Canadian Underwriter

Refinish Regulations Go Green

June 1, 2007   by Lee Smith

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Everyone seems to be going green these days and auto repair shops are no exception.

In the fall of 2006, Environment Canada announced regulations that will require all refinish paint manufacturers in Canada to distribute only low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) compliant products. By January 1, 2009, all body shops doing repair and repaint for fleet and light industrial coatings will have to purchase low-VOC products. The draft regulations will also apply to other categories of refinish products in addition to basecoats, such as substrate cleaner, primer sealer, primer surfacer, single stage topcoats and clearcoats.

Solvents used in traditional automotive refinish coatings contain VOCs, which are precursors to particulate matter and ozone–the key ingredients of smog. These paints include a number of potentially hazardous air pollutants, including toluene and xylene. With growing concern about the number of “smog days,” especially in larger urban areas, the government is intent on reducing emissions from industry and improving air quality. Environment Canada estimates that more than five kilotonnes of VOCs are emitted each year from coatings and surface cleaners used in auto refinishing operations. The proposed regulations would cut these annual VOC emissions by about 40 per cent.

Waterborne coatings contain water as the main solvent, but also contain other solvents, such as glycol ethers, to improve application. There are other advantages as well, including improved worker health and safety and the ability to clean equipment such as paint guns with water-based solutions rather than paint thinner or acetone.

What will these VOC content regulations mean to Canadian insurance companies and claims adjusters? The main impact is ensuring that a company’s chosen network of repair shops is compliant with the regulations. Will insurers be able to offer the customer breadth of choice when the regulations come into effect? The transition to low-VOC waterborne refinish paint will not affect all shops in exactly the same way. There will be certain costs in terms of time, money and equipment in order for repair facilities to become compliant with the regulations, but these are hard to quantify.

Is It Cost Effective?

In fact, there has been a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding about the specific process involved in the transition to a waterborne basecoat system. Some paint companies have estimated that it could cost shops tens of thousands of dollars to make the necessary changes. For an industry that operates on thin profit margins, some fear this could mean a decline in the number of repair facilities in Canada.

At PPG, we don’t believe much can be gained from some of the hyperbole around the move to waterborne paint. Clearly there will be certain costs, but these do not have to be substantial or onerous and will depend on the shop’s current equipment and processes. The costs in terms of downtime, training and equipment should be manageable, and will certainly not be indicative of future success, or failure, of individual shops in the auto repair industry.

Key factors in the conversion process will be the ability to control temperature, humidity and air flow in the booth and the paint room, proper spray equipment and, most importantly, training for spray applicators. There will also be costs related to removing and disposing open solvent containers and old products–one of the reasons for the lag time in the effective date of the proposed regulations. Environment Canada is currently reviewing industry feedback it received in the fall of 2006, some of which called for a later implementation date of January 1, 2010.

Focus on Education and Training

The main focus of any conversion should be on training and education. Low-VOC regulations simply represent a change and all change needs to be managed. For repair shops, the first step is to check if their product supplier has a proven history of introducing and implementing waterborne paint. PPG, for example, was the first paint company to introduce water-base coatings to automotive assembly plants in Canada in 1987 and the first to commercialize waterborne technology for automotive refinish in the world in 1988. In 1992, we released waterborne products for automotive refinish in Canada. Working with the product for more than 20 years, PPG is well aware of the need for specialized training and proper equipment. We have invested in new coatings technology that doesn’t require toners to be agitated regularly, eliminating the need for mixing machines. We regularly conduct in-house training sessions with repair shop personnel in state-of-the-art facilities. Through live demos, we can demonstrate the differences between waterborne and higher-VOC solvent paint products, such as application procedures, drying time, airflow and safety techniques.

These factors have already been brought into play in eight of our “beta” conversion repair shops across Canada. In those eight shops, the process has been straightforward and not cost-intensive. Shop owners who have made the conversion indicate they would never go back to the old higher-solvent paints.

Client Satisfaction and Quality of Product

Another concern from insurers and claims adjusters may involve quality and client satisfaction. Since the conversion to waterborne, low-VOC refinish will not significantly impact claims costs or turnaround time, the question then becomes: will the customer be receiving the same or better quality with low-VOC basecoats? Will the paint be durable and closely match existing OEM colours?

The answer to that question lies in other markets and regions that have already adopted stringent regulations for mandatory VOC content limits in refinish coatings. For example, the majority of countries in the European Union require the use of low-VOC paint, including waterborne basecoats, in all refinishings as of January 1, 2007. PPG currently has over 15,000 active waterborne tint systems in the European Union. There have been few complaints about the quality of the waterborne product in terms of application, blend or durability. In fact, most of the comments from shop owners and applicators reflect the consensus that the waterborne product is closer to an OEM-finish than the higher-VOC solvent paints.

California is another jurisdiction that will be requiring compliance with low-VOC coatings regulations as of January 2009. In particular, there are two air districts affected for VOCs, known as the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). The proposed regulations from Environment Canada closely resemble those of California, where many repair shops have already begun to make the conversion to waterborne coatings. Again, shops in California have noticed no difference, or even a slight improvement, in the quality of waterborne paint products.

It is interesting to note that Canada’s refinish coating market generates roughly 13 to 14 per cent of VOCs in Canada, but will become the first industry to be regulated by Environment Canada. Other VOC generators, such as agriculture, military, government and OEM manufacturers, will likely face similar regulations in the future.

Effective Date is Fast Approaching

In Canada, the proposed regulations are still being reviewed by the federal government. It is not yet clear if the effective date of regulation for automotive refinishing will be January 2009 or later. One thing, however, is certain–the emergence of regulatory low-VOC limits on refinish will be coming to repair shops in the near future. Instead of complacency or misinformation, shop owners should check with their product supply partners, make the necessary investment in training and equipment and begin the process of conversion to waterborne refinishing coatings.

The sooner they start, the easier the process will be. A little bit of breathing room for shop owners in converting to waterborne basecoats may just improve the
quality of air for all of us.

Lee Smith was recently appointed director, strategic growth and acquisitions for PPG Automotive Refinish, North America. He was the director, Refinish Canada for PPG Canada, Inc. prior to his recent appointment.

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