From hybrid cars to biodegradable plastic picnic utensils, products historically about as "green" as battery acid are changing their image, if not their chemical structure. Paint is no exception. For parents who want to decorate a newborn's room to construction professionals who have developed chemical sensitivities, a new innovation to an old environmental hazard is filling a much-needed niche in a decidedly chemical-heavy industry: low-VOC paint.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals such as ethylene glycol (think antifreeze) used in the tints that give paint color. The darker a color, the more VOCs needed. Low-VOC paint formulations such as the Aura and EcoSpec lines from Benjamin Moore or the Harmony and Refresh lines from Sherwin Williams have minimized these capricious chemical additives such that they've garnered certification from third-party evaluative bodies such as the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute. Low-VOC paints reduce odor during application and much of the residual petrochemical nastiness upon cleanup. One thing it doesn't reduce is the price of a gallon of paint.
But it can be worth it, says master carpenter Craig Brown of Madison-based Scenic Interiors LLC. The increased cost per gallon is negligible if you can cover a wall in one coat, says Brown. While it was nearly "unheard of" to get one-coat coverage with regular paint in the past, he was pleasantly surprised to get those results on a recent project using Benjamin Moore's Aura line. It was a surprise mostly, says Brown, who specializes in historically accurate remodeling for pre-1960s houses, because his first experience with low-VOC paint was not nearly as satisfying.
Having used the Sherwin Williams Harmony line a couple of years ago, Brown says that the coverage just wasn't there. "It took multiple coats and just wasn't the same as regular latex paint," he says. "I wasn't satisfied."
Reluctantly, at the request of a customer, Brown tried Aura a year or so later. If you use it right, by which Brown means applying with speed and precision, it does cover in one coat. It also dries fast, doesn't leave lap lines upon touch-up and, he says, is very washable. While Joe and Jane Homeowner may not be able to apply their paint with the speed and accuracy of a professional, there is a growing demand for interior paint that leaves less of an environmental footprint, even if it's more expensive.
Jill Kessenich agrees. As the owner of Bungalow Pros, an east-side Madison business that specializes in design and remodel additions for early-20th-century houses, Kessenich believes that "people are generally becoming more concerned about the chemicals they're being exposed to on a daily basis, for general health reasons and broader quality-of-life reasons." Low-VOC paint, she says, is a good innovation following that trend.
Bungalow Pros use a low-VOC product from the Devine Color Co., a division of Miller Paint Co. of Portland, Ore. It has the coverage and washability Kessenich desires, and its low residual odor, she says, allows a homeowner to "paint a room during the day and sleep in it that night." In short, "it's really great." Originally Kessenich chose the Devine line because of its muted color tones, a palette that goes well with her design-era emphasis, but she has stuck with it because of increasing customer demand and her own satisfaction.
Having also tried so-called safe paint, which comes in a powder form and contains little or no VOCs, Kessenich says she hated it. The granulated composition and flaky, powdery residue were just not appealing.
To be sure, simply because a line of paint is low VOC doesn't make it a panacea from an industry heavily indebted to petrochemical laboratories. Some products advertised as "no VOC" may have negligible amounts of volatile compounds in the base, but, according to Benjamin Moore sales manager Dale Bambrough, the tint colors, mixed with any given base such as flat, eggshell or semi-gloss, contain the bulk of VOCs that eco-conscious consumers are trying to avoid.
Technological advances from companies like Benjamin Moore with its "Waterborne" and "ColorLock" innovations within the Aura line, says Bambrough, make that line "the best paint Ben Moore's ever made."
Bambrough admits that when the low-VOC paints first hit the market a few years ago, he and his associates had to work harder to educate the contractors they supply. Now, customers and contractors alike are creating such a demand that Terry McGovern, the namesake of McGovern & Sons and a longtime Benjamin Moore affiliate, sells about 5,000 gallons of low-VOC paint a year at his Odana Road location in Madison. The Aura line and its predecessor, EcoSpec, says McGovern, make up about 25% of all their paint sales, a percentage that's steadily increasing.
While low-VOC paints may be priced 25% or so more per gallon, the reduced environmental impact and ease of use, according to professionals such as Brown, Kessenich, and Bambrough, make it worthwhile. That price may drop as popularity increases, but for now, says Bambrough, the old adage still rings true: "You get what you pay for."
GREENGUARD Environmental Institute
Craig Brown: Scenic Interiors, LLC
Jill Kessenich: Bungalow Pros
Dale Bambrough/Terry McGovern
Benjamin Moore/McGovern & Sons