This industry has reached a stage where we are making small gains at great expense. We’ve talked about this before with gas furnaces and boilers, which have pretty much reached their efficiency peak with AFUE ratings in the high 90 percent range.
But the plumbing industry is going through the same sort of thing. The drive to minimize lead content in plumbing products is a good example. As of next January, it is widely expected that maximum lead content on wetted surfaces will be reduced to a quarter of one percent from the current eight percent.
It is relatively easy for the authorities to change the rules. It has been very difficult and very expensive for the industry to comply. The reduced lead content in brass fittings has required the development of new product designs and new manufacturing methods and equipment.
Back before we understood the health effects of lead Canadian homes and buildings were built with lead pipes and lead solder. It is still a source of contamination in older areas where some homes are still served with lead pipes. But in 1975 the National Plumbing Code was amended to disallow lead pipe, followed by lead solder in 1986. And for a long time, most people thought that was good enough. Even Health Canada admits, plumbing is not a major contributor of lead in drinking water.
However, effective January 2009 the State of California decided that wasn’t good enough. The only other possible source of lead in plumbing systems, which the latest measures are designed to address, is the eight percent lead content in brass fittings. Among other things, the lead in brass makes it easy to machine. Take the lead out, and it is not.
So manufacturers have had to respond by adopting new manufacturing methods or redesigning products to incorporate other materials. Once again the industry had to go to considerable difficulty and expense for little if any gain. Will drinking water systems be safer? It’s doubtful.
What is certain is that all this is going to cost the end user – the building owner – a lot of money. One manufacturer told us that the change to lead-free would result in a price increase as high as 40 percent on some products. Ouch!
One has to wonder how far the authorities can go in their efforts to solve every health issue, no matter how minute, and maximize efficiency through changes in building mechanical specifications. I recently heard that some European countries are changing their plumbing codes to prevent stagnant water from sitting in pipes because a study showed that there might be a health benefit for doing so. Once again it means a massive effort in reconfiguring plumbing systems, designing new products, etc., etc.
Will this increasingly expensive process ever end? When will authorities realize that mechanical systems are as safe and efficient as they can possibly make them? Not anytime soon I fear.