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Technical: How ‘Low’ Will Shops Go?

With regulatory activity on low-VOC/waterborne paint not progressing as expected, how has the market responded? We asked several paint manufacturers to find out.

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Water was the word several years ago when California’s low-VOC regulations triggered an R&D response from paint companies, which recognized states’ environmental legislation was never going to get more lax. Progressive shops in National Rule regions converted to water, and there was some nudging, if not pressure, to consider low-VOC options. Many figured, “It’s only a matter of time…” But regulatory activity did not progress as expected.

Today, most of California is regulated, as are the states of Maryland and Delaware and greater Salt Lake City. Pennsylvania began a regulatory process that stalled about a year ago, according to Harry Christman, North American brand manager for Axalta’s Cromax brand.

Low-VOC regs seem to be in a holding pattern for now. But, interestingly, adoption of low-VOC paint technology is following an opposite trend, Christman says. He estimates that 40 to 45 percent of the country is spraying some kind of low-VOC paint, whether waterborne or solvent-based products. According to Christman, about 15 to 20 percent of the country is regulated, meaning that the other 25 to 28 percent of shops are in National Rule regions but choosing the environmentally-friendly option.

“These shops see the advantages from a marketing standpoint or from a productivity standpoint and have chosen to go [the low-VOC] direction,” Christman says.

Improvements

Waterborne systems have gone through a few generations of improvements by now, and some paint companies are introducing low-VOC solvent- based products that give painters an alternative to water.

Today, PPG has converted 10,000 shops to its waterborne system, says Jennifer Boros, marketing director for the collision segment, automotive refinish at PPG.

“Waterborne is definitely still a hot topic,” Boros says, noting that the talk of regulation might have simmered down but the adoption rate and interest has not. “We have more shops in the National Rule market adopting [waterborne] than we do in [regulated] areas, and that has spurred interest and acceptance.”

Shops are just more comfortable with water now.

“There is less of an aversion to switching to low-VOC paint,” acknowledges Mark Hebbeler, an independent auto body consultant.

Axalta’s Christman also sees a perception shift and more acceptance of waterborne technology across the U.S., even among shops that were skeptical of this low-VOC option a few years ago.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve been seeing that trend reverse where even shops that do not spray water and maybe don’t even want to have a positive perception of it see the technology as something that is new, good and has been around long enough that they can trust it,” he says.

Like waiting for a model car year to improve before you buy, some shops are still hanging on for waterborne improvements, continuing a wait-and-see approach.

“Every generation of waterborne gets better, and the comments I’m getting from some shops is if it has improved this much in the last five years, what will it look like if I wait another three or four years to convert?” says Ted Williams, manager of business consultation services for Sherwin-Williams.

BodyShop Business talked to paint players to learn what the industry is seeing with waterborne and low-VOC solvent-based technologies, and how regulations across the country are shaking out.

All the Way

Most of us are wired to go with what we know, so when waterborne systems were introduced, many shops begrudged the “new.”

“People always tend to gravitate toward the path of least resistance, and if they have been doing something for 20 years, they understandably don’t want to change,” says Ben Sampson, account manager at Axalta.

But once shops converted to water, they recognized its benefits, Sampson says.

“Bigger shops see the value,” he says, noting that Axalta’s waterborne system, which requires no flash time between coats (similar to the way OEMs apply paint to vehicles) can significantly improve productivity.

Christman adds, “There is savings from not having to lay down multiple coats and wait for those coats to dry before finishing the job.”

PPG’s Boros says waterborne is still king in the low-VOC realm, even with solvent-based product introductions.

“There is less odor in the workplace and improved air quality, better metallic control, smaller pigments so painters can get greater opacity and less color shift, and with our waterborne products they can use 25 percent less sprayable base, so there is materials savings,” she says, highlighting why shops that have converted to water are champions of the technology.

Learning Curve

But there is a learning curve for shops switching to water, not to mention equipment investments. It’s not a drop-in system, or at least it shouldn’t be if properly executed. And shops that converted before they were ready from a training or infrastructure standpoint probably did not have positive experiences.

The push toward water was driven by legislation. And progressive shops in National Rule states hopped on board, recognizing environmental and productivity advantages. But only the well-prepared shops truly reap benefits.

“Our philosophy has already been, we’ll have the products ready and available for shops when they are ready to change,” Christman says, noting that Axalta never aggressively pushed its customers toward water, instead supporting multiple technologies so customers could choose. “Negative backlash comes from shops being converted that are not ready and do not have the equipment and processes in place to truly be successful with water.”

Peter Mahoney of Chemspec believes that 25 percent of shops that converted to waterborne are pleased with their systems. “And 75 percent, if they had other options, would probably switch to that other option besides water.”

Qualities

Mahoney, who worked as a production painter for 20 years, notes a hallmark of water: richer, more vibrant and accurate color matches. But he says not all shops gain productivity, especially those in humid climates where drying waterborne is a real challenge. Small jobs are fast, but “large jobs with a lot of curves and nicks can take very long to dry, so you lose productivity,” he says.

But shops are also getting accustomed to “what they can get away with” when it comes to applying waterborne products, says Bill Warner, a technical training manager for Quest Automotive Products (QAP). “They find out they can relax a little bit,” he says – a product of understanding the technology and growing more comfortable with it.

Still, processing speed continues to be an innovation focus for undercoats and clears, Sherwin-Williams’ Williams says.

“Products that manufacturers come out with are getting better and better,” he says. “We are trying to evaluate the speed shops need and develop products around the fact that they want to produce cars faster, get them in and out of the booth, and do it in a way that they can eliminate heat, the use of gas and electricity in the production process.”

Meanwhile, giving shops smaller pack sizes will make using waterborne easier for shops that are not in mass-production mode, PPG’s Boros says. This way, perhaps these shops will look more seriously at water versus a low-VOC solvent-based product.

“We feel we can reach a lot more shops that way, and they don’t necessarily need that low-VOC solvent,” Boros says.

Low-VOC Solvent Alternatives

Paint companies have been playing with the four exempted solvents for years, working to create low-VOC solvent-based products that behave like National Rule paints. The selling point: Meet current and future regulations with a “drop-in” system that requires no special equipment.

The thing is, these “safe” solvents don’t naturally make a paint that handles the same way.

“They have limited blending and melting properties compared to what we are used to with National Rule products,” QAP’s Warner says.

Warner says that getting these traditional low-VOC solvent-based products to perform requires accommodations similar to those of water: In humid weather, changing gun settings, changing tips or air pressure. Sure, it’s a drop-in system – but they’re different products.

“You may have to adapt either way,” Warner says, noting that regardless of the type of products used, shops’ results depend on maintaining equipment, keeping spray guns in optimum working condition, changing filters and other best practices.

Meanwhile, low-VOC solvent-based products are evolving as paint companies consider how this technology could be a waterborne alternative for shops that struggled with water. And, today’s low-VOC solvents are not what shops remember from low-grade economy versions.

Christman says Axalta’s Cromax Mosaic low-VOC solvent-based line is another low-VOC alternative to water. However, solventborne low-VOCs may target a completely different market of shops. Those that choose not to invest in waterborne equipment, or that do not produce enough to justify the expense or conversion, might consider the low-VOC solvent-based technology.

“Mosaic and any other ‘collision quality’ 3.5 solvents that get launched are formidable competition to all of the coat/flash waters on the market – they are just as fast, just as good and don’t require the equipment investment of water, not to mention they are lower priced,” Christman says.

R & D Mode

Recognizing this, paint companies are in R&D mode.

“There has been a mad scramble in the last couple of years,” Christman acknowledges of efforts in the low-VOC solvent-based realm. “There is an interest in upgrading what used to be [sub-par] basecoats, the 3.5 solvents, and creating basecoats that are truly usable and work well and are equivalent to the National Rule solvents these shops are used to.”

The low-VOC solvent-based systems entering the market are not designed as “economy” alternatives like some earlier 3.5 solvents, Christman says. Axalta Chromax Mosaic is “a great basecoat that just happens to be low-VOC,” he notes of a patented technology in the product that causes it to behave and spray like National Rule solvents.

Still, Scott Rickard, BASF account representative, says waterborne is leading the pack in the low-VOC market. But interest in low-VOC alternatives, such as solvent-based products, could cause a shift once more technology enters the market.

BASF rolled out its Onyx HD Low-VOC Solventborne basecoat system that shops can also use with waterborne.

“Generally, you need a different set of toners to do water and low-VOC solvent, whereas Onyx gives you the option to do both out of the same can,” Rickard says. Boros says PPG has “a product in the works” but is focused on waterborne now. Low-VOC solvent-based products are an easy drop-in because shops won’t need new spray guns, but “they are not reaping the benefits of what water can do for them,” she says. (Boros also notes that all waterborne systems perform differently, so shops may be struggling with water because of the brand.)

One hang-up with solvent-based low-VOC products: The EPA gives them the green light, but these products do not meet low-VOC regulations globally. “They can only really be sold here in the States,” Boros points out.

Options Are Good

But options are a good thing, and whether waterborne or low-VOC, paint companies are focused on giving shops better choices so they can accommodate existing regulations or anticipate future legislation. It’s part of an ongoing product evolution.

“The products we have now will far outlast the products we had 10 years ago,” Chemspec’s Mahoney says. “In the next three to four years, shops will have more options and that will make the transition to low-VOC easier.”

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