On New Year's Day, painters in many northeastern states woke up
with more than a hangover. New regulations that significantly
reduce the allowable content of volatile organic compounds
(VOCs) in most paints and stains took effect on January 1 in
the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and
Delaware, as well as in the District of Columbia and 10
counties in Northern Virginia (see Figure 1). In laymen's
terms, what this means is that many popular oil-based coatings
will effectively disappear from those regions.
Figure 1.On January 1, 2005, seven jurisdictions
in the Northeast adopted the OTC Model Rule for Architectural
Coatings, which reduces the amount of VOCs that various types
of paints can contain. Seven other jurisdictions plan to follow
suit within the next two years.
The new laws stem from a collective effort known as the Ozone
Transport Commission (OTC) that aims to reduce air pollution in
the heavily congested Northeast Corridor. The OTC includes a
total of 13 northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, all of which
are expected to adopt the same VOC restrictions within a year
These restrictions, officially known as the OTC Model Rule for
Architectural Coatings, are based on regulations that have been
in effect in California since January 2003. The remainder of
the country is not affected, at least for now.
Why Clamp Down on Paint?
VOCs include hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals that
contribute to smog when they're released into the air. The vast
majority of VOCs come from automobiles and power plants; paints
are a small but significant part of the problem. "In our state
of Delaware alone, the rule will achieve a reduction of about
two tons of VOCs per day," says Gene Pettingill, an
environmental engineer with that state's Department of Natural
Resources and Environmental Conservation.
Paints release VOCs when the solvents or additives evaporate as
the paint dries. Oil, or alkyd-based, paints typically contain
high concentrations of VOCs because the solvent (paint thinner)
is a VOC. Latex paints are less problematic because the solvent
(water) is not a VOC, but some of the additives are.
"We're not banning oil-based paint," insists Daniel S. Brinsko,
an environmental engineer with the New York State Department of
Environmental Conservation. "Companies can choose to
reformulate their paints to meet these criteria." Samuel Cabot,
a manufacturer of exterior stains and wood-care products, is
hoping to produce an oil-based stain that would have an
ultra-low VOC content of 100 grams per liter.
But Cabot is in the minority. For years now, major players in
the industry, such as Benjamin Moore and Sherwin-Williams, have
focused all of their research and development efforts on
improving waterborne paints.
Oil Paints, Not Primers
One or another form of government has been pressuring paint
companies to lower VOCs for years. The OTC model rule is
essentially a more restrictive version of the law that the
federal government adopted in 1998. Both are complex documents
that include VOC limits for more than 50 categories of
architectural coatings (Figure 2). But there is one major
difference: Under the federal law, most paints and stains are
permitted a VOC content that ranges between 380 and 550 grams
per liter, whereas the OTC reduces the VOC allowance to 250
grams per liter or less, a number that's very difficult to
achieve with oil.
Organic Compound (VOC) Limits for Paints and
[in grams of VOC per liter of
California Suggested Control Measure
Northeast Ozone Transport Commission
•Non-Flat high gloss
•Primer and undercoaters
Sealers, and Undercoaters
Clear and semitransparent
Figure 2.In 1998, the federal
government set VOC limits for more than 50 varieties of
architectural coatings. In recent years, the state of
California and the northeastern Ozone Transport Commission
states have lowered many of those limits. This chart represents
the residential coatings most affected by the
Up to now, manufacturers of oil paints and stains have been
able to lower their VOC content largely by substituting
synthetic oils (alkyds) for natural oils. So that's been done.
But now what? Unless Cabot or someone else invents an effective
low-VOC solvent, the only option is to add solids that
compromise performance. "Can you make a 250-gram oil-based
stain?" asks Jeff Spillane, senior marketing manager for
Benjamin Moore. "The answer is yes, but not one that meets our
quality standards." Consequently, most manufacturers have
decided not to reformulate their oil-based products to meet
these lower VOC standards.
In addition to paints and solid-color stains, semitransparent
pigmented stains (such as Minwax) and clear wood preservatives
are big losers under these regulations.
Oil-based primers, which are limited to a VOC content of 200
grams per liter, would also appear to be doomed, but here
there's a big loophole: A separate category, "specialty
primers," applies to any stain-blocking primer, including any
exterior product that's formulated to resist tannin-bleed.
Specialty primers are allowed 350 grams per liter of VOC, a
limit most primers currently meet.
More loopholes. If you're
still painting with oil, don't panic. None of these coatings
are going to disappear tomorrow. Retailers in the affected
regions are allowed to continue to sell all "noncompliant"
coatings manufactured before the law went into effect. In
addition, any of these coatings that are packaged in aerosol
cans or that are used for shop-applied finishes are exempt from
the law. Perhaps most important, the law includes a "touch-up"
loophole that allows any noncompliant coating to continue to be
sold as long as it's packaged in quart-sized (or smaller)
containers (Figure 3).
Figure 3.Every region in the country that has
lowered the VOC limits for paints still allows "noncompliant"
coatings to be sold in quart-sized, or smaller, containers. So
you can still get them, if you must.
If you're convinced that you can't find a satisfactory
waterborne substitute for a particular paint, the worst-case
scenario is that you'll have to open four times as many cans
— and spend more money, of course. Fortunately, because
they've had to supply the California market for the last two
years, all of the major paint manufacturers offer a full line
of high-quality, waterborne alternatives to their oil-based
Exterior Waterborne Paints Already Outperforming
Sales of oil-based paint, stains, and primers have been
shrinking for years, and this is not merely the result of
government interference or homeowners who prefer water cleanup.
"It's just old technology vs. new technology," says Paul
Kowalik, a district manager for Sherwin-Williams. "We and other
large paint manufacturers have developed waterborne coatings
that meet or exceed the performance of most of the oil products
that are out there."
Latex top coat. Even the
crustiest old-school painters have generally conceded the value
of waterborne house paint (if not primer). "We've known for
decades that the best top-coat paints are the acrylic latex
paints," says Bill Feist, an independent consultant who worked
for 20 years as a wood-finishing researcher for the USDA Forest
Compared with oils, latex paints enjoy a longer life span when
exposed to the elements because they remain flexible and
"breathe," allowing trapped moisture to escape. Latexes are
also more mildew-resistant and don't tend to yellow or chalk
the way oils do.
Latex primer. Unlike paints, waterborne primers are not as
popular as the oil-based varieties. Despite significant
advances in acrylic latex technology, oil-based primers are
still more effective at preventing bleed-through stains from
tannin-rich woods like cedar, redwood, and cypress; they also
adhere better to dusty, chalky, and waxy surfaces.
While acknowledging that oil primers offer certain advantages,
Bill Feist recommends acrylics for most situations: "If you
don't have to worry about any special adhesion or significant
bleed-through problems, you will get a better performing paint
system by combining an acrylic latex stain-blocking primer with
an acrylic latex top coating. The all-latex systems have
superior durability because they tend to have less tendency to
start checking and cracking."
Even though oil-based primers are not going away, John
Stauffer, technical and training director at the Rohm and Haas
Paint Quality Institute, believes that a waterborne primer
should be every painter's first choice: "A heavy coat of a good
stain-blocking acrylic latex primer applied to a clean, dry
surface will contribute to a finish coat that resists mildew
growth and long-term cracking better than it would if an oil
primer were used."
Applied Right, Interior Latexes Finish
Another application for which oil-based paint remains in strong
demand is glossy interior surfaces, such as woodwork and wall
surfaces in kitchens and baths. Painters prefer oil for these
highly visible applications because its slow-drying properties
permit a long working time and enable the paint to lay out
smooth as glass without visible brush marks.
Unlike primers, oil-based paints get no reprieve under the OTC,
so painters who don't want to buy all of their materials in
quarts will have to switch. By now, most major manufacturers
have come out with waterborne versions of their premium
interior gloss paints. But many painters who've tried them for
the first time have been disappointed with the results.
Many painters use an additive like Floetrol (Flood Co.,
www.floodco.com) to extend the working life
of latex paint and to reduce brush marks. Paint manufacturers
try to discourage putting anything other than a brush into
their products — all of them forbid adding any type of
thinner, for example — but most grudgingly condone this
practice, as long as the user follows the instructions provided
by the additive manufacturer.
Not everyone believes that latex paint needs to be modified,
however. "It's not the paint, it's the brush," says Duffy
Hoffman, a painting contractor in Pipersville, Pa. The Paint
Quality Institute's Stauffer agrees with that sentiment. To
achieve oil-like quality with a glossy waterborne paint,
Stauffer recommends using a topnotch straight nylon bristle
brush and changing brushes often (Figure 4). "As soon as you
notice that it's not maintaining its shape, you need to drop it
in water [for later cleaning] and pick up another brush," he
Figure 4.Whether you're brushing or spraying, the
secret to achieving an oil-like finish with a waterborne paint
is to apply an even, full coat and keep moving.
For a less complicated alternative, Stauffer suggests using a
high-quality nylon-polyester blend. This type of brush will
last all day before it needs cleaning, but it won't produce as
fine a finish. Stauffer has other suggestions for achieving
oil-comparable quality with waterborne paints:
Predampen the brush. Shake
out the water thoroughly before dipping it in any paint.
Put on a lot of paint. When
latex is spread too thin, it gets ‘ropy' and does not
flow into a smooth, uniform appearance. You want to apply as
much paint as you can without having it sag.
Don't overbrush it. Put the
paint on with as few strokes as possible, and keep
Waterborne Paints Require Careful
Paint manufacturers strongly recommend that all of their
products be applied over a sound, clean, dry substrate, but
many pros have learned that oil-based paints will stick to
almost anything. Waterborne paints are not nearly as forgiving.
With these products, it's more important than ever to read and
follow the manufacturer's application instructions.
percent of customer complaints fall into two categories: poor
surface prep or moisture-related issues," says Peter Hope,
technical specialist for Samuel Cabot. He urges painters to
remove dirt and mildew with a professional-grade housecleaning
detergent that includes bleach. He also recommends cleaning
small sections at a time and always working from the bottom up.
"If you start from the top down," he says, "all of the dirt and
contamination that you dislodge will reattach as soon as it
hits a dry surface below."
Waterborne paints do not bond well to wet or moist surfaces, so
they should not be applied if it's excessively humid or if rain
is expected within a few hours. To know for sure that wood is
dry enough to paint, Hope highly recommends using a moisture
meter to verify that the moisture content is 15 percent or
less. "A painting contractor without a moisture meter is like a
carpenter without a level," he says.
waterborne paints don't face nearly as many adhesion challenges
indoors, getting a new coat of latex to stick to an existing
gloss oil finish has always been a problem. "If you don't prep
it correctly, it's like painting over Teflon," says Brian
Doherty, a painting contractor in Richmond, Va.
To guarantee that his paint doesn't peel off in sheets, Doherty
first makes sure that the surface is clean — kitchens and
baths, for example, usually require scrubbing with a strong
household detergent to remove grease and mildew. Then he
vigorously sands the surface (using 150-grit paper) to degloss
the paint. After sanding, he wipes the surface with a damp
cloth to pick up the dust. Finally, to ensure a solid bond
between the two disparate layers of paint, he primes the
surface with a fast-drying acrylic latex primer like Benjamin
Moore's Fresh Start.
What About the Future?
Painters in California have had to use low-VOC paints for the
last two years and most have adapted. Julie Street, a painting
contractor in Sunnyvale, Calif., says she has accepted the
products, but her challenge is training her employees to use
them correctly. "Because of the VOC restrictions," she says,
"I'm more dependent on a skilled work force that isn't there."
Figure 5.Ground-level ozone — smog —
is created when VOCs combine with oxides of nitrogen, which are
produced mostly by automobiles and power plants. Two years ago,
California enacted regulations restricting the amount of VOCs
allowed in paints and stains to levels lower than those
previously established by the federal government; the Los
Angeles area plans to reduce those limits even further in
Street is fortunate that she's not working in Southern
California (Figure 5). In its continuing effort to clean up the
smoggiest air in the country, the South Coast Air Quality
Management District, which includes Los Angeles, has announced
plans to reduce the VOC limit for paint to 50 grams per liter
in 2006 — a number that not even an acrylic currently
Figure 6.In California and throughout much of the
Mid-Atlantic, most paints are restricted to a VOC content of
250 grams per liter or less, an amount that is very difficult
to achieve with oil.
Except for California and the OTC states, no other states have
expressed an interest in reducing VOCs in paints. But that
could change. This year the EPA tightened the rules by which it
measures ground-level ozone (also known as smog), and
consequently more areas of the country have found themselves
out of compliance with federal air-quality standards. Some of
these regions may decide to crack down on paint.Tom
O'Brienis a carpenter and writer
in New Milford, Conn.