When faced with a changing market, copper and brass materials fight to stay competitive
December 2011 - In September 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development reported privately owned housing units authorized by building permits were at a seasonally adjusted rate of 1.2 million. Single-family authorizations were at a rate of 868,000.
Compare the 2007 numbers with those from 2011 and there’s a dramatic difference, with privately owned housing units recording 594,000 and single-family authorizations at 417,000.
Cutting housing starts in half has a huge effect on a number of industries, including copper and brass products.
“Our industry has been affected by the downturn in housing and the economy in general,” says Joe Napolitan, vice president of sales–brass rod for Mueller Industries, Memphis, Tenn. “Right now, it’s difficult to predict when housing will bounce back. Several products made from brass go into homes such as faucets, valves, fittings, door hardware and locks. Because the new housing market is one-quarter the size that it was at its peak, it’s difficult to predict when demands for our products will return to normal.”
Although companies are pursuing other markets, it’s a challenge to make up the difference.
“We have seen growth in the areas of energy development, mining as well as natural gas development and oil development,” says Al Barbour, president and CEO, Concast Metal Products, Mars, Pa. “We think these markets for our products have been strong over the past couple of years. [These customers] are pulling from our standard product line, but in that area, we’re doing a little bit more made-to-order business rather than standard stock so we can tailor some products to a specific application.
“A fair amount of our material also goes into heavy construction equipment, bulldozers and earthmoving equipment,” he continues. “Housing is definitely off.”
Napolitan says, however, “the main features and benefits of brass alloys have not changed, and we believe in the underlying fundamentals that drive our industry. Mueller will continue to invest and improve our operations to develop products that meet the changing demands of the market. This is the key to remain in business, make money and survive.”
New regulations, new products
In addition to the fallout from the construction industry, new legislation is affecting plumbing products. In early 2011, President Obama signed S.3874, also known as the “Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act.” The legislation modifies the definition of lead-free in regard to pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures, reducing the lead standard to 0.25 percent with a 36-month implementation period.
The new U.S.-wide legislation comes on the heels of previous acts, such as California AB1953, enacted in 2006, which reduced the lead content to 0.25 percent for the weighted average lead content of the wetted surface area of the pipes, faucet and fittings providing potable water in the state of California.
Napolitan says manufacturers of brass materials and their customers in the plumbing segment have been “forced to re-engineer products” as a result of the new laws. And, he points out, “this can have a negative impact [on brass products] when cheaper alternatives are selected during the re-engineering process” because when “substituting other materials to replace lead, manufacturing costs are driven higher,” putting brass alloys at a disadvantage compared to materials such as plastic.
Napolitan categorizes his plumbing customers into three categories: faucet companies, valve and fitting producers and screw machine shops.
“The new laws can impact each differently,” he says. “From day one, Mueller has worked extensively with these different end users. We took the avenue of removing and reducing lead from our traditional alloys. Realizing the new material wouldn’t machine as well, we reached out to tooling experts for advice on tooling solutions used for machining more difficult and hard-to-work-with materials.”
When developing new low-lead and lead-free products, maintaining scrap purity was a top priority for Mueller once the company was assured the machining industry had the capabilities to process lead-free brass parts.
“A primary reason we opted to remove the lead from the traditional alloys was to allow our major plumbing customers to utilize their efficient under-the-floor scrap recycling systems,” Napolitan says. “These systems efficiently recycle the scrap, removing oil and moisture before returning the scrap to the mills. Brass rod is 100 percent recyclable. Our lead-free and low-lead alloys remain 100 percent recyclable with the traditional brass alloy specifications. Other lead-free brass alloys contain silicon and bismuth and therefore must be segregated from these traditional alloys, adding cost to the transactions.”
Meeting the law’s requirements
The new law requires all fixtures to meet the standard of 0.25 percent for the weighted average lead content of the wetted surface area. Faucet manufacturers can choose a combination of materials, including C3600 free-machining leaded brass, when engineering a faucet and still meet the requirements. As a result, brass manufacturers have developed eco-friendly product lines with several choices, ranging from low-lead to lead-free.
Barbour says customers often gauge which alloy is best for a particular application on performance as well as “how it’s going to fit into their overall product and how the components will fit in.”
Concast began producing lead-free copper alloys in 1993, and today, the company has “a line of GreenAlloys, which are no-lead or low-lead alternatives,” Barbour says. “That’s how we approach it because our products are going into casting applications, fittings and various components that would go into plumbing, fittings or water-handling systems.
“We have a generic offering, which would be the CDA alloys that are low-lead or no-lead in the tin bronzes or aluminum bronzes,” Barbour continues. “And we have two offerings that we operate under for a license for patented alloys, which are the Federalloy alloys, which are bismuth based, and we also have the Eco Brass, which is a silicon-based alloy.”
Mueller also offers a family of lead-free and low-lead alloys, dubbed EcoStream to emphasize the materials’ recycleability and water delivery. “EcoStream includes our lead-free alloy named Green Drop,” Napolitan says. “We have low-lead alloy 3650, which contains 0.5 percent lead, a similar alloy 3630 which contains slightly more copper and less zinc, giving it better dezincification results, and alloy 3700, which contains 1.5 percent lead.”
The low-lead alloys also have other applications. According to the New York-based Copper Development Association, independent laboratory testing shows “when cleaned regularly, antimicrobial copper products kill greater than 99.9 percent of MRSA, VRE, Staphylococcus aureus, Enterobacter aerogenes, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and E.coli within two hours of exposure.”
A CDA press release notes, “results from a comprehensive multisite clinical trial demonstrated that the use of antimicrobial copper surfaces in intensive care rooms reduced the amount of bacteria in the rooms by 97 percent and resulted in a 41 percent reduction in the hospital-acquired infection rate. According to researchers, this study is one of the first to demonstrate the value of a passive infection control intervention, one that does not rely on staff or patients remembering to take action.”
“If the various products that can be produced from antimicrobial copper alloys such as faucets, hand rails and door levers gain acceptance in the market, Mueller is in a position to capitalize,” Napolitan says. “In order to meet the EPA’s criteria for antimicrobial copper alloys, Mueller could easily produce alloy C2800, which is similar to our Green Drop alloy.”
Despite market developments as a result of new legislation or new studies, Napolitan says when it comes to sales, “the overall mix of alloys and products hasn’t changed much.” Although the brass rod market is half the size of a decade ago, “free-cutting brass rod is still our bread and butter and remains 80 to 85 percent of the market. The area of our business that’s done the worst is the plumbing segment due to the housing decline and regulatory changes. The traditional alloys we’ve produced for the past century, 360, 377, 345 and 353 remain 90 to 95 percent of the market.
“However, we cannot ignore the green alloys because we get paid to think about the future,” he continues. “Someday housing will grow again. It may take three to four years, but it’ll recover, and when it does, that area of our business will grow again.” MM
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