
Ready or not, lead-free is here.