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Optimizing Your Booth

A new spraybooth will solve some – but not all – of your problems. Learn what booth manufacturers suggest to get the most from your new purchase

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

There’s no shortage of people in our industry
who will offer advice about how to make the most of your spraybooth.
The shop owner down the street says to be sure to get a big enough
gas line to feed the burner; the fire inspector says to make sure
to install a big enough waterline to feed the sprinkler heads;
the jobber says to be sure to leave enough room above and around
the booth to make light and filter replacement easier.

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But the shop owner says, "How about the
part where I make some money by ensuring that my investment continues to
pay its way?"

Good question. To answer that, I asked six
spraybooth manufacturers to imagine they had just sold me a booth.

The Question

In my journalistic scenario, the booth was
installed, the painters had received some verbal instruction,
the heater and the exhaust had been test run, and the booth vendor
was on his way out the door. My question: what two or three things
should I do to keep my new booth making money?

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Each manufacturer answered the question easily,
and each had a couple of points that came to mind immediately,
such as things new users of their equipment had failed to do in
the past. Some of the following tips were offered by several vendors,
some were suggested by just one. In all cases, they’re handy hints.

Tip No. 1: Training

Not too surprisingly, the No. 1 tip (offered
by a majority of the manufacturers) was to train the painter.
Any equipment is only as good as the person running it, and a
new downdraft booth means many changes in the painter’s routine.

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The commitment to change procedures to maximize
paint production must begin with shop management. Unless the shop
owner/manager takes an active part in establishing new painting
methods, painters are unlikely to get enough information and unlikely
to vigorously pursue the new plan. It’s too easy to just do it
the way they always have.

Auto painters who’ve been in the industry
for several years have developed habits and routines that enable
them to quickly paint cars. As we all know, there’s no one correct
way to paint them. Years ago, I did a phone survey for BodyShop
Business and spoke to 40 different shop owners. No two of them
did the job exactly the same way – and all of them were convinced
their methods were the best solution to quickly and correctly
paint vehicles. For reasons such as this, the booth manufacturers
were adamant that the necessity to change techniques must be implemented
from the top down. The actual training should include the booth
vendor, the paint rep and all the painters who will be using the
new booth.

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A critical first step is to understand the
coating being applied inside the new booth. Even though your shop
didn’t change paint brands, you may still have to change products
within your brand.

Undercoats and topcoats from different paint
companies react differently to air movement and temperature changes.
The viscosity, flash time, dust-free times and flow out can all
change with a lot of moving air and high heat. What was just a
small sag on a styling line can turn into a big run when the high
temperature bake kicks on and reflows the paint; the mixed clear
that dried just right in your old crossdraft booth is going to
dry too fast in your new downdraft.

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In general, most booth manufacturers suggested
that painters choose the slowest reducer and catalyst available
from their paint company and depend on the heat cycle to speed
up the dry. Also called "let the booth do the work,"
this method makes for better looking and more durable paint jobs.

Slowing down the solvents, slowing down the
gun speed and shooting wet coats goes against what most painters
learned by painting in a crossdraft. They learned that getting
the finish dust free as soon as humanly possible meant using the
fastest solvent and catalyst. Then they wet sanded the clear smooth
and polished it back to a gloss.

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For a new booth to carry its own weight, it
must produce more paint jobs, and one of the biggest labor savings
comes from not having to sand out dirt and polish for hours the
next day. The new booth should also let the painter apply less
clear. Instead of applying a third coat of clear to be fed to
the buffer the next day, two wet coats in a clean booth are often
sufficient. Ask your paint vendor about the recommended mil build
for his products. Spraying paint to exactly the right thickness
should be the goal. Applying more coats just costs the shop money
and doesn’t necessarily improve durability.

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Thorough training also includes explaining
to all painters using the booth how to adjust the many booth variables.
Knowing how to set the incoming pressures, purge times, bake temperatures
and cool-off cycles are essential to success.

Conditions will change almost every day in
a body shop. As the filters plug up, back pressure increases;
as the weather warms or cools, the burner’s heat rise needs to
be adjusted. Understanding how and being willing to change the
dampers and fan speeds will improve the finished product. If the
painter was never shown how to manipulate all the dials and buttons
on the control panel, he’ll be reluctant to start making changes;
yet changing the settings is indispensable to success.

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Tip No. 2: Maintenance

The next most repeated user tip involves regular
booth maintenance. One vendor estimated that 90 percent of his
complaints are a result of clogged filters and poor maintenance.

Not only is frequent changing of dirty filters
critical, so is replacing them with the correct type. Perhaps
the most important set of filters in a downdraft is the one in
the ceiling plenum, which allows the incoming air to flow evenly
over the top of the vehicle. These air-balancing filters are very
sophisticated, and the booth manufacturer chose the size, style
and type very carefully. If the shop replaces the filters with
another brand or another style, booth performance may suffer.

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Many shops get into trouble when the shop
owner starts to complain about the high cost of the correct balancing
filters. Wouldn’t a cheaper set do just as well? No! Quality filters
keep the paint job clean, keep the air moving correctly around
the car and save money in buffing labor. Remember, $200 worth
of filters will paint many more clean jobs – but $200 for painter’s
buffing labor accrues in less than six hours at $34/hour.

One vendor estimates that the first sign of
trouble is after the "new" wears off the booth, about
four or five months down the road. When the zillion-dollar booth
was new, the techs treated it like a new car. But, as time wears
on in the paint shop, the painters stop vacuuming out the booth
and start using a broom. To keep a booth functioning like it did
when it was new, you have to treat and maintain it as if it were
still new.

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Spraybooths vibrate, and vibration causes
the panels to pull apart, allowing air (and dirt) to leak in.
Therefore, each time the filters are changed, plan to look for
air leaks and caulk them closed. Also, after time, the booth doors
can fall off plumb. Know anyone who can adjust sheet metal? True
up the doors in their openings several times each year to keep
the paint work clean. And, of course, change all filters often.
Air flow in all booths is filter dependent.

Another source of dirt can be the cement floor
of the booth. Many shops sealed and painted the floor with an
epoxy coating when the booth was new, and it looked great and
was easy to clean. But after five months of production, the floor
doesn’t look so good anymore.

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Any shop maintenance is difficult to do because
everyone is so busy producing collision repair. The secret is
to set aside time just to do maintenance. All of the booth manufacturers
said replacing the filters, keeping the fan blades free of overspray
and keeping the inside of the booth free of clutter are musts
for getting clean paint work.

Tip No. 3: Buying and Organizing

The third most popular tip was to look for
other new technology and to get organized. The secret to making
money in the paint shop is to produce more work in the same time
period. Having seen an increase in output from the booth, a shop
owner might wonder if other new technology would also help him
to make money. The answer is yes.

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For example, besides the new booth, you also
need to have the right equipment in the booth. Large inside-diameter
air hoses, small-diameter fluid tips and point-of-use desiccant
dryers get the right amount of dry air and properly atomized paint
on the vehicle.

At this point, however, a shop shouldn’t purchase
any more new equipment until it gets organized. How so? Many paint
shops try to paint all the cars on Friday, leading to confusion
and dirty paint work. Scheduling the paint work more carefully
will increase production without buying anything.

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Once the shop has organized the scheduling
of booth time and streamlined parts ordering, additional production
increases require new equipment. A downdraft booth with an air-replacement
furnace is the most expensive thing in the shop and will make
the most difference in production.

Other technology can increase production,
too. Portable infrared heaters can speed panel repair from the
body filler through the clearcoat. HVLP spray guns will save money
in all applications: primer, surfacer, sealer, color and clear.

Tip No. 4: Great Prep

Another frequently suggested tip to keep a
new booth making money was to strive to do great prep work. Many
painters figure that for the zillion dollars the booth costs,
the cars should all turn out perfectly clean. But to date, no
booth manufacturer offers an anti-gravity option! The dirt in
the paint still comes from the same three places, even with a
new spraybooth. The painter, the vehicle and the environment (booth)
each contribute a third of the dirt. The easiest third to capture
is the one brought in by the painter. Putting the painter in a
clean paint suit, head sock and rubber gloves will prevent dirt
in the paint.

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But most shop owners who have the financial
horsepower to buy a new downdraft are already clothing the painter
in clean, lint-free paint suits. Instead, what often suffers when
a new booth is installed is vehicle prep.

It’s more necessary than ever to hose out
the wheel wells and drip rails with clean water. To keep the paint
dirt free, masking must be done with great care and quality materials.
The cheap green masking paper may look like a bargain on the invoice,
but it often sheds enough fuzz to cause an extra five-tenths of
buffing time labor. Taping down all the paper edges that can flutter
dried overspray into the finish takes time too, but all the booth
vendors I spoke with emphasized the time spent cleaning the car
up front was returned many fold on the other end.

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Tip No. 5: Get Involved

Another suggestion I was offered struck me
as a great idea and wasn’t about the booth at all. The advice
was for the new booth owner to become involved, take part and
be active in trade groups. What you can learn from other people
in the collision repair industry can often make you more money
than the equipment.

By one statistic, only 20 percent of shop
owners belong to (much less participate in) a trade association.
I can tell you from personal experience that I’ve learned something
from every speaker, at every industry meeting I’ve ever attended.
Equally important were the things I’ve learned from my peers at
these same meetings.

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At any trade meeting, you’ll learn about half
of what’s important to you from the speaker and the other half
from fellow attendees. But you won’t learn anything unless you
go.

No matter where you look in our industry’s
distribution chain – warehouse distributors, jobbers or shop owners
– we’re mostly independent business people. "Don’t tell me
how to do it. I’m already successful," claim many owners.
Yet many of the people you meet at industry functions have exactly
the same problems you do, and many of them have devised clever
solutions to them.

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The Best from Your Booth

To ensure your new booth keeps pulling its
own weight, learn from your inevitable mistakes. If your filters
plug, the back pressure increases and the paint work loads up
with dirt, you’ll have to sand and polish that car. Hey, stuff
happens. But if you paint another car without first solving the
problem, shame on you.

New spraybooths have a distinct learning curve.
Ask any painter with a downdraft if he was smarter after a couple
months in the booth. Of course he was! He learned from his mistakes
and took steps to prevent them from happening again. If your painters
do the same, they’ll not only be optimizing the booth’s potential,
but their own.

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Mark Clark, owner of Clark Supply Corporation
in Waterloo, Iowa, is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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