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Odorless Paints, Low-VOC
New regulations that curb volatile organic compound emissions in several Northeast states are making paint manufacturers work harder to breathe easier.
by John Strieder
The OTC model rule aimed at architectural industrial and maintenance coatings is one of six. Others address portable fuel containers, mobile equipment repair and refinishing, solvent cleaning and consumer products. And member states have adopted standards that are consistent with each other except in issues of record-keeping and recording.
Northeast states with new regulations join several other regions in the United States that enforce VOC emission limits lower than those set by the federal government. The best known, of course, is in Southern California. But Jefferson County, Kentucky, and Maricopa County, Arizona, have lower limits, too.
In a few categories, the OTC chose to stick with federal limits instead of using more stringent California levels, reflecting issues such as climate differences.
The OTC set Jan. 1, 2005, as a suggested compliance date. Northeast states that did not make the deadline are, for one reason or another, “somewhere in the rulemaking process,” says OTC senior program manager Tom Frankiewicz.
Industry objections caused some states to fall behind, Frankiewicz says. “They had some manufacturers in opposition that made rulemaking processes twice as long.”
In fact, a challenge to the regulations in Delaware reached the state Supreme Court. “Part of the delay is a number of states were waiting to see what would happen,” he says.
On the other hand, some states were pushed to have lower standards online Jan. 1 by a “SIP shortfall deadline” imposed by the EPA.
The Ozone Transport Commission is made up of representatives from member states and the District of Columbia. It was created in the Clean Air Act to reduce pollution in Northeast states affected by downwind pollution in the jet stream, and it is funded by grants from the federal government.
Concerns about VOC emissions in paint are nothing new, says John Stauffer, technical director at chemical manufacturer Rohm and Haas’s Paint Quality Institute. Most paint companies already offer low-VOC products, he says — but they’re called “low solvent” or “low odor” paints, because low-VOC products didn’t sell well when they debuted in the early 1990s. “People were more interested in low odor,” he says. “Most companies now are producing a line of low-odor water-based paint. In some cases they would be making them anyway, just because of the marketability of low odor.”
Low-VOC coatings are becoming more popular, Stauffer says, but they still account for only a few percentage points of the total coatings market.
Magdits of Benjamin Moore and Boyajian of California Paints expect districts in the state of California to push some emission limits even lower in the next couple of years. Boyajian theorizes the EPA will eventually take the lower levels national. “It troubles me the EPA can pass restrictions that affect some states and not others,” he says. “We feel that a lot of our pollution comes from the Rust Belt. It’s hanging around above us, and we’re being penalized for it.”
A set of national rules would help paint manufacturers avoid the “logistical nightmare” of dealing with different rules in different regions, says Magdits. “It’s a hassle.”
National rules are a possibility, Greenwell says. But he notes that VOC emissions are of particular urgency in regions where auto pollution runs rampant, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Southern California. “Paint manufacturers contribute very little to overall air pollution,” he says. “But we’re still an area that can be and has been targeted to reduce VOCs.”
Contractors in affected regions will likely be grumbling too, if the new regulations make prices go up. Making compliant coatings can cost anywhere from 50 cents per gallon to $9 per gallon more than the old coatings, Boyajian says. “It can be a dramatic swing.”
Furthermore, California Paints must maintain dual inventories to compete with cheaper coatings in unregulated states, increasing its overhead even more. And New York state approved a three-year exemption for small manufacturers. California Paints isn’t small enough to qualify for the exemption, Boyajian says, but it competes with companies that do. “If regulations were passed for everyone we wouldn’t have to have dual inventories,” he says.
The binders and glue that hold water-based paint together are more expensive, Stauffer says, but competition will help the consumer. “There’s not going to be a dramatic change in terms of cost,” he says. “There will be pressure to keep prices the same.”
Nelson of the PDCA predicts that, thanks to the lower quality of some replacement coatings, the new regulations will actually stimulate an increase in sales volume. “In some instances durability may not be as good, so they may be selling more gallons.”
Barry Law, president of the Master Painters Institute, which sets performance standards for paints and coatings in the United States and Canada, has his own beefs with new VOC regulations. The regulations do not account for performance, he notes. They make no allowances for a product that is a few grams per liter over a limit but lasts four times as long, which means fewer repaints and fewer VOC emissions over time. “They didn’t consider performance. We think that’s a major, major error,” he says.
The regulations also tend to assume all colors of paint emit the same levels of VOCs, he notes. Tinters give off VOCs too, so colored paint may emit more VOCs than an off-white can of the same brand.