We covered many of [Jason Rollette]’s personal projects in the past and are happy to welcome him as our newest Hack-A-Day contributor.
The electronics industry has shifted to lead free compliance, but most hobbyists haven’t even considered the personal impact of using lead. Today’s How-To will cover what it takes to switch from tin/lead solder to completely lead free. Our previous posts Introduction to soldering and the follow-up still apply to lead free. You may have never considered switching to lead free before, but we hope to help you make an informed decision.
Although the electronics industry has been directly targeted it only accounts for a small percentage of the lead used in manufacturing. The battery industry consumes nearly 80% of manufactured lead. Tire wheel weights also account for a larger percentage.
There are some good reasons for the hobbyist to convert to lead free solder, both personal safety and environmental. Lead poisoning can occur when lead enters the body through inhalation, ingestion or dermal contact such as direct contact to mouth, nose, eyes, and skin lesions. Even if you keep using tin/lead solder, wash your hands before and after you do anything. Most poisoning cases are from lead building up over time. The main environmental issue is lead leaching into drinking water or watersheds when disposed of improperly.
There are many different varieties of lead free solder. Two alloys seem be the most popular: SAC305 contains 96.5% tin, 3% silver, and 0.5% copper and melts at ~217C, SN100 contains 99.3% tin, 0.6% copper, and some nickel and silver and melts at ~228C. Choose whatever alloy and brand you feel is appropriate for you. Compare those alloys to traditional 63% tin and 37% lead melts that melts at ~183C. The higher melting point is part of what makes lead free harder to work with. We use SAC305 with a “no clean” flux core.
In addition to picking an alloy, you also need to decide on the diameter. We recommend for through hole .032″,.020″ and .015″ for SMT. Choosing the right diameter solder is very important to success. A finished joint viewed from the side should look like a little Hershey’s kiss, not an inflated balloon. The correct diameter solder makes this much easier to control.
A high wattage soldering iron with temperature adjustment is the best choice for precision work. Get a soldering iron with several sizes of replaceable tips for different soldering applications. Having a good iron makes soldering with lead free easier because of the higher melting point. It also helps to keep the dwell time as short as possible reducing damage to components caused by excessive heat.
Choosing the correct size tip for the job is perhaps the most important part for a new person learning to solder. Lead-free is less forgiving and the right tip will go a long way in preventing defects.
Using a tip that is too small will take longer, abuse the tip, and will not efficiently transfer heat to the joint. A small tip will seem too cold or too slow.
Using a tip that is too large will damage the circuit board, over heat and damage the parts, and burn off the flux too soon causing a bad joint.
Use tips that are designed for lead-free. Tips designed for lead free will have the longest life. The iron temperature should be set to 700-800F. Do not use pressure to compensate for lack of wetting and heat transfer; this will cause damage to the circuit board. Heat transfer is optimized by providing the best contact area.
Differences from tin/lead soldering
Tin/lead solder should not be mixed with lead free solder because it decreases the strength of the joint. Lead free parts can be used with tin/lead solder. You should try ordering all parts, ICs, resistors, caps, proto boards, etc. lead free even if you are not using lead free solder yet. This will ease the conversion for you in the future. Consumables such as flux and tip cleaner should be certified for lead free soldering. Flux will need to withstand higher temperatures and longer dwell times, and some tip cleaners have tin/lead solder in them that could contaminate the lead free solder joints.
Not all fluxes are capable of sustaining high soldering temperatures. Flux charring, called “black tip syndrome”, occurs when thermally incapable fluxes turn the tip black and make re-tinning nearly impossible. Heat transfer is severely reduced when this happens. Buying compatible flux is key.
As we’ve said many times: you’ll need to set your solder iron slightly higher temperature than you are used to. You will also notice that slightly longer dwell times are needed because of higher melting points. Wetting or spread is also a little slower when compared to tin/lead. The resulting lead free solder joints will appear slightly grainy and dull compared to shiny tin/lead.
The iron must be kept clean and fully coated with the solder alloy, otherwise at the higher temps oxidation can occur. Solder tips will need to be cleaned and tinned more frequently. Use a wet sponge for cleaning and keep your tip tinned by adding a small amount of solder. In general, all tips will have a reduced life when using lead free alloys.
Lead free solder is more prone to solder bridges (shorts). Tin whisker growth is also possible with high tin alloys, but is poorly understood.
The temperatures required make lead free soldering a different experience, but not out of reach. If you can solder with tin/lead solder, you can solder lead free. If you are having problems soldering, maybe some of the tips here will help. Remember, soldering takes practice; solder, desolder, resolder some old circuit boards from computers or consumer electronics before attempting a project. Otherwise you can’t expect a perfect outcome. Knowledge, practice and experience will provide the consistency required for excellent hand soldering results. Please share any experiences you have working lead free.