RoHS Compliance – What Does It Mean To Musicians?

logo1.gif We are a world in crisis. The inherent greed and gluttony has been turned inward on us. This time however, it is not the collapse of the Roman Empire at stake, but the destruction of our life-supporting ecosystems. Mother Nature is trying to say that she’s had enough.The electronics industry has always employed the use of toxins and heavy metals in abundance. There are solvents, cleaners, solder, flux, plating, coatings…all used in tandem to create the amp you play through, the mic you sing into, the pickups and electronics in your guitar, and the pedals used to get “your sound”. In addition, we have had our beepers, Walkmans, endless cellphones, iPod, headphones and numerous other electronic gadgets we tote around. Thanks to advances in modern technology, together with Far East production (read that as: CHEAP), these items have become disposable technology, together with the disposable batteries used to power them. These countless items, dumped into the ground, are poisoning our planet and consequently, us.

Let’s back up a minute: before ANY of these items ever gets disposed of, they need to be manufactured first. The manufacturing of electronic components and circuit boards depends heavily on the use of solvents and cleaners. Most of the solvents are hydrocarbon derivatives e.g. acetone, xylene, benzene, methyl-ethyl ketone, et al. The cleaners used on circuit boards and components are a different breed called “CFC”, an acronym for Chloro-FlouroCarbons. Unlike the aforementioned hydrocarbon solvents, these cleaners are non-toxic, non-flammable, and non-reactive with other chemical compounds. They remove impurities while leaving everything else intact, making them ideal for cleaning circuit boards, even ones that are “live”. The problem is that these substances contain chlorine, a major killer of the earth’s ozone layer, aka “greenhouse gas”. A popular CFC cleaner is a Dupont Chemical mainstay called Freon. What’s that you say? Isn’t that the same thing they use in refrigerators and air conditioners? Yes folks, it is. Therefore, the electronics industry has no corner on these toxic compounds.

In 1987, an agreement called the Montreal Protocol was drafted in Canada for North America. It calls for the reduction and eventual elimination of substances that deplete the ozone layer. It was enacted in 1989, and has had amendments added covering other cities around the world, most notably London, Copenhagen and Beijing.

The reason I am discussing the Montreal Protocol is to point out that, when the situation becomes potentially disastrous for human life, actions must be taken. The Montreal Protocol is a step in the right direction, but is not even close to being a solution.

Enter the “RoHS Directive”. RoHS (pronounced either “ROSS or “RO-HAS”) is an acronym for “Reduction of Hazardous Substances”, a European standard signed into action on July 1, 2006. This Directive bans the placing on the European market of new electrical and electronic equipment containing more than agreed levels of lead, cadmium, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) and polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants. Beepers, cell phones, Walkmans and other portable gadgets that were countlessly dumped into landfills are almost single-handedly responsible for this radical Directive, most notably for the lead, a toxic substance as we already know, leaching out of the solder and into the ground and water tables of locales near landfills worldwide. Other substances, such as PBB and PBDE flame-retardants are added to the plastic cases on many of these items, and many of the internal metal components are plated with cadmium to reduce corrosion and increase “solderability”. One little cell phone won’t poison the planet, but hundreds of millions of them and similar gadgets WILL, so the European government stepped up to the plate.

What affects us in everyday life is the elimination of lead in the solder that holds electronic components to the circuit boards contained within the devices we use every day. Lead-based electronic solder alloy is typically composed of 60% tin and 40% lead. The lead is added to lower the melting point of the tin, as well as eliminate the brittleness and dull appearance of pure tin. In addition, it helps control a phenomenon called “tin whiskers”. Under certain conditions, usually extremes (like tube guitar amps), pure tin can crystallize on the surface of the solder joint and grow “whiskers” thinner than a human hair, and upwards of ¼” in length. These “whiskers” can find other component leads and create a short. Coupled with the brittleness of pure tin, we can see that pure tin would not make the most satisfactory solder for electronics that must withstand mechanical shock and temperature extremes.

RoHS-compliant solder is 96% tin, 3.5% silver and .5% copper. Silver and copper are added to reduce the brittleness and quell (to a point) the “tin whiskers” phenomenon, but problems can and do arise as a result of the RoHS solder. In the service industry, we have seen higher incidences of “cold” and cracked solder joints, and inspection of errant solder connections is far more difficult. With tin/lead solder, a poor solder joint appears dull and grainy. This is the NORM for RoHS solder. Hence, visual inspection during routine QC processes has been hampered.

These factors might lead one to think about devices far more crucial than guitar amps and effects, like medical electronics and avionics. It is no small coincidence that these industries are EXEMPT from using RoHS-compliant soldering and manufacturing techniques. After all, who would want to place the value of life and limb on a few dollars worth of solder?

The consumer industry, which includes musical instruments and related electronics, which are NOT typically disposable, has suffered as a result of the advent of small, disposable electronic items. This affects every musician who has purchased a commercially-produced electronic item since July1, 2006. Higher incidences of poor reliability are to be expected, and in units with densely-packed circuit boards, more “mystery” failures due to the tin whiskers phenomenon.

Most musicians just have to grin and bear it, but guitarists have more options. Guitar electronics can be made more reliable by re-flowing all solder joints and adding some good ol’ tin/lead solder. The same COULD be done with most amps and effects, but it would be a substantial undertaking due to the amount of PC board construction that is prevalent nowadays. Since smaller, non-commercial manufacturers are not legally-bound to RoHS compliance, you might also want to go the route of purchasing a custom guitar amp or having an amp kit built for you. If it is effect pedals you want, you can purchase and assemble clone-kits. As always, if you are not comfortable handling a soldering iron COMPETENTLY, turn the job over to someone who is.

As you can see, with a little imagination (and money doesn’t hurt either!), you CAN buy reliability. In addition, because you are not building or modifying a disposable item, you are not doing a thing to hurt the environment, just in case your “green side” feels a little guilty.

John R. Frondelli is the Technical Services Director at dBm Pro Audio in New York. He has been a technician for 30 years and has repaired, restored and custom built all types of musical equipment. Part of his client list includes Bob Dylan, Lenny Kravitz, U2 and The Who.

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