A few years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency targeted the passenger and light truck tire wheel weight industry in an effort to eliminate lead. Since these assemblies are commonly balanced at the factory and in the aftermarket, EPA concluded that 50 million lbs. of lead was used annually. Additionally, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that 2,000 metric tons (about 1.6 million lbs.) of lead weights “often come loose and fall off (and) they are either washed into storm sewers and end up in waterways or are gathered during street cleaning and placed in municipal landfills.”
At first, EPA sought an immediate ban on lead wheel weights, but after meeting with manufacturers, suppliers and service providers, the advantages of a voluntary approach became obvious. So the market was allowed to gradually phase out lead and the National Lead Free Wheel Weight Initiative (NLFWWI) was born. This voluntary effort to accelerate the transition from lead wheel weights to alternative materials, like steel, has been endorsed by a number of national tire retailers and has already been implemented by car manufacturers. The goal of the NLFWWI is to reduce the amount of lead released into the environment via wheel weights by 2011.
Now that the NLFWWI has signed up 40 charter members who will voluntarily eliminate the use of lead wheel weights, EPA is turning its attention to truck tire and wheel assembly balancing. For most fleets, the initiative will have little, if any, impact on operations. Contrary to what some government officials may think, it is my opinion that lead weight balancing on truck tires is not common nor is it a regularly accepted practice at the original equipment or aftermarket level. But that is not stopping the EPA from pursuing lead truck weights and the companies that use them.
The equipment for lead weight balancing is expensive, and few service providers have a “computer” balancer large enough for most truck tires. There's also the increasing number of aluminum rims in service, which are not ideally suited for attaching wheel weights to both rim flanges. While I would never argue with the USGS, I'm fairly certain any truck wheel weights on the side of the road would be fairly easy to recognize with little effort.
For those fleets that do utilize lead weight balancing, be prepared for a number of changes. Lead is a very dense material, which makes it ideal for balancing because it occupies a small space. Steel, on the other hand, does not have the same density so the wheel weight must be much larger than the lead alternative. A 20% increase isn't much of a difference when you're dealing with a one ounce weight. Truck weights, however, are as large as 16 ounces, so the 20% increase will result in a huge wheel weight. The other most notable change will be price, which also increases significantly.
I wish there was hope that the trucking and tire industries could convince the EPA that lead wheel weights are not going to fall off truck tires when they hit a pothole. We could probably produce data that shows the number of truck tires that are balanced with lead weights in the first place represents an extremely small percentage of the total population, but I seriously doubt it would be enough for the government to abandon its quest to eliminate lead.