Indiana contractor recycles mercury thermostats, urges others to do same

April 4, 2000
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INDIANAPOLIS, IN — Mercury is in the rocks, soil, air, and in living organisms. Mercury can be gas, liquid, or solid, and its properties include high conductivity and liquidity at room temperature.

These properties make mercury a useful component in electrical switches, including thermostats. Mercury is also used in dental amalgams, thermometers, lighting, electrical equipment, laboratory chemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

So why all the concern about mercury?

Think back to a Simpsons’ episode a few years ago, when Bart and Lisa come across a two-headed fish in the river. It was discovered that town villain Montgomery Burns was dumping chemicals, polluting the town’s lakes and rivers.

While nobody has yet discovered a two-headed fish in their neighborhood lake and blamed it on mercury, there’s no question that it can be a problem.

Bacteria and other processes in lakes and rivers can convert mercury into methylmercury, which fish may acquire from the water and food they eat. Methylmercury will build up in the fish tissue and may then be carried up the food chain to humans. Mercury contamination can affect the human central nervous system, kidneys, and liver.

Indiana gets on board

Indiana first became concerned with mercury around 1994, when it started looking for ways in which to keep mercury out of the waste stream.

Mercury thermostats were identified as a potential problem, so the Indiana Department of Environ-mental Management (IDEM) contacted Honeywell, Minneapolis, MN, which had already been collecting and recycling mercury thermostats, and asked if it could also participate in the recycling program.

Not wanting to absorb all the costs of such a thermostat recycling program, Honeywell joined with White-Rodgers and GE to create the Thermostat Recycling Corp. (TRC), a not-for-profit company in Minnesota. But before it could consider collecting thermostats, Indiana had to first pass a universal waste rule, saying it was all right to ship mercury — a hazardous substance — in the state.

Then, TRC and IDEM worked closely with the EPA in order to get the entire Region 5 area (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) on board. Each state had to pass its own universal waste rule, so that thermostats could pass without trouble.

IDEM contacted the central Indiana Air Conditioning Contrac-tors of America (ACCA) chapter in 1997, asking if their members would consider recycling thermostats. The ACCA group was willing to commit to such a pledge program, meaning it’s a voluntary program, not a law.

“Our association board agreed that the pledge program was the right thing to do, so we took it to our association members, which consist of 143 contractors and suppliers, and it was openly accepted,” says Joe Huck, president of Huck Heating & Air Conditioning and immediate past president of the central Indiana chapter.

Huck adds that it’s extremely irresponsible to knowingly throw mercury thermostats in the trash. “Mercury is not a degradable substance. It goes to the water and the fish eat it, then you eat it, and you could die. I think that’s bad.”

Contractors jaded

Even though the central Indiana ACCA members agreed to get on board, not everyone was happy. Paula Smith, branch chief, Office of Voluntary Compliance, IDEM, notes that contractors don’t generally like being told what to do.

“The hvac industry didn’t have a real positive viewpoint of government after the whole CFC issue. Even though the thermostat program is voluntary, some don’t understand it, and they don’t want to get involved.”

Huck agrees that some contractors grumble about complying with the pledge because they don’t like to be told what to do. “But this is a pledge program — it’s voluntary. It isn’t regulated, and that’s the good thing about this.”

Huck notes that he would like to see mercury recycling become a law, but that it’s not likely to happen for a long time.

Smith adds that once contractors take the time to understand the program, it’s easier to get them to participate. The same holds for suppliers; however, some just don’t want to be bothered with the whole issue.

For participating in the pledge program, Smith sees that each contractor receives patches for their uniforms or hats, as well as stickers for their windows.

Good reason to sell

IDEM encourages contractors to recommend electronic thermostats to customers rather than mercury thermostats.

However, Smith notes that she occasionally gets calls from contractors who are frustrated that some customers — particularly older customers — refuse an electronic thermostat, because they think it’s too confusing to program. “When that happens, there’s not much you can do,” admits Smith.

Huck says he doesn’t even make it an option for his customers. “We do not use mercury at Huck Heating — period. We always budget for energy-saving programmable electronic thermostats on every job we do. If you don’t want to use the programmability features on your thermostat, then don’t.”

He adds that electronic thermostats, in general, are not much more expensive than mercury thermostats. And don’t even suggest a bimetal thermostat. “It’s not the right thing to do,” says Huck.

In addition to Region 5, the thermostat recycling program is currently offered in Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, and most recently, the states from Virginia to Maine. For more information about the program, contact Ric Erdheim, executive director of TRC: 703-841-3249.

Sidebar: Easy to participate

Taking part in the thermostat recycling initiative is remarkably easy. The supplier or wholesaler pays a $15 fee for the container from TRC. Then s/he places the container where the contractors can see it.

Contractors gather mercury thermostats and place them in the bin when they visit the supplier. When the bin is full, the supplier ships the container to TRC, which ships back a new container. It’s a no-brainer, says contractor Huck.

TRC removes the mercury from the thermostats, reconditions the mercury, and places it back into products that are being made today.

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