By Steve LaFerre
Despite rumblings from various industry bodies, the wheel-weight world will eventually become lead free. It will happen, but when?
Europe has banned all lead wheel weights, and so has Japan. In fact, every automobile being imported to the U.S. from those ports are totally lead free. To that list add General Motors, which has jumped on the lead-free bandwagon. Every vehicle GM exports from the U.S. to Europe must be lead-free, from wheel weights to battery terminals. Same for Japan.
Moreover, an ever increasing number of GM automobiles bound for the domestic market are equipped with non-lead wheel weights, and tire dealers in the U.S. are about to encounter them.
Although the predominate weight of choice remains lead, the picture is changing. Ford is right behind GM in this chase, so expect some Ford automobiles to turn up with non-lead wheel weights in a few months. There is also strong speculation that DaimlerChrysler will soon follow suit.
A quick check of two wheel-weight manufacturers confirms the point. Perfect Equipment produces lead, steel and zinc wheel weights for the OE and replacement markets, with lead being the clear leader in the aftermarket for now. The picture is the same at the Bada division of Hennessy Industries.
POSTAL SERVICE WEIGHS IN
Even the U.S. Postal Service is behind the lead-free push. Late in 2006, the U.S. Postal Service Pacific Area Environmental Unit conducted a pilot program in Honolulu and California using 30,000 steel wheel weights at 14 of its vehicle maintenance shops.
“Our primary interest was in the application process,” said Patrick Langsjoen with the USPS in San Francisco. “We didn’t want to buy new balancing equipment, and we didn’t want to spend time and money retraining our people. Our initial reports are good, exactly what we hoped to hear from everyone working on the project.”
In the state of Washington, a bill mandating the use of non-lead wheel weights is sitting in a special committee waiting approval to go to the floor for passage. Across the country, Maine is going to equip its state vehicles with non-lead wheel weights. Minnesota enacted such legislation a year ago, as did the city of Ann Arbor, MI. Others are expected to follow their lead.
Speaking for the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Jeff Gearhart, campaign manager, said, “Our priority is to eliminate the use of lead in wheel weights and the release of lead into the environment.” Gearhart said that of all the new vehicles being built today, some 50% are using lead-free wheel weights, with close to 100% to be equipped with lead-free wheel weights by the end of 2007.
“More and more states will require the change from lead wheel weights to lead-free wheel weights,” he said. “What we need now is a timeline and a mandate for phasing out lead and inviting others to join in the move to develop non-lead wheel weights.
“We are waiting for industry leadership at the moment,” said Gearhart. “That is happening among the makers of wheel weights, but their efforts and the efforts expended by the OEMs haven’t seemed to have attracted much attention from the tire industry and the Tire Industry Association (TIA).
“In the meantime, the use of non-lead wheel weights will be driven by the OEMs and government agencies. The aftermarket needs to get ready for the changeover.”
TIA STILL HAS QUESTIONS
TIA’s Paul Fiore ensures us that TIA is not opposed to non-lead wheel weights. “We support the movement away from lead,” he said. “But, we have concerns, and they are tied to the fact that we need a very clear timetable for the transition. Failing to do so could leave tire dealers without a ready supply of non-lead wheel-weight alternatives.
“Worse, what happens when a dirty tire/wheel assembly comes through the door and the guy on the tire balancer can’t determine if he’s looking at a lead weight or a steel weight? They’ll look just about the same,” said Fiore.
“We know that steel is a friendlier metal with fewer toxicity issues. We also believe that the Ecology Center is working with flawed numbers.” Fiore points specifically to the Center’s claim that 1,600 metric tons of lead is released each year onto U.S. roadways from wheel weights that fall off during use.
“A semi-hysterical rush to judgment from the Ecology Center isn’t what’s needed right now,” he said. “Our position is that we need to know how to identify what kind of wheel weight we are holding in our hands, and there are issues with recycling and a possible lead-weight blackmarket.
“In other words, we are not opposed to the Ecology Center or anyone else who wants to transition to lead-free weights. All we want is the time needed to make sure we are making a move that is in the best interests of our tire dealers, our customers and our environment.”
WHEEL WEIGHT MAKERS SPEAK
We have two major challenges at least, said Kevin Keefe, Hennessy’s director of marketing. “The first is how to handle the recycling of old lead weights, the second is working with steel and/or zinc so we match up closely with the density and specific gravity of lead. We must also look into the matter of what happens to old lead wheel weights. We can report that much of this recycled lead will be used in lead-acid batteries since there is no viable alternative.”
Currently, Bada is supplying lead, steel and zinc wheel weights to OE and aftermarket customers. “We expect to see someone maybe a large, multi-outlet tire dealer or tiremaker embrace non-lead wheel weights,” said Keefe. “But, until that happens, we will wait on market forces among the OEMs to initiate the changeover, and they are looking at us to develop still more alternatives to lead-free weights.”
In that interest, Keefe said his company is looking at a “poly metal alloy,” a combination of plastic and metals and a substance called bismuth, a by-product of lead mining. All are currently very expensive. “Right now, lead is the perfect material for a good tire balance, and it is not expensive. Steel is more expensive and zinc more expensive still.
Although Keefe believes steel wheel weights will ultimately carry the day, he can’t rule out other alternatives. “A steel wheel weight is 10% larger than a lead wheel weight, and zinc is 10% larger than steel,” he said. “As the weight gets longer, the center of gravity changes, something that would call for more re-spins in the balancing process.
At Perfect Equipment, Mike Pursley, vice president of sales and marketing, says his company is currently shipping lead, steel and zinc wheel weights to the OEMs and waiting for the aftermarket to catch up.
“Right now, the U.S. is caught in the middle of choosing zinc, steel or still another alternative,” he said. “One thing is clear: Domestic wheel weight producers are prepared to move beyond lead weights as soon as the market dictates the shift.”