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Beyond VOCs

Gradual progress has improved the quality of low-VOC paints. But choosing the right paint still requires careful thought

By Brandon Lorenz, Senior Editor    Maintenance & Operations   Article Use Policy

It’s hard to brush away the concerns facility executives had with the first generation of environmentally friendly paints. Applying low-VOC paints was a challenge because early formulations flowed differently. Sometimes the paint yellowed or appeared stringy. Longevity was also a concern.

Today, such problems are little more than memories. “The paint manufacturers have dramatically improved compared to what they began with,” says Doug Hampton, president of Wilson & Hampton Painting Contractors, a national painting contractor. “There is no doubt they’ve continued to improve.”

The main measuring stick of paint’s environmental friendliness is the level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs vaporize at room temperature, contributing to the creation of ozone, which can lead to unhealthy indoor air quality. Typically, VOCs are used in paint to prevent freezing and improve paint flow, leveling and curing. VOCs in traditional latex paint range from 200 to 300 grams per liter. Solvent-based alkyds range from 400 to 500 grams per liter. Defining a low-VOC paint is bit complicated because there are several standards in the marketplace. For example, any paints certified under Green Seals’ current version of the GS-11 standard must not exceed a limit of 150 grams per liter of VOCs. (See “Green Paint Standards”)

Questions to Ask

Though paint technology has clearly improved, those improvements haven’t necessarily made it easier to specify paint. There are a few factors to take into consideration before selecting a low-VOC paint. “Not all low-VOC paints perform as well as others,” says Mark Casale, general manager for Hingham Painting & Decorating.

MSDS sheets and performance sheets provide a good indication of product performance, Casale says. VOC levels, drying time, how much area the paint will cover and whether the paint contains toxic chemicals are among the details included in the sheets. Facility executives should also ask how long a particular paint has been performing in the field. Some manufacturers change their formulations as often as once a year. Facility executives wouldn’t know a formulation has changed without asking, says Casale. Dry time and sag are two characteristics that can be affected when formulations change.

While low-VOC paints often carry a cost premium compared to standard paint, using low- or zero-VOC paint can save money on refurbishment projects. Lack of strong odors means some companies are willing to allow painters to work during business hours. In the past, strong odors meant the only option was to paint after hours or weekends, which drove up project costs.

Still, facility executives should weigh whether it’s worth the risk of creating a situation where employees are sent home because of indoor air quality problems, even if the chances are slight with low-VOC paints. “Sometimes there can be a little bit of an overreaction,” says Hampton. “But I think that it can be hard to predict the sensitivity of clients.”

Importance of Color

While the environmental attributes of paints have improved, a color that doesn’t match a space or a finish that scuffs easily — two situations that can lead to repainting — simply isn’t sustainable.

The wrong color will attract grumbling from occupants. But attempting to avoid controversy by selecting a bland color can be problematic too. “The wow factor just isn’t there,” says Terri Spencer, interior designer for Cubellis.

In interiors where value-engineering was necessary, color choice becomes even more critical because the design may not have any other features to create visual interest, says Jill Watkins, interior designer for Cubellis. “Some bold or saturated color in specially selected places can really be a hit in making a space feel warm and vibrant,” Watkins says. Instead of covering a space with a mass of neutral color, soffits, for example, can be made to float with different paint treatments.

Facility executives seeking to keep costs in check should settle on one standard neutral color that is used throughout a building with just a few accent colors, says Susan Jacobson, senior interior designer for KKE. Such a strategy reduces the number of paints needed on hand for touch up.

In the case of refurbishments, whether the space has been value-engineered or is a high-profile boardroom, facility executives should evaluate color palettes in the actual space being painted, not in their offices on a computer screen. The type of lighting in a space can have a significant impact on the way a paint color is perceived by occupants. Evaluating a color under the actual lighting conditions will prevent any surprises.

“When inexperienced designers pick out colors in incandescent lighting for a space with fluorescent lighting, the paint will shift heavily into the blue spectrum,” says Lindsay Audin, president of EnergyWiz.

Consider a space that relies on some daylighting. If a green color isn’t evaluated in similar daylighting, the natural light will cause the paint to look more yellow once applied, Jacobson says.

“The biggest mistake I’ve seen is someone who made the wrong choice on paint because they didn’t take the time to look at the paint before it was specified under actual lighting conditions,” says Spencer.

Of course, it’s not possible to evaluate colors that way in new construction projects. In such cases, the next best thing is to view color choices in a space that closely matches the lighting specified in the project. That, in turn, means it may be necessary to coordinate with the project’s lighting consultant.

As the pressure for energy efficiency has increased in recent years, lighting techniques have evolved. A recent trend is to retrofit fluorescent fixtures with cooler lamps while reducing wattage. Shifting from a 3,000K lamp to a 4,100K lamp while dialing back on the wattage doesn’t make a space appear any dimmer to occupants, but it will change how the paint looks. “It’s going to make a big difference in how the reds and yellows and oranges appear,” says Spencer. “Those warm colors aren’t going to be as punchy in cooler light.”

For facility executives looking to milk every last watt of efficiency out of their facilities, paint plays a small but obvious role. The LEED rating system encourages the use of light, reflective interior surfaces.

Audin says he recalls once getting complaints that one particular office in an academic building was too dim. All the offices used the same basic configuration and lighting fixtures. The difference was that the dim office included a series of black filing cabinets. Other offices had beige cabinets. Lighting measurements showed that the office with black cabinets was 15 percent dimmer. “The black cabinets soaked up the lighting like a sponge,” he says.

Finishing Up

Paint color plays a major role in the way occupants feel about a space. But when it comes to longevity, it’s finish that matters. Most experts agree that when durability is a concern, aim for a pearl finish. “When you clean paint with a flat finish, it’s going to show,” says Hampton.

One caution: Glossier finishes require more surface preparation because they will more readily show flaws in the drywall, such as poor taping. “A flat means there was probably pretty poor workmanship and you don’t want it to be obvious,” says Hampton. He recommends using a semi-gloss in restrooms because the paint has a tighter film that better resists water than flatter finishes.

In some spaces prone to abuse, neutral color corner guards can improve the longevity of paint, Jacobson says; clear corner guards are more likely to become brittle and break. In these areas, paint over drywall may not be the best option. A hospital’s wheelchair alcove for example, would probably be better served by a wallcovering instead, says Jacobson.

When it comes time to touch up, not all paints are created equal. Touching up blemished walls can be a challenge in high-profile spaces for several reasons. First, many premium paints are more difficult to touch up because the formulations are harder than inexpensive paints, says Casale.

Secondly, savvy facility executives store as little leftover paint from a job as possible because it can become an environmental hazard, says Hampton. That means for touch-ups, new paint has to be purchased. And because formulations are changing more frequently than in the past, it can be difficult to get paint to match, particularly as it ages over time.

In some high abuse spaces, achieving a flawless touch up may not be of primary importance. For those spaces that require perfection, facility executives should follow the standard set by the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, Casale says. “The paint can be different from batch to batch. You have to go from corner to corner,” he says. “You can’t just go and touch it up in one spot. That’s a fallacy.”

Green Paint Standards

There are third party organizations that have set their own standards for low-VOC paints. Greenguard, Green Seal and the Master Painters Institute are three prominent certifying bodies. Each organization defines low-VOC paint differently.

Green Seal’s GS-11 standard for paints was released in 1993. The organization is currently in the midst of a sweeping revision to the standard that would likely broaden the types of paints and coatings covered and tighten VOC limits.

Green Seal put the revised standard to a vote in January, but it didn’t receive enough votes for approval, says Christine Chase, lead environmental scientist for the GS-11 revision. Feedback from members may lead to revisions and another round of voting.

Click to view the current draft of the revision.

— Brandon Lorenz

posted on 2/1/2008