Painting Green or …As Usual?
With green building, cleaning and lighting becoming mainstream, the painting industry, too, is jumping on the green bandwagon. Now property managers are presented not only with the challenge of choosing a paint color out of thousands of choices, but also of having to decide between traditional and eco-friendly paints. Should you use green paint for your property’s renovations or should you continue to specify conventional paint? Everyone likes to be environmentally friendly, but in the green paint dilemma there are cons as well as pros to consider if you want to achieve the maximum benefit for your building, its occupants, and your budget.
First, how can you distinguish eco-friendly paint from conventional paint? Simple—just pop open the lid and take a whiff. If the paint only has a faint aroma, it is a good bet that the paint is eco-friendly. On the other hand, if you find yourself breathing in that potent “new paint smell,” you are dealing with conventional paint, and there’s more to that familiar fresh paint odor than you might think. What you actually smell are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and they can be dangerous to human health and the environment.
What Is VOC?
VOC is short for “volatile organic compound.” This compound comprises chemical liquids that evaporate at room temperature, a process known as volatilization. VOCs are carbon-based solvents that are released into the air as paint dries. VOCs contain some of the most harmful chemicals found in paint.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paints, stains, and other architectural coatings produce about 9% of VOC emissions from consumer and commercial products, making them the second-largest source of VOC emissions after automobiles. Luckily, a lot is changing in the paint world. Companies are now altering their formulas from high-VOC to low-VOC and even to non-VOC compounds. The amount of VOCs in paint available on the market continues to drop, and manufacturers are using new technologies to design tougher and more effective paints.
Let’s take a look at the makeup of conventional paint:
- Pigment (gives the paint its color)
- Binder (helps the pigment stick to the applied surface)
- Solvent (keeps the paint in liquid form, making it easier to apply)
Of these components, it is the solvent that contributes to the majority of the paint’s VOC level. To property managers and their teams, in order to consider paint environmentally and occupant-friendly, the paint must have a low amount of VOC in its solvent.
Solvents are typically either oil-based (high VOC content) or water-based (low VOC content). Latex paint, for example, has lower VOC levels due to its water-based solvent. Therefore, latex paint is generally more environmentally friendly than oil-based paint. It is important to note that replacing an oil-based solvent does not entirely rid a paint of harmful chemicals. Pigments and binders may also contain VOCs.
VOCs are used for a number of reasons, primarily connected with application properties and freeze/thaw stability. Although VOC levels are highest during, and soon after, painting, they continue to release into the air for several years. Residents of your residential community that have allergies and are otherwise sensitive to the indoor air quality may continue to suffer from VOCs in your paint long after you finish renovating their apartments. It is these solvents that give traditional paints their odor.
In addition to their detrimental effects on the environment (damaging the ozone layer), VOCs in conventional paints have been linked to various health problems. They may cause nausea, dizziness, eye and respiratory tract irritation, not to mention heart, lung, or kidney damage and even cancer. Armed with this information, consumers have begun to demand safer alternatives. It may be just a matter of time before your residents and tenants will specifically request to have their homes and office spaces painted with eco-friendly paint.
According to the EPA, in order for latex and flat-finish paints to be labeled “low-VOC,” they must have VOC levels less than 250 g/L. In order for oil-based and all other paints to be considered “low-VOC,” they must have VOC levels less than 380 g/L. And what about the elusive “VOC-free” paint? To achieve this, both latex and oil-based paints must have VOC levels less than 5 g/L. Keep in mind that the numbers cited on the paint can are measurements taken prior to the inclusion of pigment and/or additives, both of which can contribute more VOCs. As a rule, the darker the tint is, the higher the level of VOCs.
Pros and Cons of Low- and Zerio-VOC PaintPros:
- Less off-gassing of VOCs (much healthier for both humans and the environment)
- Minimal smell
- Quick drying time
- Can be used to earn credits towards a building’s LEED certification
- More expensive than conventional paints
- Limited color choice
- Poor coverage (potentially more coats needed for similar results)
For property managers and their teams planning an interior painting job, factors such as pricing, performance, aesthetic appeal, environmental responsibility and impact on occupant satisfaction all play a role in the selection of the proper product. Striking a balance between these issues can be challenging. From a price standpoint, consider that while low-VOC and zero-VOC paints are more expensive than conventional paints, they typically cost about the same as a manufacturer’s premium line of paints (around $30 per gallon). A big perk to using low-VOC and zero-VOC paints is the ability for facilities to remain open and maintain normal activities during a painting project. At the same time, many managers believe that although green paints bring health benefits and a reputation of being eco-friendly, they do so at the expense of painting quality.
In the past, environmentally friendly coatings were difficult to apply and failed to stand up to repeated washings. However, the paint industry is now developing environmentally responsible products that also meet property managers’ stringent performance standards. For example, Benjamin Moore’s Natura has become the first paint to earn the Green Good Housekeeping Seal. Natura is a latex interior paint line that offers more than 3,300 colors and features a quick drying, virtually odorless formula that allows you to use your room the same day it is painted. The manufacturer, as if reading property managers’ minds, specifically states that Natura has zero VOC levels even after the paint is tinted to a specific color and doesn’t compromise on performance or color options.
Another paint manufacturer, Sherwin-Williams, lets you decide how green you want to be while choosing its paint. On the Sherwin-Williams website, visitors can search green paint by the specific amount of VOCs (450 g/L, 350 g/L, 250 g/L, 150 g/L and even 50 g/L). Plus, this manufacturer also offers paint with a zero-VOC formula—Harmony® Interior Acrylic Latex Paint—which is both GreenGuard® Indoor Air Quality Certified and GreenGuard® Certified for Children and Schools.
With more and better green paint choices becoming available from different vendors, next time you reach for a brush, you might try going a little greener.