Do Mercury Switches Always Have To Be Replaced

Juliet D'cruz

Updated on:

Mercury switchers were once common components used in many applications. The small amount of mercury contained in these switches works as a reliable conductive element. When a tilt switch or tilt sensor is subjected to a change in orientation, the mercury will respond by rolling into or away from the switches leads to trigger a response. Since mercury is inexpensive and resistant to corrosion, it served well in such a capacity. But since the environmental and health hazards of mercury have been well established, older mercury switches are now consistently replaced with mercury-free options.

If you come across an older mercury switch, does this mean you always have to urgently buy mercury-free tilt switches to update your equipment? What are the standards when it comes to updating a tilt trim switch, thermostat, or adjustable tilt switch in an otherwise functional piece of equipment? What is the protocol for dealing with old mercury switches once they’ve been removed? The following information will help answer these and other questions related to tilt switches and other sensor components that contain mercury.

Do Mercury Switches Need To Be Replaced If They Still Work?

Most laws do not require immediate replacement of a mercury switch if it’s sealed and still in working order. However, it’s a good idea to plan for an update when possible. Replacing an older mercury switch with a mercury-free option can help maintain the safety of the equipment. If the equipment is damaged or upset in a way that could cause the switch to crack or leak, then hazardous waste exposure will be the result. Contact with mercury could cause birth defects, brain and or nerve damage, and other serious issues. Ideally, the risk of contact with mercury should always be mitigated. That’s why it’s better to be proactive about replacing a mercury switch, even if it’s not an urgent requirement.   

What Components Are Used Instead Of Mercury Switches?

There are a variety of switches and sensors that can be used to perform the same function as a mercury switch. Mercury-free switches will use alternative components as the conductive element, including ball bearings and electrolyte fluids. These components respond to changes in angle and will create a circuit between the switch’s leads in the same manner as the small bead of mercury used for the same purpose. A tilt switch manufacturer can readily provide guidance on mercury switch alternatives that are most suitable for an application.

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Do Mercury Switches Have To Be Professionally Replaced

Depending on your level of technical know-how, you can complete a mercury switch replacement on your own or through the services of a maintenance professional. Regardless of who completes the update, the removed mercury switch should be safely handled and contained per your local hazardous waste handling requirements. This usually involves keeping the old switch in an airtight container that cannot be easily compressed or crushed. Switches may also need to be wrapped in protective padding, such as bubble-wrap or foam, so there is no danger of the switch cracking or leaking within the container. All containers that contain mercury switches should be clearly labeled and stored in a place where they will not be disturbed or pose any safety hazards.      

How Should Mercury Switches Be Disposed Of?   

When it’s time to dispose of a mercury switch, the sealed container keeping the switch should be taken to an appropriate waste handling or collection site. These are usually managed by state or municipal agencies. Alternatively, some federal programs do maintain mercury collection programs, which provide instruction on safely shipping the switch to the appropriate agency or facility.

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