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  Mechanical Feature

VOC Issues: An Update

Posted 4/17/2006
By Rachael J. Mercer

If you're a body shop owner or anyone affected by VOC regulations, don't fear their coming. Just educate yourself. The regulations will be phased in slowly, over time, so don't panic.

The subject of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and related regulations can often cause the most confident of body shop owners to shake in their shoes. However, there is more information than ever available to business owners, and with this information comes knowledge and understanding: the best antidote to fear surrounding VOCs.

VOCs are regulated because they contribute to smog formation when emitted in polluted urban environments. They can have detrimental health effects on those who are exposed to them long term or repeatedly. In addition, VOCs are found in gasoline and many consumer products, from hair spray to adhesives to styrofoam packaging. Since the Clean Air Act of 1990, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been taking steps to reduce the amount of smog-forming chemicals that are emitted in the United States. In the years since 1990, individual states and localized "air districts" have worked to become compliant in the regulations set forth by the Clean Air Act. Specifically, manufacturers of products that contain or release VOCs (as well as body shops that use these products) are monitored and periodically inspected by EPA representatives.

These inspections, along with the changing technologies that affect body shops around the country, are often intimidating and nerve-wracking. But they need not be, particularly as body shop owners are armed with the information they need to make environmentally conscious - as well as compliant - choices.

What's New in Regulations?

The most important changes in the United States are occurring in California, where the California Air Resources Board (CARB) has developed a set of guidelines for new regulations concerning the acceptable limit of VOCs. According to Mike Veney of Sherwin-Williams, in October 2005, CARB developed a model rule for automotive refinishing.

Mike Koss, a representative with PPG, said that only one of the 35 air districts has put this stringent rule into place.

"The South Coast Air District is the only air district so far to pick up this rule," Koss said. "Each air district must decide individually to accept the rule and make it enforceable in their district." The South Coast Air District contains the major city of Los Angeles, which has adopted the Model Rule effective in 2008.

Under the 1151 Refinish Rule adopted by the South Coast Air District, the new acceptable limits for the base coat will be 3.5 lb./gallon. This new limit is a sharp decline from the federal standard for acceptable VOC levels. While these regulations are being put into place in some businesses in this air district, complete compliance is not required until July 2008. Other limits are expected in January 2009 and even tougher limits may come in January 2010. Thus, no immediate or drastic changes are necessary, as shops and business owners are allowed to "phase in" these compliance measures. To learn more about CARB and its suggested rules, visit its Web site at

Internationally, there are changes in VOC standards, especially as other nations realize the problem of smog is one that affects most industrialized nations - not just the United States. In Great Britain, lower VOC standards are prompting paint companies to develop products that work to meet not only the CARB suggestions and regulations, but also those set forth in the United Kingdom. Canada is also working to lower VOC emissions by enacting stringent new VOC regulations modeled after those in California. According to Jay Kaiser, product manager for DuPont, his company has just launched a new product set and is moving toward distributing them in Canada and in California under the Rule 1151 requirements.

How Will These Regulations Affect My Business?

New regulations monitoring VOCs involved in applying paints and solvents to a vehicle in your body shop will require diligent recordkeeping. Proper methods for applying primer, base coats, color and clear coats to automobiles will be important for your employees to learn and understand.

In the future, shop owners will begin to see new labeling on clear coats, primers and base coats. These new labels will indicate VOC levels, or will read "VOC-compliant," making compliance measures easier for EPA inspectors to judge when visiting individual shops.

Before panic sets in that old technology and old paints will forevermore be banned as noncompliant, Koss assures shops that some old-technology product will still be compliant. This is where understanding what is compliant and what is out of compliance is key for business owners. Reading up on the VOC requirements, visiting EPA Web sites and participating in seminars and educational classes will keep body shop owners abreast of the changing requirements.

What's New in VOC Technology?

There are two new exciting changes in VOC technology. First, because Rule 1151 in the South Coast Air District in California is more stringent, most solvent-based color coatings will no longer be in compliance in that area. And as other air districts in California begin to implement CARB's Model Rule, similar VOC levels will probably be adopted. Thus, paint companies are working to develop products (primers, base coats, colors and top coats) that will be completely compliant with these new standards. Although implementation is years away in California, other air regulatory boards, body shops around the nation and paint manufacturers are watching California's efforts at VOC control measures to determine whether similar measures should or will be adopted in their areas.

Developing waterborne coatings is one way that paint companies are making strides to meet the VOC standards in California and internationally as well.

Bradley Richards, coatings research and development manager for BASF, said waterborne coatings have been around for some time now. "Although waterborne coatings may still be seen as new by some body shops, they are not new to the refinish industry," said Richards. "BASF, for example, launched its Glasurit waterborne systems more than a decade ago. This proven technology and its associated products are used by mainstream body shops in Europe as they prepare for the required VOC limits that will change Jan. 1, 2007. Equally important, since their introduction, waterborne refinish systems have been color-matched to the full global automotive color palette, which makes them even more attractive as a low-VOC alternative."

Tom Gardner, a representative for U.S. Chemical & Plastics, added, "Water-based coatings are another way to apply color that is also environmentally friendly." U.S. Chemical and Plastics is in the process of developing a water-based coatings line that will launch in Great Britain this summer (2006) and the rest of Europe in 2007. Adjusting to new uses in spray booths and baking booths is one important difference in waterborne and solvent-borne coatings.

"Sometimes warm air is needed to dry the water-based coatings, and directed air is needed around body seams and hidden areas - like underneath mirrors," said Gardner.

The availability and success of waterborne systems is not limited to Europe, says Richards. There are a growing number of BASF customers in U.S. and Canadian body shops who have made the switch from solvent-borne to waterborne technology without having to be pressured by regulatory compliance. BASF sees the transition to waterborne technology as a time for body shop owners to educate their employees about training issues surrounding the new technology as well as an opportunity to increase their awareness of environmental issues.

Bob Yearick with DuPont says his company is working to deal with the higher standards as well as the challenges of meeting the lower VOC numbers. DuPont's 2400S 2.1 VOC Multi-Use Clearcoat is a 2.1 VOC product, which is lower than the current Rule 1151 in California (3.5). Still a solvent-borne clearcoat, this product uses the traditional baking technology. In addition, 22860S ChromaPremier Etch Primer is an easily applied primer that covers evenly and completely. Two coats are usually required, but no sanding is required on most repairs. These are just two of the products that DuPont is marketing in response to the higher standards in California and internationally.

Jay Kaiser, a products manager for DuPont, says waterborne coatings are an excellent developing technology. Together with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), DuPont is working toward "receiving approvals that our [waterborne] systems satisfy all their refinish system requirements." He explained that waterborne coatings were launched in California in the early 1990s, but that since then, they have been modified and revamped to continue to comply with changing VOC standards in that state.

Moving into waterborne coatings is one transition that can be disruptive to a business, says Kaiser. "The consequence for this waterborne transition is that companies must retrain and learn to properly apply these coatings," he said.

In addition, proper dry time is also a concern for owners.

"This new method of drying is cause for concern among body shop owners," said Daniel B. Pourreau, Ph.D., of Lyondell Chemical Co. "Unlike solvent-based coatings that dry quickly and reproducibly, the dry time of water-based coatings is affected by ambient humidity and temperature. Hence, the body shop owner will have to install new equipment to ensure that water-based color coats dry quickly and consistently."

Their applications, as well as the process for drying (instead of baking) will require body shops to work diligently to meet the new VOC standards as well as the existing refinish standards. In addition, the changes in drying the waterborne coatings will require manufacturers of spray or baking booth technologies to work together with paint companies and body shops to develop technologies that meet the needs of those using waterborne technology.

The second promising area surrounding VOC regulations for automotive body shops is that the EPA has added to a list of compounds that are considered VOC-exempt. These chemicals can be used in paint and coating formulations without releasing harmful VOCs into the environment.

"In December 2004, the U.S. EPA granted Lyondell Chemical Company's 1997 petition to add TBAC (tert-butyl acetate) to the list of VOC-exempt compounds," said Pourreau. During the process, which took eight years, Lyondell had to demonstrate that TBAC not only has negligible smog-forming potential, but that it also has low toxicity and would not have a detrimental impact on the environment.

Just as the CARB model rule was set forth and then individual California air districts had to put the suggestions in place, the same idea applies to the exemption of TBAC. Although added to the EPA's nationwide list of exempt compounds, each state must add TBAC to its list of VOC-exempt compounds. Some states have laws concerning air quality or they have other emissions standards that supercede the federal standard.

As of March 2006, 34 of the 50 states have accepted TBAC as an exempt compound that can be used in auto body refinishing. Following California's recommendation, the South Coast Air Quality Management District has chosen to exempt TBAC but so far, only in undercoats. According to Pourreau, Canadian paint companies and industry associations have also requested that Environment Canada, the environmental group that develops and enforces Canadian VOC regulations, also add TBAC to its list of VOC-exempt compounds for automotive refinishing and other applications. This will make Canadian VOC regulations consistent with those in the United States and create a level playing field for businesses on each side of the border.

What Does TBAC Do?

"TBAC is a fast-evaporating solvent with broad solvency for coating resins," says Pourreau. TBAC will be used predominantly in solvent-borne coatings for automotive refinishing. It can replace VOCs and other exempt solvents such as acetone and PCBTF to improve the coating's performance and lower its cost. According to Pourreau, "TBAC is also a versatile VOC-exempt thinner component and a good replacement for MEK and acetone for cleaning paint guns. We expect it will be a popular addition to automotive coatings and auto body shops."

What Should I Do with This Information?

Remember that the key to no longer fearing regulations concerning VOCs is to educate yourself on the subject. Remaining positive instead of worrying is key too. None of these regulations or changes are taking place immediately. If your body shop is in the South Coast Air Quality Management District, you have more reason to take action than other shops around the country. Even still, the regulations in your area are being phased in slowly, over time, and will take more than a year to become enforceable. In the meantime, all body shop owners and those affected by VOC regulations should continue to watch and listen to information on the subject. Please visit to stay abreast of legislation pertaining to VOCs in your state.

Rachael J. Mercer is a freelance writer based in Moultrie, Ga. She can be reached at

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