The Evolution of Low- & Zero-VOC Paint

By Christine Esposito | August 11, 2005

The latest generation of low- and zero-VOC paint offers better performance, feel and finish attributes. Can manufacturers take it to the next level and make these products more mainstream?

One of the first zero-VOC products to hit the U.S. marketplace debuted in the mid-1990s. Me-too products began to pop-up soon after, but for the most part, the low- and zero-VOC paint movement was low-key. There were performance issues that plagued many formulations, garnering a range of complaints from end users who were frustrated by application difficulties, poor touch-up qualities and higher costs.

Fortunately, vast strides have been made in raw materials. Today's low- and zero-VOC technologies and products make formulations from the 1990s seem archaic. In fact, one paint chemist described resin technology from a decade ago as Flintstone-esque. He said raw materials then were "okay in Bedrock, but hardly acceptable in the Microsoft Age."

With improved formulations on the shelf and further developments still under way in labs throughout the industry-not to mention looming regulatory deadlines in the U.S.-companies are spending more time on and devoting more resources to their low- and zero-VOC paint and coatings.

Anther factor that will drive this market is consumer attitude. Consumers have been increasing their knowledge about the ingredients and materials used in the products they buy such as alternative fuel automobiles, organic foods and personal care items. There's no reason to believe consumer appetite for green products won't trickle down to the home improvement market, especially in the DIY architectural and decorative paint sector, which has the most direct contact with consumers.

Glidden Got It Going
The first major manufacturer to launch a zero-VOC paint in the U.S. market was Glidden and its Spred 2000, which debuted in the mid-1990s. Other big players followed, including Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams. Today, all major paint manufacturers sell a zero-VOC paint, and all companies offer lower-VOC coatings for a variety of substrates.

But it may actually be the small- to medium-size manufacturers that are the most aggressive in bringing zero-VOC technologies to the masses.

One such company is Rodda Paint of Portland, OR, which launched its zero-VOC brand Horizon in 1995. At the time the line had just three SKUs in white and light colors and was developed as a me-too product, according to Todd Braden, vice president of marketing. But a recent relaunch has helped propel Horizon to "look-at-me" status encompassing 42 SKUs of interior and exterior products. "The success has been overwhelming," Braden said, noting that through March 2004, sales of Horizon had nearly matched sales recorded in all of 2003.

"We've marketed it very heavily, set up a lot of good key alliances with builders, organizations and local groups promoting the use of these types of products," said Braden. What has been a real catalyst has been Horizon's Green Seal status. Rodda is the first northwestern U.S. manufacturer to earn the Green Seal status, which according to Braden, gives Horizon cachet.

"There's a big difference between low VOC and a product like Horizon. A low VOC paints says it is paint that is low in VOC. Green Seal takes it a whole mile further," he said.

Green Seal is an independent, non-profit organization that helps promote environmentally friendly products- ranging from paint to cleaners to water-efficient fixtures-and awards seals of certification to those that meet its performance and formulation requirements. To earn the status, coatings undergo strict and in-depth evaluation, and only a few manufacturers had earned Green Seal status as of April 26, 2004: Rodda, Benjamin Moore, Miller Paint Company and Southern Diversified Products.

According to Arthur Weissman, president of Green Seal, the organization doesn't want to be a "club of one or a few," but rather it wants more companies to join the ranks. While he couldn't comment specifically about which firms, he did say other paint companies have expressed interest in entering the Green Seal program.

Southern Diversified Products (SDP) Hattiesburg, MS, has already earned Green Seal status for its American Pride paint brand, which debuted last year. More recently, SDP launched its American PRO line, which delivers zero-VOC paint to the professional contractor market. Since American Pride's debut, it has been picked up by retail locations in three states, and more locations are planned.

As a start-up operation, SDP officials say its small size helps it quickly achieve success, especially when it comes to formulation. "SDP started with a clean sheet of paper when developing our formulations as opposed to the more conventional route to modifying conventional formulations by simply removing the solvent or changing the resin package," said Rocky Prior, vice president and general manager. "Utilizing this approach forced us to question the specific function of each raw material and its impact on the final paint formulation. The result was unique formulations with high performance at a competitive cost." According to Prior, low overhead has also helped keep SDP's SG&A costs fairly low.

As a larger manufacturer, PPG also had a desire to enter the zero-VOC paint market but knew it was vital to deliver a product that offered the performance customers had come to expect from PPG.

"We started out saying we were going to make a very good paint, and we wanted it to be zero-VOC and low-odor," said Bill Boberski, director of technology with PPG Architectural Finishes. In 2002, PPG unveiled its zero-VOC line, Pure Performance.

"We didn't focus Pure Performance at a niche market-we presented it to the whole market," said Boberski. "Judging by acceptance, a lot of people are using it-and maybe without realizing it's zero-VOC. It's been very well accepted by the market in general."

Other companies are also seeing interest in and sales of their low- and zero-VOC technologies rising.

Dave Thompson, director of technical services at California Paint, said low- and zero-VOC products are "gaining momentum. There is more awareness in the commercial end of painting."

Southern Diversified Products' American Pride line has Green Seal status.

The Andover, MA-based company's Fres-Coat brand is benefiting from this increased awareness among contractors as well as its own customers such as Northeastern University in Boston, MA. A California Paint client for years, the university's decision to incorporate more green products prompted it to seek out a more environmentally responsible paint for a new dormitory-classroom complex. When it opens this summer (for use during the Democratic National Convention), California Paints' low-odor, low-VOC Fres-Coat will be on the walls. In addition, California Paints has added a large assisted living facility to its low-VOC client list.

It is at assisted living facilities and other complexes where inhabitants can't be easily relocated-hospitals, large office complexes and even prisons-where low- and zero-VOC paint can help facility managers and owners save money and reduce impact on air quality.

Rust-Oleum recently commissioned a perception study related to industrial paint and health and safety issues among facility managers and business owners. The study, compiled by StrategyOne, a Washington, DC-based market research group, found that more than 90% of respondents want to reduce the risks associated with paint application but don't know of a solution to do so. By releasing results of the study, Rust-Oleum hopes to raise awareness of paint-related odor discomfort, including respiratory allergies. (A 2001 study conducted by the National Safety Council reported that 147,000 people injured from respiratory conditions due to toxic agents that include solvents.) The company said it also wants to encourage an industry-consciousness for alternative solutions.

Surprisingly, while the majority of the Rust-Oleum study respondents were concerned about paint fumes, only 31% considered it a high risk to be in the immediate area of paints and coatings with unsafe environmental attributes. However, according John Simons, vice president of marketing, Rust-Oleum Industrial Brands, that number is on the rise. "End users are becoming more sensitized to odor issues in the workplace," he said.

The Rust-Oleum study also showed that although business owners are interested in finding more environmentally safe alternatives, they are really concerned with purse-string issues: 41% of businesses surveyed are currently paying overtime to paint crews to paint during off-hours, and 77% said they wished they could schedule indoor paint projects during normal business hours to help curb maintenance costs.

A solution is Rust-Oleum's Sierra Performance Coatings line, which RPM acquired in 2002. Having spent a year studying the technology it gained in the purchase, Rust-Oleum relaunched Sierra in January and is backing the brand with a national advertising campaign that targets distributors, specifiers and environmental plant, health and safety engineers. Sierra delivers not only performance, but also a long-term solution to ever-changing VOC regulations, according to Simons. "With California and the East Coast driving VOC levels down lower and lower, customers that settle on a Sierra product never have to change again. In the past, if they had to change to a lower-VOC product, they gave up performance. Now they can lock-in and have coatings system for a long time," he said.

Recently, Rust-Oleum added Beyond Multi-Purpose enamel, a zero-VOC and no-HAPs industrial-grade coating, to the Sierra stable. Beyond's fast-drying attribute will be a key selling point with contractors and facility owners. "One benefit of the technology is snap-dry-it's almost like a lacquer," said Simons. "When the painter is painting in confined areas-where it is usually used-it dries almost instantly. Wet paint is not an issue. For customers there is no need to wait for nights and weekends."

California Paint's Fres-Coat low-VOC paint is formulated with Microban.

Taking it Further
While companies such as Rust-Oleum are looking to increase awareness and usage of low-odor and low- and zero-VOC paint and coatings by promoting reduced labor costs, others are exploring different avenues, targeting the growing green building movement and chemical sensitivity.

Rodda is tapping into the rising interest in LEED certification and the green building trend. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a program created by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which features a rating system developed for the U.S. Department of Energy to help guide commercial building projects in green and sustainable design. While the majority of LEED building projects are commercial, the USGBC is currently investigating creating LEED ratings for residential homes. In addition, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which has added a green building resolution to its policy handbook, is also working on guidelines for green building.

That NAHB is working on green building guidelines is a reflection of how quickly the movement is sweeping through the residential builder category. According to an article in Professional Builder, between 1990 and 2001, more than 18,800 U.S. homes were built in accordance with a variety of local green building guidelines. In 2002 alone, 13,224 green homes were constructed. Today there are 31 green building programs, and 11 of them are owned or operated by NAHB members or affiliates in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Missouri, New York and Washington.

Of course, builders are incorporating a wide range of green products in these projects such as recycled building materials, low flush toilets and fixtures and energy-efficient appliances. But paint is also part of the equation. In Portland, OR, for example, Renaissance Homes currently uses Horizon paint for interior and exterior applications.

"I am convinced that this is how building will go," commented Braden of Rodda Paint. "Green building projects are almost becoming status symbols. The properties are far more marketable when they are done, as well as being a better product," he added.

San Diego, CA-based American Formulating & Manufacturing (AFM) is taking things a step further. According to Jay Watts, vice president of marketing, VOCs aren't the only issue; toxicity also matters. The company is targeting those who are chemically sensitive as well as "LOHAS" consumers, and insists it is the only company to provide a complete range of "chemically responsible" building and maintenance products. AFM's roster includes paint, coatings and stains sold under the Safecoat banner.

LOHAS-lifestyles of health and sustainability-was coined by Paul H. Ray, a sociologist who co-wrote "The Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People are Changing the World." These aren't your typical tree-huggers. According to the Natural Marketing Institute (NMI), the LOHAS market was valued at $227 billion, representing a wide variety of products ranging from yoga mats to organic food to home improvement items.

NMI notes that in 2003 there were 68 million U.S. adult LOHAS consumers, up seven percent over 2002. And as their numbers rise, this group is attracting interest from Fortune 100 companies and not just typical "green" marketers like toothpaste maker Tom's of Maine. In fact, Ford was to host a pair of events at the "LOHAS 8 Forum" this month in Marina del Ray, CA.

There's Work to Be Done
Across the board, paint companies are encouraged by the prospects low- and zero-VOC paint offer. Manufacturers with whom Coatings World spoke lauded the advances made by raw material suppliers that have enabled them to tackle issues such as product feel and poor touch-up, which were initially sticking points in previous-generation products.

"We have overcome those issues by working with major raw material suppliers," said Braden. He said suppliers with "worldwide overviews" have helped Rodda stay at the forefront of technical formulation.

"Suppliers are working very hard to develop products for the low-VOC area," agreed Prior of SDP. "Companies recognize that if they are going to compete in the future, they must be on the leading edge now."

Boberski of PPG has been equally pleased by its suppliers. "Resin suppliers have done a decent job," added Boberski of PPG. "Our target was a premium level performance product. We were able to find the ingredients necessary that could make it work. To date, we have had remarkably few issues with the product," he said about Pure Performance.

But while the market has come a long way, some areas still need to conquered, such as high gloss. "We have not gone to full gloss at zero-VOC," said Boberski. "That's an area of opportunity�It would be a wonderful addition."

Having developed semi-gloss products, SDP is now focusing efforts on the high-gloss area. "Developing adequate gloss, adhesion and water resistance properties represent a real challenge as we increase the gloss of low-VOC paints," Prior said. He called for greater choice in the area of solvent-free defoamers, rheology modifiers and in-can preservatives. "For higher-gloss paints, additional latex breakthroughs are needed to develop paints with adequate low temperature film formation and gloss potential without the use of solvents," Prior commented.

Boberski said new non-volatile coalescents have provided another tool for lowering VOC. And as no formulation is ever perfect, he noted that there are "enhancements under way" aimed at making Pure Performance an even better product.

Suppliers, too, have recognized how quickly the market has changed, and what issues are still on on the table. "Five years ago, most companies had a general interest in high- and semi-gloss low-VOC enamels, but the regulations did not drive them to spend much research time on it," said Mario Pschaidt, vice president of marketing and technology at Alberdingk Boley. "Today all the big coatings manufacturers are working on low VOC (<50 g/l) high gloss and semi-gloss enamels to meet the new 2006 California VOC regulations."

"The market for low-VOC products is definitely growing," said Mike Hoch, regional sales manager for the material protection product business of Bayer. Hoch said that many customers are seeking in-can preservatives and dry- and wet-state mildewcides, which are low- and zero-VOC depending on dosing requirements, as well as rheology modifiers, flow and leveling additives and dispersing agents from the Borchers paint additives business.

While additives can help formulators with issues such as open time, flow and leveling and freeze-thaw stability, "the main features still need to come from the resin," said Pschaidt.

Alberdingk is working on new core-shell emulsions that will deliver the performance of higher-VOC products such as gloss, adhesion, chemical resistance, flow and leveling and freeze-thaw stability. According to Pschaidt, the goal is to make the technology as cost-effective as possible.

According to Bill Sparks, business manager for BASF's functional polymers business serving the architectural coatings market in North America, most of its R&D efforts over the last few years have been dedicated to low VOCs with the intention of meeting California regulatory standards expected in 2006 and 2008.

"One of the key challenges was to develop a latex that would deliver the same end properties at 50 g/l that consumers now expect out of 250 g/l paint. The gloss area was the most difficult because one needs a softer latex to form a film with only 50 g/l, but needs a hard surface on the finished paint," said Sparks. To that end, in November, BASF launched Acronal Optive 330, an all acrylic latex for 50 g/l VOC high gloss with excellent mar and moisture resistance.

What's Ahead
As the market for low- and zero-VOC paint continues to grow and competition for customers intensifies, will small- and medium�sized players be overshadowed by the multi-billion dollar coatings companies?

Smaller manufacturers Coatings World interviewed welcome the buzz generated by the giants.

"All of the major paint companies now offer low-odor/low-VOC paint lines. This provides credibility and increases awareness that low-odor/low-VOC products exist and are here to stay," said Prior.

"As consumers become more aware of low VOC, they'll become more interested in products that are overall less toxic," said Watts of AFM.

No doubt as regulations in the U.S. continue to drive down VOC levels in all architectural paint, gravitation to low- and zero-VOC technologies and products is inevitable. But ultimately, it may be consumers rather than regulators that push the market.

"While regulations will continue to drive much of the change in the coatings industry, end users may actually place the most pressure on companies as they realize that high-performance, low odor paints are available at competitive prices," said Prior.

As demand continues to rise, and paint companies and their suppliers work together to ratchet-up performance and drive down costs, who knows how far this market will evolve over the next decade.

Interested in Pursuing Green Seal Certification?

Here's how you can get things started if your company is interested in certification with Green Seal.

Step 1
Review the Green Seal standard for paint, which can be viewed at www.greenseal.org
call 202-872-6400 or e-mail greenseal@greenseal.org if you or your technical staff has any questions.

Step 2
Request, sign and return Green Seal's Application for Certification, and pay the product evaluation fee.

Step 3
Green Seal will send you a check sheet of needed data and a signed confidentiality agreement.

Step 4
Submit the necessary data and product samples and schedule a plant visit.

Step 5
If the product meets the standard, Green Seal will grant you the right to use the Green Seal on the product, its packaging, and in product promotion and advertising. Should a product fail to meet the standard, Green Seal will inform you of the reasons. Green Seal keeps confidential all test results as well as the fact that you have submitted products for evaluation.

Step 6
Work with Green Seal staff on the design of the certified product's packaging to include the Green Seal Certification Mark and the accompanying text that spells out the environmental preferability of your product.

Step 7
Green Seal begins annual monitoring to ensure the product continues to meet the Green Seal standards.

Web site: www.greenseal.org
Tel: 202-872-6400
E-mail: greenseal@greenseal.org

LOHAS Consumers and Low Odor--A Perfect Match?

Sociologist Paul H. Ray is credited with identifying the so-called LOHAS consumer. According to Ray, LOHAS consumers are focused on human rights, fair trade, the environment, sustainable practices and spiritual and personal development-and they want to buy products and use services that fit this philosophy.

According to the Natural Marketing Institute (www.nmisolutions.com), the number of LOHAS consumers in the U.S. rose seven percent between 2003 and 2002. And while these customers are more likely to buy organic yogurt, they want to buy all kinds of products-including paint-which they see as better for the environment.

Natural Marketing Institute (NMI) representative Gwen Rogers told Coatings World there is interest among LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) consumers to buy "green" home improvment products. NMI revealed some details from its 2003 LOHAS Trends Database that shed some light on opportunities for low-odor and zero-VOC paint. When LOHAS consumers were asked about what attributes are important to them when it comes to building products and home improvement, 49% said non-toxic and 38% said low fumes, according to NMI
-Coatings World

Related Market & Technology:

Related Raw Materials: