To revive a quote from the Clinton/Bush election era, “It’s The Economy Stupid!” Business in backflow prevention and construction everywhere is reacting to the shift we have experienced in the economic realities of the last few years. Those who are waiting for a return or rebound to old levels are in for a long wait. Business as we know it has changed and so, too, must we — and the products we sell. The hydraulic conditions of backflow (back pressure and back siphonage) are still running rampant in our piping systems. The products being produced are being influenced by two key economic factors, the economy and legislation.
Recent legislative changes have led to a dramatic change in products being brought to market. In California and Vermont, new laws requiring bronze to be lead free by a new definition was enacted January 1, 2010. Federal and State governments have always known the hazards of lead and required lead free products. The problem was, what was meant by the definition of “lead free”. In some Federal requirements for backflow preventers and other plumbing products, it is said bronze shall contain less than 8.0% lead by composition to be considered lead free. In an effort to further remove exposure to lead California and Vermont took the definition to a lower level of 0.25% of the exposed wetted area.
Lead has been used in bronze to improve the alloy since before the Roman Empire. Lead has certain properties that make bronze a more well-rounded and usable alloy. Due to these lower lead level requirements, manufacturers must now review all bronze items main bodies as well as internal parts. This reduction in lead content has caused manufacturers to look for new metals to form an economical and easy to use bronze alloy. New materials are being examined to replace the 8% of lead in the bronze alloy but these new materials have significant cost increases in raw alloy cost and machining and manufacturing costs. Some manufacturers are even looking toward alternative non-bronze materials such as stainless steel and engineered polymers to assure their products are in compliance. Many people say “who cares what they do in California?” However, on January 5, 2011 the 111th Congress of the United States passed an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SB-3874) requiring the Federal definition to mirror the California and Vermont legislation. The Federal requirement takes effect approximately January 5, 2014 and all bronze plumbing products, which convey drinking water including backflow preventers will have to be in compliance.
Backflow technology trends
Backflow prevention manufacturers have always been under pressure to produce a reliable product more economically. Anyone can design something cheaper, but the product must still work when the hydraulic backflow condition is present. To assure the backflow preventers can stop backflow when needed, an approval process for all backflow prevention products has become mandatory and demanded by the public to assure their reliability in performance. The Foundation for Cross Connection Control & Hydraulic Research within the Engineering School at the University of Southern California has become the internationally recognized expert on approval of backflow prevention products. Their work and research has guided manufacturers to produce products that are reliably tested to assure they prevent backflow. The market system assures cost is taken into consideration once the products are approved.
Manufacturers have tried to provide features to their products that can reduce installation costs for the installing contractors. By making them lighter and more compact they require less physical space and equipment to install in a piping system. This smaller more compact size has led to the ability to use smaller valve enclosures and freeze protection when needed. This trend to lighter and more compact has helped to lower the average installation cost of backflow preventers.
Historically, backflow preventers utilized a horizontal installation orientation. This caused the larger assemblies (4″ -10″) to take up several running feet of installation space needed in a piping system. New approvals are coming out allowing certain assemblies to take that horizontal body and flip it into a vertical orientation following the piping up a wall. This sounds simple, but many assemblies arbitrarily taken from a horizontal to a vertical installation hydraulically will not prevent backflow. This new demand for vertical orientation design has caused manufacturers to address this feature in their designs.
The cost of maintenance is becoming another factor that contractors are evaluating and manufacturers are addressing. It is labor and material intensive to repair most older designs in the field. Field repair of newer designs is becoming far less labor and material intensive. Unfortunately, when business was good, some contractors, not well trained in backflow preventer repair, would mistakenly tell their customers that it is cheaper to replace small assemblies (1/2″ – 2″). As the economy has shifted, these same customers are questioning these statements and finding better educated contractors who can repair, rather than replace, installed assemblies when possible.
For a couple more years, backflow preventers will contain leaded bronze. For decades, bronze has been recycled through scrap dealers. The ever-increasing cost of copper (the major ingredient in bronze) has led to a proliferation of theft of installed backflow preventers and of other copper and bronze plumbing and electrical items. The most common theft has occurred on irrigation installations. Thieves remove the assemblies, and nobody realizes the irrigation is off until the sprinkler system is needed or until plant material dries up. Many new theft prevention devices, such as lockable enclosures, are coming to the market.
In any industry, trends can be short or long. The trend for more economical manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of backflow preventers will continue beyond good and bad economic times. The education of contractors who install and repair backflow preventers will help them be more efficient in their business. These are the trends for today. What the future holds is anybodies guess. In the past, manufacturers produced products they could make easily and economically. The future design features are forcing manufacturers to talk to their customers and provide the product features they want to see.;
Jim Purzycki is a wholesale master parts distributor of backflow prevention assemblies with BAVCO. Jim belongs to many industry associations (Fire, Plumbing, Irrigation & Water Works) and sits on national and regional cross-connection control committees. Jim teaches many backflow-related classes and seminars across the country.
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