SEMA News—April 2012
By John Stewart
A Fresh Coat
How Waterborne Paint Is Changing The Automotive Industry
In California, where regulation of volatile organic compounds has been in place for years, use of waterborne paint in body shops and custom shops is already commonplace.
Paint has long been a necessary product in the automotive world. Customizers and aftermarket manufacturers are among those who require paint products to conduct business. Perhaps the most prolific painters in the automotive sector, other than OEMs, would be shops operating in the repair and refinish segment. These are auto-body shops that make a living on being able to paint fast, match colors perfectly and be economical in the process.
The move to less toxic, water-based finishes is already well under way elsewhere. Waterborne paints are currently in extensive use in Europe and Canada, and many OEMs now use water-based paints on their newest products. Paint manufacturers are also moving quickly to develop low-VOC primers and clear-coat products in addition to the color coats available now.
In high-smog states like California, regulations requiring low-VOC technologies have been in place for years, and now other states are following suit. To find out what these requirements will mean as low-VOC requirements spread across the country, SEMA News contacted a variety of stakeholders in the paint industry. We specifically sought information about the newest technology as it stands today and what it will mean to companies that paint.
The consensus among the people we talked to is that the transition to waterborne finish products may not be as difficult or as costly as some first supposed. In fact, the changeover may bring with it a number of advantages.
Paint Formula Advancements
An entirely new paint booth, such as this one on display at the SEMA Show, would not likely be required to make the transition to waterborne paint. However, an ample supply of clean air is an upgrade most production body shops choose to make in order to shorten drying time.
One of the biggest areas of activity is at the paint manufacturer level, where the transition to waterborne paint has prompted paint companies to develop new products from scratch. Some are now releasing second- and third-generation water-based paints.
“We’ve been doing waterborne for quite a long time; CroMax Pro is our third-generation waterborne product,” said Harry Christman, brand manager for DuPont Refinish. “This is a product that has a brand-new technology.”
The newest waterborne paint from DuPont is a good example of the kinds of paints the industry will need to come up with to help shops achieve low-VOC requirements. It’s formulated with 88% less solvent but 25% more pigment. The result is a product that offers advantages but also requires re-educating painters.
“Most other waterborne products went in the direction of trying to create a waterborne paint that was like solvent-based paint,” Christman explained. “Solvent is the old technology, and painters tend to dislike change. So many paint companies, when they created their waterborne paint, said ‘we’re going to make them like solvent.’ We went a different direction.
“It’s a higher solids product, so it’s got more of the stuff that gets left behind when the water evaporates off. It’s a one-and-a-half coat, wet-on-wet process. Rather than having to lay down a coat of paint, let it flash, then lay down another one, let it flash—and, depending on what you’re working with, lay down four, five, six coats—with Cromax Pro, you cover in one and a half coats. And anything that doesn’t cover in one and a half coats covers in two coats. So you go in, put on the first coat, go right back and put on your mist coat, your ‘effect’ coat, which is half a coat. Then you’re done. You can put the gun away; leave the booth. It will dry, and then you can clear coat it.”
Next-generation waterborne paints such as the DuPont product shown here are now becoming available to the industry. Formulated with much less solvent but more pigment, this third-generation paint is designed to cover completely in one to two coats using a fast, wet-on-wet application process.
The newest DuPont paint costs a little more per gallon but offers the advantages of speed and better coverage, making it less costly to use. According to Christman, painters can reap benefits once they understand the process.
“It’s much faster, which high-volume direct repair program shops love, and you use less material,” said Christman. “So it’s great not only for reducing the cost, but because it speeds cars through the shop, it increases the capacity of the body shop. They can sell more jobs and create more revenue.”
Conversion Equipment Requirements
In California, most shops have already converted to waterborne paint. In other states, many paint shops have put off the transition, in part because of cost concerns.
“It’s a myth that you’ve got to buy all kinds of new equipment and put in new spray booths to convert,” Christman noted. “The truth is, they’re going to need a new gun—a stainless-steel gun, because you don’t want rust in your spray gun.”
In addition to a new paint gun, waterborne paint does like to have large volumes of clean air to enhance drying.
“For water, the key to drying is air flow—getting air to move across the surface of the car to make it dry,” Christman said. “However, the car will also dry without great air flow; it just will take longer. So if you’re a production shop that’s trying to move cars through, you’re going to want to put in blowers to get a lot of air movement to get the cars to dry super-fast. But if you’re a custom shop or a smaller shop that doesn’t have cars stacked up outside and you want to put in a small box fan to get a little air movement, that’s all it takes. The difference will be, maybe, instead of drying in 10 minutes, you’ll dry in 30 minutes. For a production shop, that’s a big deal. For a custom shop, probably not to them.”
To add another voice to the conversion, we talked to Douglas Albin of Bodyworks Collision Center in Murietta, California. His shop, which grosses about $250,000 a month, has been using waterborne paint for about five years.
“I converted before it was mandatory,” he said. “I wanted to be ahead of the curve.”
After a period of experimentation, Albin has adjusted his process to make the most of waterborne technology, and he noted some differences.
“With water-based versus solvent, it’s a lot more forgiving,” he said. “Your blending techniques are a little bit easier. It’s not as susceptible to contamination, dirt. We also had to fine-tune our prepping—we had to have a cleaner job, a tighter wrap.”
Even though waterborne paint is less toxic and offers easier disposal and cleanup, painters will still want to use a fresh-air system, gloves and a spray suit, because paint is still a chemical.
Initially, Albin was using a waterborne paint from his long-time supplier. And he stuck to a process that required multiple coats.
“When water-based paint came and we made the change, I was only getting through two to three cars a day with a $100,000 full-downdraft, 30-foot booth with mixing room,” he explained. “Then I noticed a big difference in the actual manufacturers of the paint. When I first made the transition, I was literally putting on five and six coats and waiting 20 minutes between coats for it to completely flash. Now I paint 12 cars a day, without a $15,000 retrofitted jet dry system. So we mastered it really quick,” said Albin, who now uses DuPont Cromax Pro. “The major expense was training.”
“Painters are going to have to be completely retrained. A lot of them struggled with it. So we really had to go in and retrain them, but once they’re trained, they will never want to go back to the old paint system.”
The Don Ayres Honda Collision Center, located in the area of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is another top-tier production body shop that recently switched to waterborne and does about $2 million a year in total sales. Manager Kevin Cox agreed that painters will need to get used to the new paint technology.
“Painters need to learn a little different technique,” he said. “Both my painters spent two and a half days at a DuPont training center. And then Dupont was in here for one full week after with both of them. But the transitions that the industry went through in the days of lacquer, then to acrylic enamels, then to base coat/clear coat—this transition from solvent to water is a baby step compared to the days of spraying lacquer.”
Waterborne paint requires a spray gun with stainless-steel parts, which means most shops will want a new gun for each painter. Suitable spray guns are widely available; companies such as Optima, Eastwood and Iwata all had newly designed stainless-steel guns on display at the SEMA Show in 2011. This gun, introduced at the Show by SATA Spray Equipment, is a special-edition SATAjet 4000 B.
Cox decided to make the jump to waterborne paint just recently as VOC requirements began to get tighter.
“Everybody’s kind of wigged out over water,” he said. “I was one of those guys—why fix something that’s not broken? But we have some compliance issues with regard to the state of Indiana for VOC compliance and overspray containment. And we thought, well, if we’re going to do this, let’s go ahead and make our transition to water-base paint, so when they walk in the door, they see we’re proactive.
“In all reality, we’re probably four to five years away in this part of the country from any sort of mandate. But I would say embrace it. The time factor and the coverage of the base coat is so much better than solvent, and there is so much waterborne product being applied at the OEM level, it gives you a lot better chance to hit color matches, because you’re putting water against water.”
Cox doesn’t think there is a huge amount of risk in making the conversion to a waterborne paint system.
“I would think any jobber in a given market who is representing any of the Big Three, if they’re transitioning a shop to water, they’re not going to set that shop up for failure,” he said. “And the manufacturers—be it BASF, DuPont, whoever it is—they’re walking on top of each other to get the business. They’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to support.
“Cost, for most shops, will depend on what they go with. We went with a blower system with a stainless-steel fan about 12 inches in diameter and about 8 inches deep. We spent maybe $5,500. It’s air driven, so we did have to run some air lines to it, but it wasn’t any big engineering feat.
“You do have to get a new gun; there’s a couple out there to choose from. Actually, through our jobber, it was all part of a kit—they give you the choice of the gun. It changes your cleaning process a little. It’s also going to lower some of your waste issues.”
Albin, with his shop in California, confirmed a reduction in waste-disposal costs.
“We put anything solvent-based in a 55-gallon drum,” he said. “We have thinners to clean that, so we’ve got our thinner cost—about $300 bucks. It’s gone down because of water-based, so we’re only buying one of those a month, versus two.”
When Speed Is Less Important
Collision and repair industry manufacturers have already geared up with disposable products suitable for use with waterborne paint, such as masking tape that resists waterborne paint’s tendency to bleed under tape. The tack cloths shown here are marketed as ideal for use with waterborne paint.
Brian Ferre, a long-time professional painter and instructor at LA Trade-Tech, worked in a volume body shop when waterborne paint was first introduced and now is involved in training young painters to move into body-shop jobs. In his arena, speed is not so important, but technique and quality are.
“My advice would be not to be scared of it,” Ferre said. “If you’re an open-minded professional painter, the transition will be no problem at all. “
Through his teaching, Ferre has had experience with a lot of different paint formulas.
“I’ve painted with pretty much all the water bases; teaching wise, I try to shoot pretty much everything I can get my hands on,” he said. “All the waterborne products, across the board, the technique for the painter has to be very even. It’s almost like painting custom paint jobs, where you have to be on your game a little bit more to make it even. The DuPont brand, I would say, is pretty goof-proof, even for a student.”
Ferre noted that using waterborne paint offers advantages but also requires using different masking materials.
“In the beginning, when doing multiple colors and taping up, the paint manufacturers had to come up with different tape where it wouldn’t bleed underneath,” he said. “Water has a tendency to bleed a little bit underneath the tape. So they came out with different plastic tapes.”
Water-based paint also offers certain advantages to a custom shop, where speed is not the primary consideration.
“Another advantage,” Ferre said, “is your clear has better adhesion. So you can leave the base coat open longer than you can a solvent-based paint. There’s a certain window that you have to hit to clear coat solvent-based paints, and that window is open longer with water-base. You can leave it open and come back on top of it later, and you won’t have any adhesion problems later on.” According to sources at DuPont, painters can wait up to 72 hours before applying clear.
Ferre also noted that water-based paint is now often used on race cars. Although the paint itself is not lighter, the thinner waterborne paint film adds less weight. “Racers are very conscious about adding weight,” he said. “So racers like it.”