What started as a ban in the European Union has become a movement in the U.S. It is a movement away from lead. Lead-free wheel weights are sweeping the U.S. marketplace, and manufacturers and dealers are taking a new look at this often-overlooked part of tire maintenance and service.
Using wheel weights to balance your customers’ wheels is important for a smoother ride. Other advantages include better gas mileage and more even tire wear. Traditionally, the industry has used lead wheel weights. Now that’s changing.
California, Washington, Vermont, Maine, Illinois and New York have enacted laws that ban or limit the use of lead wheel weights. Four more states have wheel weight legislation that is pending.
“The transition away from lead wheel weights started with a ban on them in the European Union, on July 1, 2005,” says Kevin Keefe, vice president of marketing for Hennessy Industries. “What happened was automobile manufacturers in the United States that sold vehicles in the EU had to figure out how they were going to deal with that issue. General Motors took the lead and decided they would change over 100%, for all vehicle production, to lead-free weights.”
Keefe says a manufacturer’s alternative to a 100% changeover is to have two different platforms, one for lead and one for lead-free wheel weights. In the current economic times, that isn’t cost-effective. Switching away from lead wheel weights across the board will be the most profitable move in the long run.
“After GM analyzed all the available substitutes they determined that from a long-term cost perspective and from ultimately an environmental perspective, that steel was the best choice,” says Keefe. “So we worked very closely with General Motors to develop the first steel wheel weight manufactured in the United States. In 2005 we started plant conversions.”
Keefe says the large national chains with operations in states that enacted lead-free legislation had somewhat the same choice that GM had. They had to either convert in the states that require it and use lead in the other states, or make a change across the entire operation. That is what many large dealers and mass merchandisers have done.
“Lead-free is growing consistently and every year we are producing fewer and fewer lead weights,” says Mark Aiken, vice president of sales and marketing, Plombco Inc. “Demand for lead is going down and what we’re seeing are markets that aren’t required to do it, actually choosing to do it. Some do it to be corporate citizens; some do it to get ahead of the game and not have to deal with this when it’s forced upon them.”
Aiken believes that when there is a rule making and an implementation of lead-free wheel weights, it will be difficult to get anyone to take back lead weights. There will be no use for them, and inventories will have to be disposed of properly or recycled.
“We’ve seen a huge trend of lead weight demand going down,” Aiken explains. “Lead weights will eventually be gone, but not until there is legislation.”
Wheel weight manufacturers have more to worry about than just legislation. Another factor that has an impact on the wheel weight industry is the increasing length of service intervals for new vehicles.
“New car manufacturers are putting more miles in between rotations and between rebalancing,” says Brian Hodge, marketing director, International Marketing Inc. (IMI). “Five years ago on my car it was rotate and rebalance every 6,000 miles. Now new cars can go 20,000 miles, or more, without rebalancing. They get rotated at 10,000, and then again at 20,000, but only rebalanced if the customer requests it.”
What weights are on the market?
With shifting regulations and an evolving marketplace, wheel weight companies are challenged to keep up. The main manufacturers each have products that are unique. They have also found ways to be cost-efficient with materials that are more expensive than lead.
3M Wheel Weight System
The 3M Wheel Weight System combines a lead-free wheel balancing material with 3M Acrylic Foam Tape adhesive. The product provides an all-in-one, securely attached wheel weight balancing system. The 3M Wheel Weight System consists of a flexible, conformable material available in an easy-to-use, self-dispensing package used with a stand and cutting device. Features include 3M’s Attachment Tape technology for dependable attachment. The system provides an all-in-one, securely attached wheel weight balancing system.
“Our lead-free composite construction delivered on a roll hasn’t changed,” says Kyle Lasenby, business/marketing manager, 3M Automotive Division. “But we consistently work with our customers to develop new profiles that fit the needs of the market.”
IMI’s XACTBalance truck weights consist of free-moving steel particles in a flexible thermoplastic shell. The particles move and adjust to changing speed, load and tread wear by targeting the exact location of imbalance, for the life of the tire. IMI says XACTBalance offers a 40-60% greater vibration reduction than clip-on weights. The adhesive backing provides compatibly for flangeless, performance wheels and low-profile tires. While the weights are primarily for commercial trucks, IMI does have an XACTBalance line for cars and light trucks.
Hennessy Industries’ BADA division recently launched three new styles of steel Tape-A-Weight products. In addition to BADA’s 7026FE style of low-profile steel strip-and-roll products, the company now offers 7025-FET, 7025-FE and 7024-FE products.
The 7025 FET steel Tape-A-Weight product is 25 standard profile strips of quarter-ounce segments with Tape-On-Top. The 7025-FE steel Tape-A-Weight product is 25 standard profile strips of quarter-ounce segments with no Tape-On-Top. The 7024-FE steel Tape-A-Weight product from the value line is 16 standard profile strips of quarter-ounce segments with economy coating and no Tape-On-Top. All three new Tape-A-Weight styles are manufactured at BADA’s Bowling Green, Ky., plant and feature BADA’s premium-quality adhesive backing, say Hennessy officials.
Zinc and steel weights from Perfect Equipment
Perfect Equipment Inc. says it is the longest-tenured wheel weight manufacturer still in existence. The company manufactures lead-free weights out of zinc and steel using several patented processes.
“The benefits of using zinc and steel as a lead-free alternative are that it provides shop owners with a similar appearance and installation process as with the traditional lead products they are used to using, without sacrificing retention and corrosion,” says Greg Parker, marketing manager at Perfect Equipment.
Perfect Equipment offers a full catalog of weight types in steel and zinc, including clamp-on and adhesives, for light passenger vehicles and light trucks, all the way to heavy-duty commercial equipment.
Perfect Equipment says that due to its OEM partnerships, it is able to utilize its history in R&D to perfect its product offering, and then offer those same products and technologies to the aftermarket.
Plombco Inc. zinc and steel weights
Plombco Inc. offers a complete line of zinc and steel products for OE and aftermarket applications. The company also offers lead weights, while there is still a market for them. Plombco likely will increase steel weight production as lead disappears.
“Most of the corporate decisions that have been made in OE have veered toward steel,” says Aiken. “What you see happening is a lot of the independents are choosing zinc. Part of the reason for that is people look at a zinc weight and it looks like a lead weight. For them, it’s a more natural transition to go that way.”
Aiken says steel weights look quite different from the lead weights everyone is familiar with. And while zinc weights look similar to lead, both steel and zinc wheel weights perform well. When Plombco started moving away from lead, the company originally offered zinc weights.
“We were the first to make a zinc wheel weight in North America, in 2003,” says Aiken. “We originally started making zinc for Honda on the OE side at their request. A natural transition for a lead wheel weight manufacturer is zinc because it’s die-cast, so it’s a similar product. When you get into steel, it’s a stamped product, so it’s different.”
Aiken says Plombco began focusing on steel weights when that was the direction many OEs were taking. He says steel is more stable from a raw material standpoint. The price of steel doesn’t jump up and down as much as lead and zinc prices do.
“When you come to steel, there are a lot more processes that are a part of the costs,” Aiken explains, “such as equipment, tooling, that sort of thing. So raw material has a little bit less of an impact than zinc or lead where it’s a much bigger portion – upwards of 50% of the cost – to manufacture.”
Wurth USA’s strip/roll zinc and steel weights
Wurth USA Inc. offers a full-line of wheel weight programs in steel and zinc. The company’s wheel weights are available individually, in strips and as roll packaging.
“We want to provide our customers with the correct wheel weight solutions for proper repair and maintenance of the car owner’s tires,” says Daniel Molinari, product manager. “If our customers are using the correct wheel weights together, we increase the chances of a proper repair/maintenance and ultimately the safety of the driver and passengers. We also take our environment into account and offer a non-lead solution in steel and zinc. We feel that it is our duty to do our part not only in those states which are already lead-free, but in those states which have no legislature regarding lead wheel weights.”
Wurth USA’s most recent addition to its wheel weight line is steel 10- and 20-pound rolls in 1/4-oz., 1/2-oz. and 5-gram increments. It is a no-waste, cutting or measuring system with OE adhesive. “As suppliers we need to maintain our commitment to non-lead wheel weights and continue to drive programs which educate our customers on the benefits of non-lead wheel weights,” says Molinari.
Dishwashing detergent vs. lead weights?
It’s only a matter of time before lead wheel weights are phased out. But, will it happen because the federal government enacts a ban, or will a majority of states do it first?
“When I’m talking about the subject I like to equate it to dishwasher detergent,” says Brian Hodge, marketing director of IMI, manufacturer of XACTBalance wheel weights. “They took the phosphate out of dishwashing detergent late last year because there were enough states that put regulations on the amount of phosphates that can go into wastewater. So your Proctor & Gambles of the world were saying, ‘We’re not going to make one dishwashing detergent for one set of states, and another for another set of states.’”
As a result, manufacturers have discontinued dishwasher detergent containing phosphates. Hodge believes the same kind of thing will be true of lead wheel weights.
“We’re not going to need all the states to go anti-lead. It’s just going to take enough of them to make it a disadvantage for the distributors and parts wholesalers to try to carry both lead and non-lead.”
Hodge says IMI is already ahead of the game since the company doesn’t produce lead weights.