Making the Switch to Waterborne

April 1, 2009
Thinking about switching to waterborne? Here’s how three shops took the plunge.

Whether by choice or by mandate, collision repair shops across the country are making the switch from solvent-based paints to waterborne—and they’re doing it a variety of ways, from the do-it-yourself approach to retrofits to complete overhauls. Kevin Carlson, president of Sterling Design, a St. Croix Falls, Wis.–based company that specializes in HVAC and surface finishing systems, has been helping collision repair shops in the upper Midwest figure out which approach to take for the past five years. Today, his company assists with 50 to 60 conversions a year.

Understanding what’s driving the change—and what a shop wants to accomplish—is the first step to a successful transition, Carlson says. “We assess the owner’s objectives for productivity, quality standards, and their expectations for meeting DRP needs. And that translates into a planning discussion with the customer,” he says.

Conversions can run from a few hundred dollars to six-figure tabs. “A shop that’s only doing two repair orders a day might just have to buy a couple of handheld amplifiers,” he explains. “A shop with $5 million in sales a year that’s expecting to grow at a 20 percent rate, their needs are going to be substantially different.”

Roughly two-thirds of the conversions Sterling assists with are retrofits, while one-third purchase new equipment. “In most cases it’s a huge advantage to retrofit,” Carlson says. “If the booth shell is in good condition, if it’s in the right location in the facility and the right configuration, then a retrofit is a good option.”

Of course, minimizing business disruption is key, because according to Carlson, the number-one cost of the transition is potential lost business and decreased productivity. Plan for every element, from delivery and installation of the equipment to employee training, beforehand, he counsels. Training staff while the conversion takes place and lining up help from your supplier will ease the conversion, as will scheduling it around your heavier work days. The payoff can be significant, Carlson says: “We have customers who, on five production cycles per day, have reduced their operating costs between 30 and 50 percent. Materials profit has improved 6, 9 or 12 points. And rework has been reduced by over 40 percent.”

Certainly, switching from solvent-based paint to waterborne can be a challenge, but the shops we profile here report myriad benefits. “Aside from the social responsibility and the eco-friendly marketing angle, [shops] can realize substantial improvement in operating costs and efficiency, finish quality, and profit on materials,” Carlson says. Read on to see how each successfully made the switch.

The Conversion: LOW TEC
The Cost: ABOUT $1,100

For Ruth and Cheri Wardschenk, owners of Maaco Collision Repair and Auto Painting in Moreno Valley, Calif., making the conversion to waterborne paint wasn’t a decision so much as a decree, thanks to their shop’s location. State law required them to make the switch from solvent-based paint to water-based paint by June 2008.

In anticipation of that deadline, the pair attended NACE in 2007 to start researching what equipment their 12,000-square-foot shop would need to convert to waterborne paint.

“We looked at beautiful airflow systems costing thousands of dollars and prepared ourselves to take the financial plunge,” Ruth Wardschenk says. “Then our PPG reps came to our location and tested the air flow in our 10-year-old semi crossdraft booth. In my mind, the air was dead compared to the wind tunnels at NACE. My rep, however, said that it should be fine. We ended up simply needing a SATA WSB gun and two turbo driers on a stand.”

Training the shop’s painters was equally painless: PPG sent a conversion team to assist with the transition. “One day we simply stopped using solvent and started using water,” Wardschenk says. “Within about a week my painter was painting water like a pro.”  A one-day technique seminar at a nearby PPG training facility helped further his skills.

That assistance from PPG was critical to the smooth transition. “We’re a production shop, so volume and efficiency were very crucial. Painting seven to nine vehicles a day is key for us, and downtime would have been disastrous.” Redos were another concern, but “we didn’t have a single one,” Wardschenk says.

Wardschenk admits she wouldn’t have voluntarily converted to waterborne. “We had been informed that it was going to be more expensive,” she says. But today she’s a fan. “The color matching on water is much more accurate,” she says. “Blending is not even necessary on many late-model vehicles—a luxury we did not have with solvent-based paint.” (That’s also a plus for cash-strapped customers who don’t want to pay for blended panels, she adds). Nor has she noticed a difference in cost.

“If California suddenly dropped the requirement to paint with waterborne,” she says, “we still would not go back to solvent.”

The Conversion: RETROFIT
The Cost: ABOUT $70,000

Mike Schoonover, president and CEO of Schoonover Bodyworks Inc., with locations in Stillwater and Shoreview, Minn., researched waterborne paint for a year before making the switch in October 2008. Schoonover read articles and sent his managers and painters to seminars and demonstrations, all to get a better handle on a change he anticipated making in the future. But faced with aging equipment that was hindering productivity in his Stillwater location—the 13,000-square-foot shop could only handle about four jobs per day—he got serious about making the switch last summer.

Working with Carlson at Sterling Design and paint supplier AkzoNobel, Schoonover kept the shop’s spray booth cabin, “which still had some life in it,” but replaced the mechanicals. The retrofit conversion “was the best alternative to an entire booth replacement, both from a time and cost perspective,” he says.

To prepare, Schoonover sent his painter to an AkzoNobel training, picked a Friday to shut down the paint booth (to minimize the impact on production), and painted as many vehicles as possible before that. Converting the booth and changing to the waterborne paint happened at the same time; the actual swap took about four days.

Schoonover says his painter was initially skeptical about making the switch. “But when he came back from the training he was so excited to get rolling. The [waterborne] product is much easier to use, and a higher-quality product.”

With careful planning and research, painter buy-in and supplier assistance, the transition has gone well. And in the short time since the conversion, throughput has increased by 20 to 25 percent.

Schoonover has completed a subsequent conversion in his Shoreview location—a shop that had even older spray booths and, as with the Stillwater shop, cracked heat exchangers that allowed carbon monoxide to form. The timing of the second conversion, during the busy (and cold!) Minnesota winter, was far from ideal and earlier than planned, but was necessary from a health and safety standpoint. And with solid results to show from his Stillwater shop’s conversion, Schoonover views it as short-term pain for long-term gain.

“The quality of the product is better than expected, productivity is the highest ever, and we are more efficient,” he says. “Plus, we are ‘green.’”

The Conversion: OVERHAUL
The Cost: ABOUT $400,000

For two booths, a mixing room, building renovations and equipment

A complete overhaul is often called for when shops have high production expectations or if the current booth has problems. The latter was what led Jeff Miller, shop manager at Sioux Falls Ford, in Sioux Falls, S.D., to “jump in with both feet” when it came to making the waterborne transition. The shop repairs roughly 300 cars a month and has 18 employees. A booth was failing and couldn’t be repaired. So Miller gathered quotes from various manufacturers and ultimately purchased two booths—one a $110,000 drive-thru and one a $100,000 single-access door—as well as a mixing room from Sterling Design. “We could have converted the one, but it was older and we didn’t like the concept of just putting some blowers up in the corner and trying to make it work,” he says.

Because Sterling custom-built the booths to the specifications and size of SFF’s 9600-square-foot shop[CQ], they were able to remove one booth and continue painting in the other one, Miller says. “The loss of production was minimal and [getting the new booth] created a lot of excitement.”

The timing of the training also played an important role in keeping the shop’s efficiency high and making the transition seamless: SFF’s longtime paint supplier, PPG, provided training both on-site and at its training center in Minneapolis, and sent people from a local jobber to help out while the painters were in training.

The investment, while substantial, has been paying off for SFF. The shop’s painters have had few objections, cycle time has improved, and Miller says the product has worked well. Booth efficiency has even reduced the shop’s natural gas and electricity bills. He reports that his shop’s productivity has increased 15 percent.

“The ease of usage, cost of products, health for the employees and the ability to be on the cutting edge,” Miller says, “made the conversion the right thing to do.”



If your shop volume is on the low end, or if your equipment is in great shape and you have ample support from your paint supplier, you should be able to convert from solvent-based paint to waterborne with minimal effort


If aging equipment is slowing you down, a few repairs might be enough to increase productivity and allow for waterborne.


A complete overhaul is best suited to shops with high production
expectations and problematic booths that are beyond repair.

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