Coatings Manufacturers Hit
Southern California cuts allowable emissions for exterior stains, clear wood finishes, roof coatings and sealers.
by New Regulations
by John Strieder
in Southern California has significantly lowered legal air pollution levels in paints and sealers, sending area manufacturers scrambling to retool their products. Is this good news or bad news? Both. On the one hand, contractors who work with solvent-based paint and sealers will be breathing cleaner air. On the other hand, they may end up paying more for supplies that, in a few cases, won't work as well as the old materials. The new standards are the brainchild of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a regional government agency that oversees air pollution control in Orange County and parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties.
The agency adopted a measure on Dec. 5 to significantly reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paints and coatings, one of the largest categories of smog-forming emissions in the region.
"Smog-forming emissions from paints and architectural coatings in the Southland are equivalent to those from 1.7 million vehicles," said AQMD executive officer Barry Wallerstein in a press release. "This rule will further establish AQMD as the nation's leader in requiring manufacturers to develop low-polluting paints and coatings." The amendment to Rule 1113 will reduce VOCs by 3.7 tons per day from such paint categories as roof coatings, exterior stains, waterproofing sealers, concrete/masonry sealers and clear wood finishes.
The rule doesn't give manufacturers much breathing room in the way of time either. They are required to reduce VOC emissions from roof coatings by January 2005; waterproofing sealers, waterproofing concrete/masonry sealers and clear wood finishes by July 2006; and exterior stains by July 2007.
This action is actually phase three of AQMD's plan to reduce VOC emissions from architectural coatings. The first and second phases, adopted in 1996 and 1999, will result in about 32 tons a day of VOC emission reductions.
Paint manufacturers have repeatedly challenged the rules in court to no avail.
Right now, architectural coatings cause 51 tons per day of VOC emissions in the South Coast AQMD region, according to district figures. The December reduction alone is expected to curb more emissions than those produced by the region's largest oil refinery. VOC emissions react in the atmosphere to form smog and ozone. Even so, some manufacturers who participated in the working group surrounding the measure are fuming.
"Manufacturers are fleeing California," said David Sibbrel, project manager for Life Paint Inc. in Los Angeles. "This is a major hit. They're doing some serious lowering."
Tony Garcia, research and development director at Hill Brothers Chemical Co. in Orange, agreed. "It was not as bad as they had initially proposed, but it was still bad," he said. "It's going to require us to practically reformulate every single product we manufacture." The new regulations will affect about 90 percent of his company's architectural-coating products, he estimated.
The long-term upshot of the measure, he said, is that contractors used to solvent-based materials will be increasingly forced to turn to water-based products or another substitute. "It won't necessarily eliminate anything, but it will make it more difficult and cost-prohibitive to manufacture solvent-based products."
Because the cost of manufacturing will go up, contractors who stick with familiar coatings may be facing a heftier price tag.
"Contractors will probably have to buy more expensive products," Sibbrel said. And alternatives will be pushed, such as epoxies, he predicts.
The technology to produce epoxies and urethanes with adequately low VOC emissions already exists, Garcia said, so contractors who use those coatings might not see a lot of difference. But the rule will have a bigger impact on users of more economical sealers, such as acrylics and polyvinyl acetate. The technology to lower VOCs in high-performance acrylic is not there right now, he said. "If you're used to using high-end acrylic sealers, the performance of your sealers might not be as good. That is the biggest hit. Solvent-borne penetrating sealers, those are the ones that are hit the hardest."
Cabinet-makers and woodworkers will see some changes coming too, as the measure phases out an exemption for clear wood finishes and pigmented lacquers.
AQMD claims its standards are the strictest in the nation and insists that capable substitutes are readily available. "The new VOC limits rely on compliant coatings already available from several manufacturers and in wide use throughout the region," asserts the news release. But Sibbrel disagrees. He charges that the group lowered VOC limits without adequately examining the pros and cons of alternative technologies.
One example, he said, is acetone, which has a significantly lower flash point than the products curbed under the new measure. A gas water heater, car exhaust, or any open flame is sufficient to ignite the fumes, he said.
But AQMD spokesperson Tina Cherry counters that most homeowners use water-based or oil-based paints, not acetone. A professional will be well versed in the risks, she said. "If someone is going to go there, they're fully aware of the precautionary measures they have to take." Many companies are leaning toward water-based products these days with or without the rule, Garcia said. They're looking to avoid the liability issues that come with making solvents these days, not to mention flammability and other hazard issues.
But forcing change in such a sweeping array of products is bad for the industry, Sibbrel said. And the South Coast District's reputation as a trendsetter should be enough to make contractors and manufacturers across the country take note. "The South Coast has always been a pioneer for everything," he said.