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Talking to Body Shops that Have Made Waterborne Conversion

A check in with body shops on their progress in transitioning to waterborne paint reveals no major problems…as long as paint manufacturers’ guidelines are strictly adhered to.

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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.


Body shops in the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) of Southern California are quickly heading for a July 1, 2008, deadline to change automotive basecoat paints. These changes are a result of amendments to the SCAQMD Rule 1151 prescribing specific volatile organic compound (VOC) limits for both automotive clearcoats and basecoats. Many body shops in other parts of the country recognize the SCAQMD and its Rule 1151, as this was the beginning of the widespread use of high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) spray guns in 1988 when the original rule prescribed applying automotive paints with equipment that had at least 65 percent transfer efficiency.

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Almost half the entire population of California lives within the SCAQMD. Those 16 million people generate many VOCs every day. The problem is that the tons of VOC material react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, better known as smog. While the majority of VOCs come from internal combustion engines, about 12 percent are emitted from paints and solvents. Under the old rule, body shops could average together, or stack, the VOC totals from base color and topcoat clear. Together, they could not exceed 3.5 lb. VOC per gallon. The new amendments call for topcoat clear to be at or below 2.1 lb. of VOC and the base color, by itself, to be at or below 3.5 lb. of VOC. Conventional base color systems are around 5.0-6.0 lb. per gallon of VOC. To comply with the new regulations, paint companies have had to add water (no VOC at all) to their basecoat color systems.

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To achieve compliance, paint manufacturers have replaced traditional solvents with some combination of deionized, filtered and purified water and exempt solvents like acetone that don’t contribute to the formation of smog. All the compliant brands are less than 3.5 lb. of VOC per gallon. Some are around 2.8 lb. VOC and some are as little as 0.5 lb. VOC. The amendments to Rule 1151 begin July 1, 2008, and the body shops within the SCAQMD have until Dec. 31, 2008, to use up any solvent-based material that was manufactured before July 1, 2008. On Jan. 1, 2009, the end users are not to use or even possess noncompliant material. If they do, an enforcement action, such as a fine, will result.

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More AQMDs in other parts of California have similar regulations pending, and the Rule 1151 amendments have further VOC specifications for other refinish coatings that will become effective in the future. So how’s it going so far? That’s the question I asked several paint companies, paint jobbers and California body shops.

Smooth Transition

Most folks I talked to said that the transition to waterborne has gone smoothly and much better than anticipated. As longtime painters know, this is but another sea change in refinish material. I’m not quite old enough to remember the switch from nitrocellulose lacquer to acrylic lacquer, but I was present and accounted for during the industry transitions to acrylic enamel, acrylic enamel with isocyanate catalysts, acrylic urethane enamel and basecoat/clearcoat systems. In each case, doomsayers predicted the end of the world as we knew it when the new paints were introduced. Thanks to the ingenuity of the paint manufacturers and the resourcefulness of the painters, each new finish was successfully adopted in productive body shops across the country. It appears the switch to waterborne basecoats is going to be a similar nonevent.

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The compliant 2.1 lb. VOC clearcoats have been in use for several years in the regulated area. It took a little while to learn to spray something so thick that a mixing stick could stand up by itself in the center of the can. But clever paint company chemists kept the solid levels way up while keeping the viscosity down, a neat trick using shorter chemical resin chains and several other sophisticated twists of chemistry. So while Southern California shops are now accustomed to the 2.1 clearcoats, the 3.5 basecoats are a new challenge. I had several people tell me the new material isn’t as forgiving as the solventborne basecoats and that better surface prep, spray equipment and compressed air are necessary to achieve great results. The good news is that the compliant coatings provide better coverage thanks to an increased pigment and resin load. They’re faster in the booth but can take more time in the mixing room. Remember that the major paint companies had a chance to hone their products in Europe, where low VOC basecoats have been in use for several years.

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In many cases, the paint company and the jobber performed a “shop audit” to determine the individual paint shop’s readiness to apply the new materials. Some shops are using the mandated change in paint systems as an opportunity to upgrade their paint facilities overall. Several paint companies have already converted 300 to 400 body shops each to their waterborne material successfully. They told me that among the things they’re on the lookout for is a good moisture trap and diaphragm regulator mounted in the spraybooth. Several companies are insisting on a desiccant dryer to capture all the moisture in the compressed air. In addition, good quantities and velocities of air must move by the car during the spray, flash and cure cycles inside the booth.

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If applied in heavy coats, waterborne dries very slowly and has poor coverage when the pigment and resin are flooded with water. So following the directions is the key.


As much as 70 percent of original equipment automotive finishes are applied using waterborne color when cars are painted on the assembly line. Using waterborne to refinish those cars makes for a great color and texture match. However, just like the OEM paint lines, body shops need a clean and controlled spray environment to get good results. The ability to blast some fast-moving air at the color coats is easily achieved with hand-held or tree-mounted venturi jets, and a steady 75 degree F booth temperature is a must when using the new compliant materials. Every single person I spoke with, whether a paint manufacturer, paint jobber or body shop employee, said that training was the key to success.

It’s All About Training

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While each paint company had a slightly different approach and timeline, the general idea was the same. Waterborne paints handle, tint and spray differently than solventborne paints do. Additionally, the water material doesn’t have as much room for individual painter’s idiosyncrasies. Manufacturers built their specific training programs to teach their shop customers what to do and what not to do with the new compliant color systems. Many people told me their brand worked great if painters followed the directions to the letter, and didn’t work well at all if painters experimented with the recommended steps. For example, if applied in heavy coats, waterborne dries very slowly and has poor coverage when the pigment and resin are flooded with water. So following the directions is the key.

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A painter could switch solvent and catalyst speeds to make the old stuff act like he wanted, but the road to success with the new material is a much narrower path.


Creating and providing the necessary in-class and in-shop training for all those SCAQMD shops is expensive. In some cases, the jobbers paid to educate their customers, and in other cases, the shops paid to attend class. In still other cases, the paint manufacturers bundled the tuition into the entire conversion costs. Paint companies also spent significant time training their jobbers to conduct accurate shop audits and determine which types and brands of auxiliary air movement equipment were required and many other water-related ins and outs. In general, the new material requires thinner coats, better surface prep (move at least one grit finer at every sanding application), exact air pressures and specific fluid tip sizes.

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It’s All in the Mix

Water-compatible resins tend to be clear and, as such, make the chroma (intensity, brightness) of the color high. This clean-looking color does a great job matching the OEM waterborne finish. In some brands, the tints for these new systems are different in several respects from solvent-based tints. Because they occupy different color spaces and tend to be concentrated, correct agitation is critical. Several brands suggest mechanical agitation (turning on the mixing bank) three times a day in addition to 10 minutes before every mix. Some brands have tints suspended in a gel-like material that require only a rocking motion by hand to agitate correctly. One problem that has long plagued any shop mixing system is magnified many times by higher solids tints and more concentrated aluminums. If new cans of tint aren’t shaken and agitated sufficiently before they’re poured into a mixed color, that color match and every one thereafter will be thrown off by weak (early pour off) or too strong (late pour off) tint loads. Because every training class stresses the necessary agitation for a specific brand, color match on the new material has been good. However, poor mixing room procedures will immediately affect color match with waterborne colors.

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By some counts, only about 75 percent of the solventborne color formulas have been recreated in waterborne color. Some under hood and trim colors aren’t yet formulated in water. Hopefully by the Dec. 31, 2008 deadline, everything will be available in the compliant systems. One problem with any new paint system that affects both manufacturers and body shops is the database required for spectrophotometers. While the color eye camera can read the color on the car in three, five or six angles, the picture must be compared in a database of tens of thousands of colors. Shooting and then reading that many old formulas takes a lot of time and effort. Most major paint manufacturers have completed or are in the process of creating a database of 20,000 to 50,000 waterborne colors. A related problem at the shop level is their carefully collected library of test panels. Southern California shops must now re-create their treasured test panels with the new tint systems.

Crucial Cleanup Steps

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Deionized water won’t cut like lacquer thinner. Many of my interviewees told me they’re cleaning their spray guns sooner after spraying and disassembling the guns more completely to ensure they get their equipment suitably clean. Several paint companies said they prefer that shops use their specified brand of cleaner because it’s formulated to dissolve the exact combination of resin, solvent and water their brand employs. In most cases, the cleanup is done with a special blend of water, detergent and antibacterial agents (stagnant water stinks). Many people I talked to are using a disposable mixing cup system and are able to really minimize the amount of water-based waste they generate.

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Most vendors felt that the increase in coverage (new stuff hides very well) would bring the costs right back in line and that a potential increase in productivity (new stuff is very fast) could even lower a shop’s overall material cost.


It’s somewhat more expensive to haul away water-based waste, as it can’t be burned as readily for fuel as solvent waste can. All agreed that the training they received included a new commitment to mix only as much color as needed for each repair. This minimizes the waste but is also a great way to save money on materials. Several brands suggest the use of a flocculating agent that clumps the pigment and resin together in the gun washer and allows the shop to reuse the cleaning water up to 10 times.

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One last point about cleanup: Every shop that generates hazardous waste is responsible to store and dispose of it properly. Each shop should check with its local regulators to ensure it’s in full compliance with the applicable regulations.


Material Costs: Up or Down?

Based on my interviews, I believe that the paint companies deliberately priced their compliant offerings to have a minimum impact on body shop material costs. However, it’s important to note that the ready-to-spray cost of the new stuff is higher than the solvent stuff for every brand I spoke with. Most vendors felt that the increase in coverage (new stuff hides very well) would bring the costs right back in line and that a potential increase in productivity (new stuff is very fast) could even lower a shop’s overall material cost. I spoke to a couple of shops that suffered sticker shock when they bought a particularly expensive can of highly concentrated new tint. If the new stuff goes one-third farther and is one-third faster, then the shop could even gain ground with the super-expensive waterborne tints. But this doesn’t address all the costs that shops must expend to become compliant with the changes to Rule 1151.

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As all body shops know, they’re paid for paint and material using an unusual formula that multiplies refinish labor hours with some hourly dollar figure for paint and related materials. Insurance companies should recognize that, despite the best efforts of the paint companies to hold the line on costs with waterborne systems, shops have more invested than they did before. The new material is a higher cost per ounce and requires better compressed air filtration, better air movement within the booth, significant hours spent in training, smarter painters and a generally steep learning curve. And they should be paid accordingly.

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Like any time you change paint brands, it takes quite awhile to learn its tricks and twists. The California shops had 25 years to understand the limits of their solvent-based paint and what they could and couldn’t do. They’ll need the time to re-learn what’s possible with the compliant systems, and if what I heard is any indication, there’s much less leeway in using the water material. A painter could switch solvent and catalyst speeds to make the old stuff act as wanted, but the road to success with the new material is a much narrower path. Do steps A-B-C-D with no deviation to get acceptable results the first time. Having said all that, I still think the change in air quality derived from fewer VOC emissions is worth the increase in cost. Thankfully, there’s a real opportunity to increase production speeds with the new basecoats, too.

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A National Trend?

There is much interest in waterborne paints from shops outside of California, too. Even though they aren’t currently in a regulated area, those shops want to “go green” to improve their local air quality and market their progressiveness to environmentally concerned consumers. Because there are so many body shops in Southern California and Canada (similar VOC regulations), the paint manufacturers had to scramble to build enough product to satisfy those shops (approximately 20 percent of all the body shops in North America) first. Now that the initial hurdle has been cleared, most paint companies will welcome new customers in other parts of the United States.

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In general, the new material requires thinner coats, better surface prep
(move at least one grit finer at every sanding application), exact air pressures and specific fluid tip sizes.

 


Once they have hundreds of customers using water-based color in colder climates, the freezeability of some brands will have to be resolved. The manufacturers I spoke with don’t predict any problems. With careful packaging (molded styrofoam) and heated semi trailers, the product should arrive in fine shape even in the coldest parts of the country. Not all brands will freeze, and some can withstand freezing for specified periods without harm. Several paint companies are planning to move their waterborne color manufacturing to the United States from Europe to further minimize any shipping problems. There are two affiliations of industrialized states (one on the Eastern seaboard and one around the Great Lakes) that are likely to adopt VOC regulations that mimic SCAQMD Rule 1151. If that happens, almost half the population of the United States will be under 3.5 lb. of VOC basecoat regulations. Some predict that similar restrictions will apply across the country as soon as 2012 to 2015.

Problems? What Problems?

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As a result of my interviews with frontline folks in the SCAQMD, I predict a minimum of problems for any shop looking to switch to waterborne basecoats. Don’t panic, get trained, create an implementation plan with dates and accountabilities and look forward to applying a healthier product that offers great color match, easy blendability and a nice opportunity to reduce cycle times. I’m even hopeful that the insurance companies will recognize the increased costs for equipment and training and allow the waterborne shops another couple of dollars per refinish hour. I leave you with one of the first quotes I got in researching this story: “The switch was not nearly as hard as I thought, and I’m really glad we did it.” Now there’s some good news!

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Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He is celebrating his 20th year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

 


What Body Shop Owners Are Saying 

"We needed several months of fine tuning to achieve the cycle times we were accustomed to and continue to work through conversion nuances which impede our efficiencies. The move to waterborne basecoat doesn’t come without the trials and tribulations of change. Insurance companies should recognize the significant costs of transition. We’ve had to retrofit our spraybooths with air movement technology, learn to tint with high-strength toners and change the mindset of our painters. Slowly but surely, we’re overcoming many of the conversion hurdles and are turning out great-looking repairs." – Tim Cusic, COO Marco’s Auto Body

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"I sprayed waterborne 10 years ago and liked it a lot. We got back on board as soon as we could, and it’s been great. The product works very well and is better for my health and the environment, and the conversion went very smoothly. Our jobber and paint manufacturer both provided the hands-on technical support I needed to keep our production at full speed. It has been a very positive change for everyone and our repair quality is better than ever. I’m 46 years old and have been painting for 28 years and, thanks to a healthier product, I’ll be able to produce more and live longer." – Rande Lance, paint shop manager and lead painter, Prestigious Auto Body, Goleta, Calif.

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"The change to waterborne has been much easier than the change to low VOC solvent material in 1989. We’ve found that the painter’s acceptance has been overwhelmingly positive… We’re in Northern California where the regulations don’t yet call for 3.5 basecoats, but we’re intending to switch every one of our California customers to water because it works so well." – Don Dutra, Vice President of Sales, Martin Auto Color
 
"There are lots of positives with the PPG system; no mixing bank required because the tints don’t settle, color match is a lot better and the mixed colors look just like the color chips. The metallics match OEM very well and the time between coats is about half of the solvent system. The only downside is that surface prep must be right on – there can’t be any pinholes or scratches because the water material hides faster because it’s a thinner coating. We’re glad we switched early." -Lano Quevedo, general manager, City Body Repairs, San Jose, Calif. 

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5 Steps to a Waterborne Transition

Some body shops have already transitioned to a waterborne basecoat system. Below are the typical steps they took to make this transition:

1. Express an interest in becoming compliant early. At this point, and throughout the process, shop management must become and remain involved. You can’t just say “yes” and leave it to the painters to figure it out. Owners and managers need to be active in making the transition. At least one paint company held a large “launch event” and invited any shop interested to attend an informative panel discussion.

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2. Have the jobber and/or paint manufacturer perform a shop audit to determine the shop’s ability to store, mix and apply the new material. This was typically conducted by the manufacturer paint rep and jobber salesperson, who had a checklist of equipment and procedures necessary to make that brand work well. This might have included additional air movement devices like wall-mounted jets or fans, better or additional moisture traps and dedicated spray guns with rustproof plastic, brass or stainless steel internal components.

3. Attend a formal training class, typically held at the paint company training center. With a high instructor-to-student ratio (1:4, 1:6) the agenda was a minimum of classroom time and a maximum of hands-on time spraying the product, tinting for color match, blending, re-coating and generally learning the specifics for each brand.

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4. Have the paint brand reps install the new mixing system in the shop. Typically, they spend from two to five days on site, helping the painters get accustomed to the new material. And they reminded painters at every turn to follow the directions to the letter and not to skip steps or revert to old habits.

5. Have the tech reps revisit one more time. As one paint rep told me, he was the painter’s best friend while he stood next to him in the shop. He left after three days, and by day five, he was the painter’s worst enemy. Another visit to get the painters back on track and off their old methods for good was all it took to make everyone happy.

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