Waterborne Reality Check

April 1, 2008
Did you hear the one about Waterborne Paint?! Rumors abound about making the switch from solvent-based paints, but one California shop discovers that the truth isn’t all that frightening.

Ernie Soto had heard the rumors about waterborne paint, and wasn’t exactly sure what would come with his shop’s transition to the product. As body shop manager of Saturn of Whittier in Calif., he anticipated wildly inflated expenses, longer drying times and reduced productivity.

Although the shop isn’t high-volume—its 45,000-square-foot location does about a $1 million in sales each year—the dealership has come to rely on the expertise of Soto and his staff. So, as the manager, Soto wanted to make sure the transition went smoothly. His first step? Getting a jump on all the other shops that would be making the switch: California legislation required that every shop would have to go waterbased by July 2008, so Soto decided to make the switch in 2006.

Despite his eagerness to get a jump on the competition, rather than waiting until the last minute when the regulations were due to kick in, he didn’t know exactly what to expect. He had visions of long training times, equipment overhauls and other disruptions that would take time away from his typical workload and mire him in details related to the switch. Fortunately, Soto never lost any sleep over the switch, and the shop is now zipping along just fine. Here’s how he managed to find the truth inside the rumor mill:


Highly expensive air dryers are needed to dry the waterborne paint properly.

Reality level:

Soto had heard that going waterbased would require a huge chunk of change for a costly blow-drying system, and he steeled himself for a bill that might come to nearly $30,000. But it turns out the reality was very different—all the shop needed were two new blow dryers that cost about $500 each. “That was our biggest worry, that we’d need this major system, and we were really relieved when it turned out that the two dryers would do the job just fine,” he says.


New equipment is necessary to make the switch.

Reality level:

As you might expect with any shop transition, new equipment will be required to use the paint properly. But that doesn’t exactly require an overhaul of everything that’s currently in place. For Saturn of Whittier, Soto chose to purchase a new spray booth that had a million BTU heater in it, to ease the transition and be more effective in the future. A new mixing board was also needed.

Both acquisitions were purchased with the help of FinishMaster, a national independent distributor of automotive paints, coatings and related accessories. Soto notes that the company helped him to choose the right products, without loading down his equipment budget with unnecessary supplies. So, in terms of the rumor, it’s true that a shop has the ability to purchase an array of new equipment while making the switch to waterborne paint, but that doesn’t mean it’s mandatory.


Waterborne paint is much more expensive.

Reality level:

The bad news is that the paint is more costly when compared to the same amount of the solvent-based stuff, Soto notes. But the good news is that waterborne paint is more concentrated, so it takes less paint to do a job. “It seems like it all evens out that way,” he says. “The costs feel like they’re about the same for both types because of the concentrated nature of the waterbased product.”


Weather and temperature affect drying times.

Reality level:        

The environment plays a big role in how waterbased paint reacts, says Jay Johnson, training manager at BASF Corp. If the weather is dry and warm, the paint tends to dry quickly, but if there’s humidity, it slows the process.
Soto has found that on colder days—which, in Southern California, he defines as below 60 degrees—the water in the paint doesn’t evaporate as fast as on warmer days.

To create a more predictable drying time, Johnson advises shops to add more dryers, as Soto’s shop has done, and also to create friction at the surface of the paint, so water evaporates at a quicker pace. For that, Johnson says, there are multiple types of apparatus available. For example, portable handheld air venturis can be used to bump up evaporation time.

Also important to note in terms of temperature is storage. Waterborne coatings are very sensitive to heat and cold, and can freeze if stored incorrectly. Some product manufacturers have noted that the paints should only be stored in temperature-controlled areas that don’t drop below 40 degrees.


Color matching is more difficult.

Reality level:

Although it’s more challenging to color match waterborne, it’s not exactly difficult, as long as a shop is willing to be creative, Soto believes. Particularly on overcast days, Soto and his technicians have found that color matching with waterborne products can be tricky, but they’ve created a workaround by placing the vehicle inside the heater system booth, which seems to work well.

Also, the technicians use the type of sunglasses that change darkness levels in different lights in order to see how the paint color might be tweaked even further. “It takes longer to get a true match,” Soto says. “But we’re finding ways to adapt, and at this point, it’s not really much of an issue.”


Using waterborne paint takes a significantly longer time for painting, drying and other steps.

Reality level:

Waterborne paint does take slightly longer to apply and a bit more time for drying, Soto notes, but overall, the whole process is just about a half-hour longer than it was for solvent-based paint in his shop. Also, as the technicians get more comfortable with the techniques, they tend to go faster, he adds.


All technicians need extensive training to understand the nuances of waterborne paint.

Reality level:

“We’ve found that the best tactic in transitioning is to have a full training course for all technicians and managers,” BASF’s Johnson says. Although the course covers a great deal of material, it’s only one to two days.

A benefit to the training is that it includes plenty of hands-on opportunities as well as theoretical coursework, Johnson notes. “Basically, we want to get them comfortable before spraying a single vehicle.”

Soto says BASF did an excellent job with its training course, and he feels that the intensive, short-term training was one of the reasons that the shop was able to transition so successfully to waterbased paint without many glitches. “They prepared us for everything we needed to do,” he says.


Paint manufacturers offer initial support.

Reality level:

After training the technicians and managers of the Saturn of Whittier shop, BASF had a waterborne paint specialist shadow the technicians for a week, in case they had any questions, and to make sure they were applying the products correctly. “Nothing major came up,” Soto says. “But like anything that’s new, you have a lot of questions, and my painter was able to just turn to the rep, ask and get the answer right away, instead of having to call someone. That really changed the learning curve.”

BASF provides the service for any shop making the switch. “We put someone in place for at least two to three days to make sure the comfort level is there, and to be there in case anything goes awry,” Johnson says. The company has converted about 300 shops so far, with another 150 in transition.

Even before training, BASF comes into a shop to make sure it’s equipped for the transition to waterbased paint, Johnson adds. A representative will go through a checklist that contains items like air compressors and functional down draft booths, to see if the shop is adequately prepared.


Once a system is in place, shop owners are on their own when problems occur.

Reality level:

Like so many situations, it’s usually after the paint company representative leaves that problems occur, Johnson points out. But that doesn’t mean a shop is out of luck; BASF often sends reps back for a few days to sort out minor problems, he says.

Also, the company is on call for support. Since Saturn of Whittier made the transition to waterbased paint eight months ago, painters have called BASF occasionally with questions about techniques and drying times, and someone from the company has been available every time.


Insurers won’t pay higher rates for the costs associated with waterborne paint techniques.

Reality level:     

Although some insurance companies may balk at increased costs, Soto notes that he hasn’t had a problem with any insurers since he made the switch, despite having to increase his rates from $20 to $30 per labor hour for painting, to make up for the extra time required.
Soto thought that it would be an issue with insurers when he realized he had to charge to clearcoat the jams and undersides of the panels—the waterbased product needs to be sealed with clearcoat—making a two-stage process instead of the typical one-stage process.
In general, Soto has been happy he made the switch. Not only is the shop in compliance with regulations, but it’s also more environmentally friendly, and the whole shop is enthusiastic about the finished product, he says.

“Waterbased is excellent material, and we actually like it a lot more than what we were using before,” he says. “We can still offer a lifetime warranty on our paint jobs, and it’s safer for the environment, so we love using it.”

Legislation Update

Regulations have been proposed in Canada that would limit the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC) used in the country’s collision repair industry. A group called Environment Canada supports the legislation, and has written the regulations that prohibit the sale and import of noncompliant products, instead of targeting shops that use the products. In other words, shops could use solvent-based paint, but they just couldn’t buy them in the country or import them. The regulations are being considered now, but could go into effect as early as January 1, 2009.

In California, shops are required to make the change by mid-2008. The regulations were enacted as an extension of the Clean Air Act of 1990, which created several regional districts that examined air quality. The move toward VOC regulation wasn’t without its wrangles—in 2004, the National Paint & Coatings Association filed a law suit in the state’s Supreme Court challenging the legislation, but the rules eventually went through.

The old adage “as goes California, so goes the nation,” isn’t just used for political election results; many other regulations that started in California, such as the Clean Air Act, have found their way into other states. So, it’s likely that the move toward VOC regulations could be coming soon to a state legislature near you.

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