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VOC rules can cause a mess

Cabinet Makers Association executive director David Grulke sums up regulation of volatile organic compounds, a vital component of most varnishes, paints and stains, with one word.

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“Morass,” Grulke says.

The nation is a confusing crazy quilt of VOC rules and jurisdictions, Grulke and others say. Some regions like the Orange County, Calif., area have stringent regulations that come close to banning VOCs, while others have virtually no restrictions, they say. Jurisdictions can range from states to air quality management districts to local fire departments.

Even more confusing for the average woodshop owner is that the regulations seem almost arbitrary. Cross a street from one local jurisdiction into another and restrictions on VOCs can go from stringent to non-existent.

“Frankly, they’ve made a huge mess of it,” says Greg Williams, a former touchup and finishing instructor for Mohawk Finishing products and consultant. “You’ll find one shop on one side of a state line doing ‘A’ and a shop on the other side of the state line doing ‘B.’ ”

The patchwork regulation has left woodshop owners and even regulators confused as to what rules apply where. It presents a challenge to stain, paint and varnish manufacturers who must produce dozens of variations of their products with different VOC levels to sell in the many different jurisdictions.

“Even in Orange County, there are maps of different districts and clean-air regions within the county,” says Phil Stevenson, executive director the American Wood Finishing Institute. “The state map is just a maze.”

All of this leaves the average shop owner in a quandary.

“There’s certainly a concern about it,” Williams says. “It’s very difficult for the small operator to know what the rules are and how they are going to be applied. It’s so complicated that a lot of OSHA inspectors don’t understand it well enough to make the distinction between what is perfectly legal and illegal.”

Feds getting involved

The current patchwork of regulations has left finishers and regulators confused as to what regulations apply where.

While the federal government has not yet imposed national standards, it’s looking at new restrictions, Stevenson says. The EPA has already announced plans to set rules for formaldehyde in wood products.

Stevenson added, however, he thinks that national VOC regulation might still be far in the future. Whether a shop should convert to low or no VOC materials — which can be difficult and expensive — depends on where you are and what you are doing, he says.

“What I tell my attendees, I say, you know what, you guys should be looking at it and if you’re worried about compliance, keep an eye on it,” Stevenson says.

Stevenson and other experts are much less concerned about the EPA’s proposed restrictions on formaldehyde. Most smaller woodshops work with materials that could contain the substance, but don’t use it in manufacturing. Domestic producers have already reduced their levels, they say. Imported plywood, however, can still be a problem, Grulke says.

“The domestic manufacturers are producing mostly no formaldehyde or low formaldehyde product,” he says.

The problem with VOCs

Paints, varnishes, stains and other liquid finishing products have two basic components: resin, which adheres to a surface creating a coat of paint or stain, and solvent that liquefies the resin allowing it to be applied.

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Solvents containing VOCs have long been used in wood-finishing materials because they produce the best results and are the easiest to use, Williams says.

But VOCs are a pollutant. When paint or stain dries, the solvent evaporates, taking any VOCs with it. VOCs in the atmosphere contribute to smog, acid rain and other environmental problems, Williams says.

As a result, areas of the country like Orange County, Calif., and the Great Lakes that are especially vulnerable to smog or acid rain have imposed ever greater restrictions on VOC emissions, Williams says.

Some European countries like Sweden have gone even further, all but banning VOCs, Stevenson says.

The challenge for manufacturers is to make low- or non-VOC paints, varnishes and stains that are as easy to use and as high quality as their VOC cousins. To eliminate VOCs completely requires going to water-based products, which have traditionally been inferior to those containing VOCs, experts say.

In addition, low or non-VOC products are significantly more expensive and require different equipment and application techniques.

“It can be a big investment in dollars particularly if they have to replace equipment,” Grulke says. “There’s certainly a learning curve that goes with anything new. When you’re a small shop, those costs are magnified.”

VOC alternatives

Shop owners seeking to slash VOCs have options, Williams says.

“Water-based is not the only evolving technology that would answer these questions,” he says. “It’s not the only way out of the quandary we’re in.”

One alternative is to use environmentally friendly VOCs such as acetone exempted from restrictions, Williams says.

But acetone has numerous drawbacks, he says. It dries faster than solvents containing traditional VOCs and is more susceptible to humidity, he says. Blushing and other problems can arise, he says.

Other technologies include scrubbers to capture VOCs before they can into the atmosphere and UV or electromagnetic devices that apply finishes much more efficiently, reducing VOC levels, Williams says. All are expensive, but many larger industrial operations in areas with severe restrictions have adopted them, he says.

One option for smaller shops is better and more efficient spray equipment and application techniques, Williams says. By getting more bang from the buck, the shop can significantly reduce its VOC output, he says.

“You have an application that is twice as effective, and you may be able to use half as much,” Williams says.

Going water-based

Stevenson says that water-based VOC-free materials are becoming more of an option. They are better and cheaper than they were 10 years ago, he says. Big technological advances were being made until the 2008 financial crisis. As the economy has improved, those advances have resumed, he says.

“The industry is changing,” Stevenson says. “You’ve got companies that are increasing their interest in water-based technology, particularly the Sherwin- Williamses of the world. They’re beginning to invest more in water.”

Some European countries like Sweden have converted almost entirely to water-based products, Stevenson says. Their technology and products are excellent, far ahead of those produced in the U.S., he says

While the federal government has not yet imposed national standards, it's looking at new regulations.

“The reason for that is that there’s a national mandate,” Stevenson says. “Sweden and other nations have pushed hard on the environment and the coating industry must be water-based. The European-based technology is far superior than what is in use here.”

Also assisting Sweden’s switch to water-based materials is the profile of its woodworking industry, Stevenson says. Large firms dominate in contrast to the small shops that prevail in the U.S., giving them the cash to convert.

The biggest obstacles to adoption of water-based coatings are cost and a desire not to learn new techniques, Stevenson says.

“It’s mainly considered a pain in the butt,” he says.

Water-based VOC-free materials are becoming more of an option.

But Stevenson says his group recently did a study for a larger manufacturer showing that water-based coatings are economically competitive with VOC technology. The study showed that coating costs would go up 30 to 35 percent, but that was offset by savings in clean up and lower health and fire insurance rates, he says.

“We found that the total cost of doing business, it’s almost a break even,” Stevenson says. “In some cases, it’s a little cheaper. But that of course depends on what you are doing.”

Converting to water is very doable if shops have the right training and equipment, he says.

“It’s really not that hard to get them converted,” Stevenson says. “It does work. A lot of it comes down to education and training.”

But Stevenson added that American water-based technology “isn’t quite there.” His advice to shop owners: Do what you have to comply with local regulations, but wait if you can.

“If you are in California, [you] better start converting,” he says. “But if you can, let technology get better until you switch.”

With only about 10 percent of woodshops employing water, Stevenson estimated it would be decades before usage reaches Swedish levels.

“California 20 years ago, they were saying in five years, it’s going to be nothing but water,” he says. “But even now sales of water are not that high. Everyone is fighting for solvents.” 

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.

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