Volume 34, Number 2, February 1999


Leading the Way

Lead-Free Spandrel Production 
in the United States Approaches 100 Percent

by Jerry Heider

Nearly 100 percent of all glass spandrels produced in the United States in 1999 will be decorated with lead-free enamels. This impressive industry achievement started in 1991 when Northwestern Industries, Inc. in Seattle and Milgard Tempering in Tacoma became the first glass manufacturers to adopt lead-free enamels for all of its spandrel production. This was made possible by the industry’s first successful development of lead-free spandrel enamels by Cerdec’s Glass Division. Other glass manufacturers quickly followed and adopted lead-free enamels.

By 1995, some 90 percent of all spandrels produced in the United States were lead-free. Currently only a few U.S. glass plants are using leaded enamels to decorate spandrels but they also are shifting production to lead-free products. One manufacturer’s spandrel production is already 90 percent lead-free and two others are 25 percent and 15 percent lead-free. More of its remaining production will be switched to lead-free enamels in future months.

Both Northwestern Industries and Milgard Tempering were motivated by several benefits including an improved production environment for employees, increased production efficiencies, reduced costs to dispose of non-hazardous waste and easy clean up with water. They also anticipated the passage of more stringent federal and state regulations regarding lead and other heavy metals.

Production benefits attained from roller coating lead-free enamels were also a strong incentive. With roller coating a decorator can cover almost twice as much spandrel, some 18 to 20 square feet, with one pound of lead-free color compared to ten square feet of spandrel per pound applied by spraying. There is also considerably less waste.

"We wanted to stay ahead of government regulations affecting heavy metals, but, equally important, this would improve working conditions for employees in our production area and it would be a lot easier to dispose of lead-free waste," said Rick Nelson, sales manager for Northwestern Industries.

Jim Sheehan, sales manager for Milgard, said his company, "has always been committed to protecting the environment and looking out for the health and welfare of our employees."

The technical challenges involved in developing lead-free enamels were significant, especially color-matching the new products to leaded colors. The first lead-free enamels included a very limited pallet of yellows, oranges and reds. The ultimate key to success was a unique patented formula that our company developed which enables the company to produce unleaded enamels that meet current performance specifications of the Glass Association of North America.

The performance of spandrels coated with lead-free enamels installed in all kinds of buildings in every geographic climate in the United States eight years ago compares favorably to leaded spandrel enamels. This is a harsh but accurate indicator of the quality and durability of unleaded enamels because spandrels are subjected to rapid and extreme changes of temperature, humidity, condensation and chemical changes on the inner surfaces.

Many industry observers have noted that the acceptance of lead-free enamels by the glass industry was one of the most effective yet least heralded examples of the adoption and diffusion of new technology.

With the use of lead-free enamels for spandrels, now an industry standard in the United States, the use of decorated glass is also expected to increase because of its appeal and attraction for architects and designers of commercial buildings and homes. Architects are expected to play a greater role in the future growth of lead-free enamels as they recommend decorated glass spandrels for heat and light control, privacy, more effective sources of diffused natural light, room dividers, decorative walls and a variety of other uses.

The use of lead-free enamels for spandrels outside the United States is quite a different matter. Although sales have increased, they are only a fraction of U.S. sales. This is expected to change, however, with the imminent threat of tougher regulations affecting the use of lead in the workplace and environmental hazards from leaded wastes.

An increase in roller coating is also expected to stimulate the acceptance of lead-free enamels for spandrels. In the past year or so there was a surprising increase of 18 roller coating start-ups and planned start-ups in the United States, Canada and abroad. Nine are in the United States, four in Canada, three in Germany, one in Poland and one in South Africa.

Jerry Heider is Cerdec vice president and head of the glass division. He has been in the glass and ceramic industry for more than 25 years. He is also chairman of the board of Schilling’s Graphics.


Copyright 1999 Key Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.