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Toilet manufacturers noted that lead times are rising for newly required ultra-low-flow toilets, presaging a shortage for summer 1994. They said that the delivery problems for the toilets and possible other products could last until 1995. Lead times have increased from three to five weeks for American Standard, one week to seven weeks for Gerber's, and two weeks to nine weeks for Universal-Rundle.

A SHORTAGE OF newly mandated, ultra-low-flow water closets appears inevitable for this summer, according to a variety of manufacturers. With lead times already rising, some vendors predict deliveries could take up to 14 weeks. Some also foresee this shortfall causing difficulties with other product shipments and remaining a problem until sometime in 1995 Visit page:

"The only questions in my mind are how long the shortage will last and how severe it will be this summer," says Bob Srenaski, vice president/group marketing for American Standard's U.S. Plumbing unit. "He who doesn't plan ahead now will be in trouble later."

Estimates for the magnitude of the looming problem vary by company, with some already experiencing long lead times. American Standard reports its three-week cycle has increased to five weeks. Gerber's lead time has grown to seven weeks, when it should be one week at this time of year. At Universal-Rundle, a typical two-week turnaround now runs nine or 10 weeks, the company reports. Briggs now is beginning to experience longer lead times too.

But not everyone agrees with the supply-shortfall scenario. "I don't believe there will be a shortage, although we have seen a remarkable surge in orders," says Mark Haddock, vice president/marketing for Mansfield Plumbing Products. "We anticipate that we will reduce our six-week lead time in the second quarter of this year, as our manufacturing results continue to improve. Nevertheless, our increase in volume is significant and sizable."

Adds Kohler vice president/sales Dave Harrison, speaking in early March: "It's difficult to imagine that real demand grew more than 50% above the norm in the past few months. I don't believe the real market has grown so dramatically. In fact, in the last month, business has slowed down somewhat because of the weather. So who knows where the real market is?

"It is possible that what we're experiencing is some market-hedging that often occurs when demand threatens to exceed supply. At Kohler, we feel our current manufacturing capacity with the adjustments we are making is adequate to take care of our distributors' needs for the balance of the year."

Eljer reports that its orders are current, "and we plan to stay there," says group product manager Scott Atcheson. This performance tracks back to last summer when the firm added capacity and changed emphasis in its product line, he says. "We put some serious forethought into what was going to happen, and took a strategic position last August to de-emphasize our 3.5-gallon line. We discontinued some products as planned and made the conversion early. Our customers are thanking us now."

What most manufacturers say is happening can be traced to six key elements, four on the demand side and two or supply. The factors increasing demand include:

1) Increased construction work: Housing starts are predicted to rise 11% to 1.43 million in 1994 on top of a 7.1% increase last year, according to the National Association of Home Builders. They key ingredient: single-family housing starts will make up 1.23 million of the total, up from 1.12 million in 1993.

In addition, the remodeling market has grown substantially. Cahners Economics estimates that remodeling expenditures will total $117.8 billion this year, up 8% from 109.1 million in 1993.

2) Disaster recoveries: Adding to the resurgence of the housing and remodeling markets are unanticipated construction opportunities: continuing recoveries from Hurricane Andrew in Florida, the Midwest floods and the Northridge, Calif., earthquake. "Demand is unnaturally high right now," says Robert Regal, president of Universal-Rundle My blog:

3) Rebates for replacement: On top of the traditional construction markets, the replacement market is booming. Rebate programs to encourage the installation of low-flow , 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf) toilets, such as the three-year, $300-million effort in New York City, are being considered by a host of other municipalities, too. "Cutting the amount of water cuts the need for new sewage-treatment plants," Srenaski says. "I believe this is an isolated but growing trend."

4) Advance buying: As a result of this demand, and the increasing lead times already being experienced, some distributors and contractors are buying prior to need, Regal says. "They see the long lead times developing, so they double their usual order," he says. "It's not panic-buying, but it is forward-buying. If everyone does that, it lengthens lead times, but doesn't end up creating a shortage when it's time to install the product."

Others, however, doubt that too many distributors have added to inventories. "Our orders for December through February were 25% ahead of last year," says Ron Grabski, vice president/manager at Gerber Plumbing Fixtures. "The dilemma is: Was that product being sold, or was it being used to restock shelves as it usually is during this period? My guess is that it was going out the door. Our orders are still going up, and that wouldn't happen it the product was still in inventory. So when orders really take off in the spring, things will fall further behind."

In most years, even this increased demand would not impact sales dramatically. But this year, the National Energy Policy Act of 1992 has mandated that no more residential 3.5 gpf toilets can be manufactured. Even the provision that any 3.5 gpf models made prior to Jan. 1 can be sold isn't offsetting the demand for 1.6 gpf units, says Srenaski.

"The market for 3.5 units is drying up. We can sell them, but many states are discouraging their installation." In fact, he adds, 60% of the population lives in states that already passed some type of legislation requiring the new toilet configuration Read more: My page.

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