Low VOC Paint. Everything They Never Wanted you to Know.

Thinking of Using Zero VOC Paint?

Over the last five to ten years many paint manufactures have been producing products labeled and marketed as low or zero VOC materials. If you look into these products there is a ton of literature about how great these new materials are and how much better they are for the health of people and the environment. Despite the advantages I hear promoting Low or zero VOC products I have yet to read much regarding the drawbacks of these materials. In this article I would like to identify some of the problems I have found with these products to help you make a more informed decision about weather or not to purchase low/zero VOC paint for you next project.

My personal experience with these products

First of all let me start off by saying that this article was not written after using just one gallon of standard paint vs one gallon of zero VOC paint. The knowledge in this article is both the combination of research on my part and the experience of having used thousands (that’s right you read that number correctly) of gallons of both standard and low/zero VOC paint. Being a painting contractor in Sonoma County California has given me a great deal of experience which allows me to give you a complete opinion of both the pros and cons of zero/low VOC paint.

I first began using low and zero VOC paints in the early 2000‘s when they were first introduced because it was mandated that I use these paints within some of the areas that I work at. First let me give you some practical knowledge I have obtained over the years about zero and low VOC paints.

First the praise

I have used a few different brands of zero and low VOC paint and have found that with the right products, the workability can be great when compared with conventional products. Product lines such as Kelly-Moore’s Enviro Cote and Frazee’s Enviro Kote (who stole the name from who do you suppose) stand out as examples of good zero VOC products that I have used and liked. These paints are durable, they cover well, are priced competitively and touch up great when compared with conventional products. So why should we be using any other kind of paint you might ask?

Why I Recommend Against Zero and Low VOC Paints

After using these products for a couple of years, these low VOC products turned into zero VOC products and that’s when I noticed the problems. After painting some projects I was periodically called back to touch up some of the jobs that I had done. Although both of these products touched up great, they do not last when left stored. After leaving products stored indoors, in their original 5 gallon and single gallon cans these products can mold inside the sealed containers in a matter of months! I have yet to come across a conventional product that does this. This fact makes me extremely reluctant to recommend these products to most people because they will not be able to keep them for touch up even if it is just a few months after they painted! Additionally because I know that these products will mildew in the bucket, what makes you think that they will hold up in say a bathroom or something else that is subject to high humidity or moisture? The short answer is that they do not hold up nearly as well as conventional products when subject to such conditions.

Think of low VOC as a code word for inferior

Bottom line, any time I see that a material is reformulated to lower the VOC’s of a product, I know that I can immediately expect a lower quality product. No where has this been more apparent than with regard exterior materials.
Because I am a painting contractor in Sonoma County California I see our local paint companies constantly subject to VOC regulations put in place by the EPA. These new regulations effectively force paint companies to reduce the VOC’s in their products and it shows! I would say in the last decade because paint companies have been forced to take out various additives from their paint, you have seen exterior paint jobs go from lasting 10-15 years to lasting a measly 5-7! I recently went back to an exterior that I had painted only 4 years ago to find multiple areas on the building that had significant amounts of growth! Now I know that exterior paint is not generally marketed as a low VOC paint, but the steady reduction of VOC’s in the exterior paint has shown strikingly similar patters when compared with interior zero VOC paints with regards to mold and mildew resistance. With what I have seen, when the VOC’s of a product are reduced the mold and mildew resistance plummets.

So are lower VOC products better for my health?

The short answer is, probably not. In the way that zero VOC paints are marketed to you, it is hard to believe that these products are anything but benign, however, Just because a paint is labeled as “eco friendly” does not mean that it is necessarily good for you. To convey this point let’s discuss what VOC’s are

What are VOC’s?

VOC stands for “Volatile Organic Compound.” By the sound of this acronym it sounds like it would be a good thing for your health and well being that these compounds be removed from paint, but the truth is, that there is no universal definition for what a VOC actually is!

For Example:

  • If you live within the United states we define VOC’s as what the EPA (environmental protection agency) says is any chemical that are precursors to photochemical smog.
  • Looking across the boarder into Canada (also known as America’s hat) the definition for VOC then becomes “organic compounds that have boiling points roughly in the range of 50 to 250 °C (122 to 482 °F).”
  • If you then jump across the pond into the European Union the definition of a VOC then becomes “any organic compound having an initial boiling point less than or equal to 250 °C measured at a standard atmospheric pressure of 101.3 kPa and can do damage to visual or audible senses.”

So clearly when you look at these conflicting definitions it would be fairly inaccurate to say that any low or zero VOC product would be any better for your health then a conventional product. For instance using the United States definition of a VOC you can lower the VOC’s of lacquer by substituting lacquer with acetone! Raise your hand if you think acetone is better for you than lacquer. When dealing with products within the United States VOC’s have more to do with curbing climate change than producing a product that is better for your health.
Want another example? How about this. Many of our low/zero VOC paints now contain formaldehyde and crystalline silica (a known carcinogen). Although these chemicals do not cause global warming according to the EPA, I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone that would tell you that these two chemicals are benign to humans.

My Final Thoughts

Truthfully and honestly I would love to see products go back to the way they were before low/zero VOC paint became the latest craze. Even if you are a person that believes that global warming is a major threat to our planet and that zero VOC materials are necessary for controlling such change, the sub par performance of these new materials should give one pause. No one in their right mind advocates for making our planet more polluted, but on the other side of the coin is there anyone who wants to paint their house twice as often?
There is no magic bullet here but maybe this will put things into perspective. Say your exterior now lasts 5 years because of the new VOC regulations where as the old material used to last you 10. That now makes painting maintenance twice as expensive as a decade before. Now additionally, how much do you think you saved the planet in carbon emissions from having me drive back and forth to paint your house twice in that 10 year period. I have no numbers to back this up, but I would venture to guess that at best this might be a wash for the planet, and twice as much money for you! Due to all of the reasons listed, I advocate that you choose conventional paint as opposed to lower or zero VOC products whenever possible and hope that one day we will see the quality of conventional paint improve to what it was only a short time ago.

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