Low and Zero-VOC Technology

By Kerry Pianoforte | August 11, 2005

Will the green building movement and stricter environmental regulations drive this niche product into the mainstream?

Still viewed by many in the coatings industry as a niche product, primarily for use in hospitals, dormitories and other public spaces, low- and zero-VOC paint and coatings are gaining favor among consumers who are concerned with environmental issues. Fueled by both voluntary groups such as the U.S. Green Building Council's (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), and increasingly strict environmental legislation on VOCs, use of low- and zero-VOC paint is expected to increase.

"The Green Building industry is a significant portion of our business," said Rocky Prior, vice president and general manager, Southern Diversified Products, LLC. "With the recent development of the LEED-EB (existing building) standard from the USGBC, the need for environmentally friendly paint should continue to increase at a rapid rate. Green building standards are definitely here to stay."

"The green building movement has increased awareness of VOCs and, where there are specific guidelines such as LEED and Green Building Council, encourage the use of lower VOC coatings," agreed Carl Minchew, director of new product development, Benjamin Moore. "Also, because the paints are low odor, the hospitality and health care industries often require them. This reduces down time when repainting as work is able to be done when an area is occupied."

Despite its growing popularity, the green building movement is still a relatively small portion of overall construction, representing just five percent of total square footage in new U.S. constructionwith a long-term target of 25% of the entire market, according to Tim O'Reilly, category manager, Zinsser. "Even at that, low- VOC and zero-VOC products have been making their way to professional channels over the last five to 10 years. Success has hinged on air quality regulations that force low VOC products into the hands of professionals, this has not been a natural selection," he said.

The U.S. West Coast has long been a forerunner in adopting progressive environmental regulations, but the rest of the country is catching up. Stricter emission standards were recently enacted on the East Coast by EPA's Ozone Transport Commission (OTC) with additional regulations expected in the future.

"It's not anywhere near what I would call a landslide, but use is picking up," Dave Thompson, technical service and professional sales at California Paints, said about zero- and low-VOC paint. "With the new OTC regulations on the East Coast there is a need to reformulate latex paint to near-zero VOC levels. The environmental and regulatory push is in that direction as well."

Industry experts note the greater demand in Western states, driven by interest in green building. "The first thing we saw was LEED; its focus was on commercial building," said Todd Braden, vice president sales and marketing, Rodda. "With all the ways to comply with LEED, using low- and zero-VOC paint was an easy way to do it. The hard part was finding these types of products. Oregon and Washington, and the Pacific Northwest in general, are pretty progressive when it comes to LEED."

Rust-Oleum's Sierra Performance Coatings line includes a multi-purpose acrylic urethane, an acrylic primer, epoxy-acrylic enamel and industrial epoxies.

According to Braden, builders are working with other local programs such as Earth Advantage to promote the building of environmentally responsible homes. "There is a huge focus on paint and other types of finishing materials; they want a lower VOC, lower impact-type product," he said. "So instead of doing trim in alkyd and walls in conventional latex paints, they are looking for zero-VOC alternatives for all painted surfaces."

Although consumer use of low- and zero-VOC paint use may be increasing in regions where environmental legislation and issues are a higher profile, manufacturers also claim that formulation issues and pricing concerns have hampered low- and zero-VOC products from gaining a foothold in the mainstream market. Additionally, the average consumer has no idea what a volatile organic compound is.

"Most of our consumers have no idea what VOC is, although some consumers are interested in low odor." said Dennis Centofante, technical director, Ace Paint. "We've had very few questions about low VOC from our customers. Right now there isn't an overwhelming need; it's a niche thing. It's growing, but it's not something that has a clear mandate yet."

Raw material suppliers also see low- and zero-VOC as a niche, driven mainly by regulations rather than consumers. "The changes in environmental legislation are more of a driver than the green movement," said William Sparks, business manager, functional polymers, BASF. "We don't think that the green building movement has had much of an impact on the low-odor, low-VOC paint market. The bigger drivers are the regulatory activities in the West and Northeast."

As a result of recent legislation, the majority of low- and zero-VOC paint users continue to be professional contractors. According to Centofante, there are two separate camps using low- and zero-VOC paint: contractors bidding on public projects and people that have an aversion to conventional products. "From what we can tell it's primarily the contractor that is putting in the bid to do institutional facilities," said Centofante. "Secondly, it is DIYers, especially the ones who reside in highly regulated districts such as California, and individuals who are sensitive to chemicals and odors."

Regardless of what type, customers of low-VOC paint have certain things in common, according to Brian Paich, brand manager, industrial business group, Rust-Oleum Corp. "These persons are buying these coatings for one of the following reasons: focus on improving indoor air quality, interest in protecting the environment, concern over the discomforts that are sometimes associated with using coatings or adhesives, the ability to paint during standard business hours and LEED certification."

According to Minchew, the hospitality and health care industries remain interested in low- and zero-VOC coatings because they allow quick return to service of painted areas and are better for potentially sensitive people who must remain near the area being painted. "This is also true of commercial/residential buildings in larger cities," he said. "The buildings are occupied 24/7. There is a growing demand for these products by those architects that are designing green buildings."

Through an increase in education, manufacturers hope to increase DIY purchases of low- and zero-paint. "Part of our goal is to make people aware products like this exist," Braden said.

While consumers with chemical sensitivity are more likely to be aware of the advantages of using low- and zero-VOC paint, "the description of a typical purchaser is more diverse than you may think," said Prior. "It ranges from the extremely chemically sensitive DIYer to contractors that want to protect their painting crew from unnecessary exposure to solvents. However, since premium performance is now available at zero-VOC, I would say the bulk of our sales are to well educated consumers and contractors looking for a paint that offers lower odor and is environmentally friendly."

While the benefits of low- and zero-VOC paint may not yet be common knowledge with the general public, many in the coatings industry acknowledge the products' limitations must be addressed if they are to become more widespread. Certainly the greatest challenge is developing a low- or zero-paint that performs as well as its conventional counterpart at a reasonable price.

"Delivering equal or better performance for the consumer is the key challenge in developing low-and zero- VOC paints," said Alan Smith, technical service manager, functional polymers, BASF. According to Smith, BASF's functional polymers R&D efforts over the last few years have been focused on developing low VOC resins that meet the regulatory requirements and that deliver needed performance including block resistance, scrub resistance, freeze/thaw resistance and application properties such as open time and wet edge.

"The biggest challenge is to retain product performance," agreed Paich of Rust-Oleum. "Changing the raw materials used in a coating could affect the dry film properties, wetting ability and coating cure times. Even though new VOC regulations have changed how coatings are formulated, the end-user still expects the 'old' coating to perform the same as it always has. The second challenge here is finding available raw materials."

The main technical challenge is to develop formulations with non-volatile carriersaqueous or non-aqueous formulationsat costs comparable to existing products, according to William Woods, manager, biocides business development, International Specialty Products. "Paint manufacturers are looking for technologies that address low-VOC regulations, but also satisfy the needs of their customers. With new products, naturally, paint manufacturers are interested in efficacy and compatibility, and thus seek formulation support from additives manufacturers to ensure their products provide both features."

Braden outlined the major formulating challenges paint manufacturers face in developing low- and zero-VOC products. "Finding the raw material that offers low-VOC, making sure it offers the same performance and keeping the price reasonable," he said. "Since raw material suppliers are not making huge volumes, your costs are increased dramatically."

Freeze-thaw stability is another critical issue. "There are other formula concerns, but being able to ship a zero-VOC water-based product into the northern states during the winter requires some pretty tricky packaging and a clear plan of storage on the receiving end," said O'Reilly of Zinsser.

VOCs in latex paints play two important roles, according to Minchew. "First they extend the open time by slowing the drying of the coating. This is useful because it allows the paint to remain wet longer which can aid in application," he said. "Second, VOC is used to help the latex coalesce especially at lower temperatures. Using less VOC requires a challenging balance between film hardness and low temperature coalescence. Modern low VOC coatings can be very good paints, but they may require slightly different techniques to the best results. The overall full cure time of these products is generally extended."

"The two things that usually lag behind in low VOC are application-open time and hiding and durability-doesn't coalesce as well," said Thompson. "The raw material manufacturers are working on better and better materials. We've seen some advances and raw material suppliers have improved the quality of what can be done."

A wide choice of colors is also a key issue when formulating low- and zero-VOC paint. Clariant Corp. offers Colanyl 500, a complete line of organic pigments to paint manufacturers to design a complete color pallet, according to Brian Brophy, technical manager, architectural coatings, Clariant. These low-VOC dispersions are offered for in-plant tinting of water-based consumer and industrial paint.

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Source: Rohm and Haas ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES ARE CLIMBING HIGHER UP THE CONSUMER AGENDA (More Environmentally Conscious than 3-5 Years Ago- Percent Agree Strongly/Slightly)

More and more DIY consumers are becoming sensitive to environmental issues, according to a major research study recently carried out by the Rohm and Haas Paint Quality Institute (PQI). More than one in two DIY painters said they were more environmentally conscious than they were three to five years ago. This has an impact on DIY products used both inside and outside the home.

"Opinions are changing about environmental issues" said Edward Appleton, spokesperson for PQI in UK and Ireland. "Many consumers used to believe that if you wanted a woodcare paint or varnish for an exterior wood surface, for example, then solvent-based products were somehow better. Our research indicates that this mindset is changingthe performance advantages of the more environmentally friendly water-based acrylic paints are becoming increasingly understood".

Women in particular are becoming increasingly sensitive to issues such as unpleasant odor and ease of clean-up, and for them, quality water-based paints or varnishes offer a good solution. Other groups are also highly sensitized. Anyone with allergic reactions, or respiratory problems, will be increasingly concerned about products containing solvents and emitting potentially hazardous VOCs, as will families with vulnerable groups such as small children or elderly relatives.

Appleton pointed out that the trend away from solvent-based products is also driven by legal requirements already in place. Legislation passed by the European Union in May 2004 will require a two-stage reduction in solvents contained in paints and varnishes, with a first milestone set for 2007 and a further one for 2010.

He also stressed that the role of in-store advice is key when it comes to convincing consumers about high performance, water-based acrylic paints.

"In paint, getting across the message that water-based paints offer an overall superior performance profile than solvent-based alternatives is keymeaning better durability, longer-lasting color, a tougher, more durable finish, as well as ease of clean-up, excellent wipeability, to mention just a few" he said. Add to that the superior environmental profile, and he sees an increasingly mass-market opportunity for high quality, water-based acrylic paints and varnishes, for inside and outside applications.

In order to develop superior performing, reasonably-priced low- and zero-VOC coatings, manufacturers must have a synergistic relationship with their raw materials suppliers.

"The biggest push is working very intensely with our raw material suppliers to develop new technologies that will allow us to develop coatings that perform well with lower VOC levels," said Centofante. "We are working to develop formulations to comply with future VOC regulations. The price has to be consumer friendly and the performance must match the price."

California Paints also has a very close relationship with its raw material suppliers. "We exchange a lot of information," said Thompson. "We are also an active member of the Coatings Research Group, Inc. This is a group that pools resources into one R&D lab so we can have the resources that bigger companies have. The group evaluates raw materials, sees what can be done with them and how they perform."

Rodda also works closely with its supplier base. "A lot of raw materials suppliers see us as progressive, we are asked to test new technology," said Braden. "We get to see how it performs. If there is a more environmentally responsible raw material and it performs and works in terms of cost, we will use it."

Rust-Oleum has developed an internal team that solely works to develop and formulate zero-VOC, zero-HAP, no odor industrial coatings. "Using patented technology, we have developed and are selling industrial zero-VOC, zero-HAP water-based coatings. In developing this technology we have partnered with a few select raw material suppliers," said Paich.

As is the case in the coatings industry in general, the rising price of raw materials continues to be an albatross that suppliers and manufactures must bear. With no indications that the situation will improve any time soon, some manufacturers are being forced to pass these increases on to their customers.

"Raw material price increases are putting paint companies in a margin squeeze at the big box retailers, where they are having difficulty passing on price increases to the consumer due to the leverage and control of these market leaders," said Robert Hammons, marketing manager, functional polymers, BASF. "Energy and raw material costs for monomers and latex have been increasing for many months. In addition to rising input and operating costs, monomer shortages have been a significant issue for the industry. Consequently, latex prices have been increasing."

Rodda has had to implement minor price increases. "We hate having to do it," said Braden. While it has been necessary for Rodda to pass along some of the increases to their customers, professional contractors don't have that luxury. "There is always going to be someone who is going to bid lower. Our customers are the ones who will have to absorb the costs. It's a sticky situation, we're just trying to ride it out. Everyone is hoping there is some end to it. Unfortunately there are not a lot of alternatives out there," Braden said.

"Basically raw materials are uncontrolled at this point, much of this is related to global expansion and supplier under-capacity issues," said Centofante. "We cannot pass our price increases on to our customers as fast as raw material suppliers can pass them on to us. Our margins are being pressed, it's not a pretty picture and there is no relief in sight."

And that's the ultimate question. Are customers willing to pay even more for an already premium priced paint?

"People want performance and don't want to pay extra for it," stated Centofante. "We want to develop products that perform and are cost effective to the consumer. Right now there is an imbalancethe regulations get stricter, but the technology that is affordable to average DIYer is not there. There are some wonderful premium products, but they are too expensive or complex to apply by the average consumer. There will be more customer dissatisfaction until the technology catches up."

According to Braden, developing a product that fits into a company's cost structure is a major issue. "You have to look at what the market will bear, costs must be kept down," he said. "We recently came out with a silicone-based latex emulsion for exterior. It's an outstanding product, but it's $40 a gallon. Will customers be able to afford it?"

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Both coatings suppliers and manufacturers are offering a number of low- and zero-VOC products.

BASF offers a variety of latexes that are designed to be used in low VOC, low odor paint. BASF offers a number of products that satisfy the 2006-2008 VOC requirements. Acronal Optive 130 for semi-gloss offers excellent block resistance at 50 g/l; Acronal Optive 230 for flat, delivers equivalent exterior performance at 50 g/l. BASF also offers Acronal Optive 330 for high gloss, Acronal Optive 410 for stain blocking primers and Acronal Optive 510 for elastomeric paint.

Clariant offers Colanyl 500, a complete line of inorganic pigment dispersion with low VOC for in-plant tinting of water-based consumer and industrial paints.

ISP has several new low-VOC, low odor formulations of mildewcides and in-can preservatives. Nuospet, 44, 497 and 498 are the company's newest in-can preservatives. Nuosept 44 features a broad-spectrum capability and a wide pH range. Nuosept 497 and 498 contain no VOCs and can be used in a variety of architectural coatings. Fungitrol 720, 730, 740 and 820 dry-film preservatives are low-VOC as well as solvent-, odor- and formaldehyde-free. They are suitable for either solvent- or water-based architectural coatings.

On the manufacturer side Rust-Oleum offers Sierra Performance Coatings, a line of zero-VOC, zero HAP, no odor industrial products. The coating line includes Beyond, multi-purpose water-based acrylic urethane, Metalmax water-based acrylic urethane DTM, Gritec water-based acrylic primer, S16 and S22 water-based epoxy-acrylic enamel and S40 and S50 water-based industrial epoxies.

Benjamin Moore offers Eco Spec, a low VOC, low odor interior paint. Available in flat, eggshell and semi-gloss, Eco Spec is ideally suited for commercial, facility management and residential applications. On the exterior side, Benjamin Moore offers MoorGuard, which is low VOC.

Southern Diversified Products most recently introduced a zero VOC, premium performance interior semi-gloss. The semi-gloss has the highest level of ceramic microspheres available and contains an antimicrobial agent. The company also introduced PRO line, which is aimed at the professional contractor. All of the products are zero VOC and are Green Seal certified.

Zinsser recently introduced Bulls Eye High Hide Odorless, a 350 VOC solvent-based acrylic that has no perceivable odor for use in occupied environments when the stain-blocking performance of an oil is required, but odor is a concern.

Horizon is Rodda's brand of low VOC paint. First introduced in 1995, Horizon has grown to include 42 different products of interior and exterior paints in a variety of finishes. Horizon interior paints have virtually no VOCs.

California Paints offers a variety of coatings including, flat, eggshell and semi-gloss Fres-coat for interior residences. This premium finish contains Microban antimicrobial protection, offers superior quality and value, smooth flowing, is easy to apply and is quick drying, according to the company.

Ace has a number of low VOC, low odor products including New Sensations with Scothgard and Simply Magic ceiling paint. "We were able to formulate them with compliance to current VOC levels," said Dennis Centofante, technical director, Ace Paint Division. "We also have low VOC paints specific to the California market and the eastern OTC states. We're spending a lot of time optimizing the lower VOC products making sure they perform."

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