How Low Can You Go?

By Kerry Pianoforte | August 10, 2005

Paint companies work to develop low-VOC and low-odor paint products that perform.

In response to pressure from increasingly strict environmental regulations for VOCs in paint, companies are hot on the trail of new low-VOC and low-odor products.

According to current industry standards, in order for a paint to be labeled low-VOC it must not exceed 250 g/l. Paint companies are meeting these standards and going one step beyond in anticipation of new regulations.

Benjamin Moore has developed low-VOC, low-odor coatings marketed under the Eco Spec brand. The line consists of three interior finishes and a primer. In addition to no added VOCs, these paints feature raw materials specially selected to virtually eliminate odor.
Benjamin Moore's Eco Spec low-odor, low- VOC line consists of three interior finishes and a primer.

While Eco Spec is marketed to professional painters, it can also be purchased by consumers at Benjamin Moore's network of independent retailers.

A key benefit of Eco Spec is that it is very low-VOC. "For technical reasons we do not believe any paint product can truly be zero-VOC, but this is as close as we can get," said Carl Minchew, director of environmental and technical affairs, Benjamin Moore. "In addition, because of the low-VOC and other formula features, the product has very low or no odor to most users. These products also feature excellent hiding and durability, on a par with premium paints. Finally, because a complete system is available, an entire room including primer, trim and walls can be coated with the same low-odor technology."

PPG's Pittsburgh Paints has introduced Pure Performance, a line of premium, high-performance paint with no VOCs. This new paint, which is formulated for use in commercial, institutional and residential markets, offers the performance characteristics of traditional premium paints, including durability, hiding and touch-up, as well as zero-VOC, low-odor during application and drying and mildew resistance on the paint film, according to the company.

Rust-Oleum has recently acquired Sierra Performance Coatings, a line of solvent-free, zero-VOC and HAPs-free industrial maintenance coatings.

"What makes the product line unique is that it performs much better than zero-VOC architectural coatings which are now on the market and are compatible in performance with some solvent-based industrial coatings," said Neal Barry, vice president corporate development, Rust-Oleum Corporation.

Sierra's flagship product is a water-based epoxy that can be used for moderate- and medium-duty industrial flooring applications such as warehouses and automotive shops. "Another aspect about these coatings is that they are odorless which makes them ideal for hospitals, schools or any public area where high-performance, workplace coatings are desired," he continued.

The Sierra line also has a number of acrylic urethanes that match the performance properties of traditional alkyd enamels, but with much less odor and faster drying times. "MetalMax, which is a direct to metal product, has proven to be very successful," said Mr. Barry. "It has been used on the USS Hornet, which is now a floating museum in the Oakland, CA harbor."

Lowering the Bar
With new VOC restrictions imminent, low-VOC paint will begin to take center stage, as solvent-based paint's usage becomes limited.

"Clearly, lower VOC is the wave of the future," said Mr. Minchew. "Traditional solvent paints, which still have properties that can't be duplicated in latex paints, will be limited to primers, stains and specialty 'problem solver' coatings."

"The EPA is certainly restricting VOCs," said Ron Boyajian, product marketing manager, California Paints. "Between 2003-2005 they will lower the VOC limits on traditional paints until they all can be considered low-VOC. We are moving more and more towards low-VOC all the time. Now the federal government has stepped in, it is a federal regulation which mirrors New Jersey and Massachusetts regulations."

Right now California is the leader in terms of environmental legislation, but other areas of the country are sure to follow.

"The biggest challenge in the future is to continue to make quality latex coatings at the very low limits now being considered," said Mr. Minchew. "The newest VOC limits in California will provide a challenge for us to continue to provide the excellent, easy-to-apply, durable coatings in the broad range of colors and finishes our customers have come to expect. We remain absolutely committed to providing the best coatings available but there may be limitations on what those coatings can do."

"Zero-VOC has a strong appeal in many areas of California," added Mr. Barry. "We continue to have much success in selling in other markets because of its low-odor and quick drying time capability, which allows multiple coats to be put on in less time, thus saving money."

As standards become tighter for VOC limits, paint makers will be challenged to come up with alternatives that can perform as well as regular latex paint and their solventborne counterparts.

"As they get more stringent, it becomes a matter of do we want to reformulate solvents to keep them in the market," said Mr. Boyajian. "You will see more and more low-VOC products. As those products improve, you will see them take more of the business away from regular latex."

Enhanced Performance
Improving performance characteristics of low-VOC coatings is at the forefront of many companies R&D efforts. "We still do not have the technology to make truly high-performance products at very low-VOC levels such as potable tank linings," said Mr. Barry. "Until we get to this next level with water-based coatings, I do not see solvents being totally phased out. We are in the process of developing 'next generation' products based on Sierra's technology."

Some companies are working to give their low-odor products enhanced performance. California Paints' Fres-Coat low-odor, low-VOC interior paint has added the antimicrobial Microban to the formulation. Fres-Coat is a 100% latex coating and is available in flat, latex and eggshell.

As for the future, Benjamin Moore will "continue to focus on low-VOC technology across the board," said Mr. Minchew. "At the same time, work with state and federal agencies to insure that high quality solvent coatings are available when they are needed."

California Paints plans to devote additional R&D to developing higher performing low-VOC paints. "low-odor and low-VOCs are not as forgiving," said Mr. Boyajian. "Impeccable surface preparation is very important. As time goes on we should be able to put out a low-VOC product that has every characteristic of a regular latex paint."

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