Low VOC Paint, Low on Odor and VOCs High on Productivity
A first step for contractors and painters is to ask customers about their sensitivity to the smell of paint. Recommending low-odor products demonstrates concern for the customer’s comfort and well-being.
by Jeff Woodard
well done are evident. Appealing tints, effective finishes and expert applications can interweave into a product that’s most pleasing to the eye.
But what havoc can they wreak on the nose? What about the solvents in alkyd and conventional latex that leave behind unsettling scents? One of the most challenging dilemmas a painting contractor can face is how to eliminate – or at least minimize – the odor when paint is being applied in occupied spaces.
Preliminary procedures can be taken to avoid potential problems. An excellent first step for contractors and painters is to ask customers about their sensitivity to the smell of paint. Recommending low-odor products demonstrates concern for the customer’s comfort and well-being. And painters who understand the benefits and limitations of these newer paints will be more likely to win contracts.
Hugh Champeny, manager of Product Development and Technical Service for Kelly-Moore Paints, cites the absence of solvents as the chief criterion. “Conventional latex paints contain low levels of coalescing solvents that give off the distinctive latex paint odor. The absence of solvents in these newer paints makes them ‘low odor.’ ”
Defining “low odor” is not an exact science, according to Andrew Kinnen, Product Manager of Architectural Marketing for Sherwin-Williams. “It’s a judgment call. ‘Low odor’ does not mean ‘no odor,’ at least for the first 15 minutes after application,” says Kinnen. “But after that, it’s OK. With latex paint, the odor can last for hours in a controlled test environment. Ultimately, it comes down to somebody’s nose.”
For residential uses in particular, a primary benefit of low-odor paint is “very limited intrusion,” adds Kinnen. “When you’re painting, you always prefer a room to be empty. But if the home is occupied, and the people who live there are sensitive to the ammonia smell of latex, it’s a terrific option for you.”
Through the tests of time and technology, the application of these nose-friendly paints has been enhanced significantly. Bob Gilmore, Product Merchandising Manager for Coronado Paint Co., says that up until the past few years, the low-odor-no-VOC paint scene was not a pretty picture.
“Early VOC paints looked like you put them on with a whisk broom,” says Gilmore of the initial products low in odor and free of volatile organic compounds. “But resin technology improved so that we don’t have those problems anymore. The low-odor paints flow well, are easy to put on and cover well.”
One potential drawback is the quick drying time of these solvent-free paints, says Champeny. “The applicator must move faster, and maintaining a wet edge is more difficult, particularly in warm weather.”
While low-odor paints are VOC-free, Kinnen offers one caveat. “The issue gets fuzzy when colorant is squirted into paint. Colorants can contain small quantities of VOC.” In most cases, amounts of colorant added are minimal, adds Gilmore. “The colorants, indeed, have a little bit of VOC, but they don’t contribute significantly to the odor.”
Six months ago, The National Architectural and Industrial Maintenance Paints and Coatings Rule (AIM) took effect. The ruling focuses on reducing and, where possible, eliminating VOCs in paint. Through this legislation, the federal Environmental Protection Agency gives manufacturers options for compliance to include offering limit-compliant products, waterborne alternatives and compliance-free products.
VOC levels begin to become problematic in the 400-500 gram range, says Kinnen. “The VOC of premium (conventional) latex is 90 to 130 grams per liter.”
The good news is that even some of the most discriminating customers can’t tell much of an aesthetic or performance difference between low-odor paints and their conventional latex and alkyd counterparts. “The low-odor paints perform quite well or at the level of conventional latex paints,” says Kinnen. “You don’t have to worry about giving up anything.”
Like standard latex, notes Kinnen, the low-odor paints may not always prove as durable as alkyd. They won’t hold up as well, for example, in high-maintenance industrial environments. “It won’t have the resistance of a two-part epoxy. It is latex paint, so whatever latex does, it’ll do that. Most customers understand the nature of the beast here. There’s an equivalent durability or performance to conventional premium (latex) paints.”
By and large, low-odor paints hold their own against the challenges presented by most commercial and residential environments, earning high performance marks. Says Champeny, “When low-odor paints are applied within the recommended temperature ranges, they form a film that has good integrity. Washability and stain removal are just slightly less than that of conventional paints.”
Kinnen says Sherwin-Williams is quite pleased with HealthSpecTM,the company’s popular low-odor latex. “It’s been very good to us in the past five years. HealthSpec stands up to abuses comparably to quality latex paint. It gets a high scrub rating, is impact-resistant and has a very, very good track record.”
These environmentally considerate paints enable contractors to operate in occupied buildings with far less intrusion than when using regular latex paint. “If you’re painting with HealthSpec on a certain floor of a multi-story building, no one would even know it on another floor,” says Kinnen, citing the absence of typical latex’s telltale ammonia scent. “This is a real boon for contractors spending time in occupied office environments.”
Coronado Paint Co. offers The Air-CareTM System, a line of low-odor products touted as spatterless and scrubbable with excellent touch-up properties, as an alternative to standard latex. Gilmore says that everyone from contractors, property owners and environmentalists to supervisors, designers and painters are pleased with the product.
“You can apply these paints without having work done on Sundays and paying overtime. That’s a big, big selling point,” says Gilmore, emphasizing low-odor paint’s universal effectiveness in buildings such as nursing homes, hospitals, condominiums and other residences.
The relative cost difference between conventional latex and low-odor paints can be offset by factoring in the money-saving advantages of the reduced – or eliminated – need to pay overtime labor. “Flat low-odor paints are priced about the same as conventional, high-quality flats,” says Champeny. “Enamels may be 10% to 20% higher than conventional enamels.”
For the time being, low-odor paint is limited to interior use, says Kinnen. “Mostly it is used on walls, but it can be used on trim applications, doors and frames.” Adds Champeny, “Wallboard and trim such as wood, hardboard, MDF and molded composite should be primed first.”
Kinnen issues a word of caution: With any latex coating, there is potential for blocking. “We can’t yet figure how to make those effectively in low-odor configurations, so using it on window frames and sashes could still be a problem.”
Most low-odor products are available in a range of sheens from flat to eggshell to semi-gloss and, according to Champeny, advances in emulsion technology may lead to low-odor gloss versions in the near future. In addition, Champeny says low-odor primers are available, primarily suited for wallboard and wood.
Most national and regional competitors offer low-odor paints. “It’s a niche,” says Kinnen. “It really started five years ago big time, but the concept has been around a while. Performance had been a big issue and then technological advances in the last five years have really helped.”