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By David Lewellen
Paints & Coatings Article Use Policy
This question has been getting easier in recent years; more and more often, the answer is "very low." "Across the board, paint manufacturers are developing new products that are low-VOC," says Zimmer. "It's table stakes. It's what everyone is doing." Even pigments are now being produced with fewer VOCs, a previous problem area.
Regulations and codes from state and federal governments and private third-party groups have been getting stricter. But, according to Zimmer, "manufacturers are staying ahead of the changes coming down the pike." The end result, she says, is that "today's paints are certainly able to outperform" the earlier products. A quality acrylic paint today will look better and last longer than a high-VOC paint of 15 years ago, and its qualities of washability and application have also improved.
Even with the recent changes in composition, it is still true that sometimes a product with VOCs is the best solution. Facilities can use higher-VOC products in areas with a lot of abuse, such as handrails. But if they use latex paints in most other areas, they can average the result in applying for LEED certification, Crissinger says.
Look for products certified as low-emission by a third party, says Scott Steady, product manager for indoor air quality for UL Environment. His company's GREENGUARD is one; another common certification is Green Seal. Facility managers should also be prepared to have conversations about ventilation, to ensure their system will exchange enough air to remove any hazards — particularly in a region or season that doesn't require a lot of heating or cooling. "If you've got a sealed-up building, it can cause a VOC problem," Steady says.
It's a legitimate question to ask, but facility managers will not get an objective answer. "It's impossible to measure odor," says Steady. He says that products geared to do-it-yourselfers make more low-odor claims than those sold to contractors.
Awareness in the general population about paint and air quality has been rising; Steady says, "20 years ago, 'wet paint' meant don't touch. Now it means don't breathe." A third-party-certified paint may still smell, but the certification indicates that the VOCs causing the smell are not likely to pose a health risk, Steady says, which is a message worth communicating to tenants.
Any paint job has an aesthetic purpose as well as a functional one. Especially in a building with a lot of foot traffic, an interior designer may have an important role in any paint choice. Zimmer says that deep, bold colors are more popular now than 10 years ago; they may require an extra coat or be more susceptible to fading. In addition to color, gloss is an important visual aspect that also has practical implications. A higher level of sheen will result in a surface that's easier to clean, but it will also show imperfections in the substrate more readily.
David Lewellen is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Wis.
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