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Rethinking Brass

June 1, 2010
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Historically, nothing has said "faucets" like the word "brass." Hey, the terms are virtually synonymous, and to consider making faucets and shower valves from a material other than that was unthinkable. Until now, maybe.  

In years past, brass was a perfect material choice for these applications - it was relatively inexpensive - could be produced using a variety of manufacturing processes - machined easily - could be electroplated or coated with a variety of other finishes, and it met the toxicity standards of the day. So what was not to like?  

But let's see now - last time I glanced at the calendar, I think it showed 2010, and it seems that some things have changed - drastically. Starting with the last criterion above, the latest hoop the regulators are having us jump through now is to limit lead content in brass down to a maximum of 0.2%. And that, in turn, tips a couple of other factors - the ones pertaining to cost and machinability. So now, the once perfect material option for making faucets ain't so perfect anymore.  

For the first time that I can remember, faucet manufacturers are beginning to look seriously at alternatives. There are a couple of ways to go at this. One is to continue using brass - even leaded brass - but isolate water from contacting it. An example of this is the use of plastic waterways inside brass housings. The other approach, not yet as far along in application, is to use a material other than brass that will, like brass, provide a faucet structure with integral waterways. 

Elkay Ella Faucet in Stainless Steel

The first, and probably most obvious example of this latter approach is the use of stainless steel. Once avoided because of its cost and more difficult machinability, stainless now betters ecobrass or low-lead brass in cost in many cases*, and machines about the same.  (*Cost here is heavily dependent on the complexity of the part and extent of machining required, however.) The nice thing about the stainless steel alternative is that it requires little convincing of the trade or consumers of its adequacy - if anything, its general perception is probably a cut or two above brass.  

Cast Aluminum Tub-Shower Valve

The newest possible metal option is one long considered impossible for our application -  aluminum. The hang-ups with aluminum in the past have been corrosion and limited finishing options - particularly in regard to electroplating. Recently, I have seen examples of faucets made from an aluminum alloy that appears to have solved these issues. I am told that the alloy can be forged, cast and machined from bar stock.

Automotive Throttle Valve Housing

There is also a relatively new (to our industry) non-metallic option on the scene, being used for the first time in plumbing applications. Historically "plastic faucets" have been rather flimsy shell constructions made from thermoplastic resins. What is emerging now is not the thermoplastic shell type, but solid thermosets that give more the perception of being cast, and having a weight not that much lighter than brass. 

This is generically called "bulk molding," traditionally using compression presses, but more recently, certain of the compounds can now also be injection molded, as well. Though for many years eclipsed in use by thermoplastics, thermosets have made a significant comeback based on recent advancements in compound formulation and molding technologies. These thermosets have been widely replacing metals in the automotive and appliance industries. With performance characteristics more like metal than plastic in many respects, there are compounds that can withstand extremely high temperatures and pressures, and are subject to zero creep under load. 

So where do we go from here? There is understandable nervousness by industry engineers about switching to other materials without the comfort of the traditional 100-year track record they are accustomed to with brass. Looking further into this, though, you would have to conclude that there are degrees of risk involved here, depending on the specific component or installation location. At one extreme end of the "fear spectrum" is anything that goes behind the wall, like a shower valve. At the other end of this range, though, would be something like a faucet spout - say the widespread lav or kitchen swing type. These parts are not subject to constant pressure (they're only pressurized when the faucet is on), and if there should be a leak, it would happen over a sink or lavatory where it would be readily spotted for replacement (and it wouldn't cause any damage).  

So what's your take on this - still stuck on brass as "the only way?" You might want to get over that before your competitors do.

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