Interviews for this article included discussions with the following shop owners and managers:
Steve Sturken, Owner, Sturken Auto Body, San Jose
Craig Mo, Owner, CarWest, 5 Bay Area locations (and a sixth opening in Fremont in March ’09)
Matt Piper, GM, FCC Collision Center, 2 Bay Area locations (Mountain View and Milpitas)
Keith Greenblat, GM, Auto Collision Center, Daly City
Sean Saidi, Owner, Active Auto Body, Sunnyvale
Don Shinazy, Owner, Don’s Auto Body, San Francisco
ABN: When did you convert to waterborne paint?
Steve Sturken (Steve S): January 2008.
Craig Mo (Craig M): We started rolling it out in July 2008. We’re converting one shop at a time.
Matt Piper (Matt P): April 2008
Keith Greenblat (Keith G): June 2008
Sean Saidi (Sean S): June 2008
Don Shinazy (Don S): March 2008
ABN: How long did the conversion take and how did it go?
Steve S: It wasn’t bad. We had a couple of issues, but overall it was fairly smooth. We ran into some problems with pearls, because some colors sparkle more with waterborne, such as gold and silver, for instance. The PPG paint library with waterborne isn’t complete yet; they’re adding new colors all the time. They’re updating their library as new colors come up and are essentially catching up to all the older cars and colors out there. With waterborne, you have to clear coat it before you can determine the final color you’ll get. Initially, all of the colors have a green or blue tint to them. You have to wait for them to dry and apply the clear coat before you can see exactly what it will look like.
Craig M: We did it gradually, because we have five locations right now and we’re opening a new one soon. We took the old product and moved it to the next store as we were doing it, so that we could use it all up. We did one week of training at each location, followed by a full-day indoctrination and class prior to each conversion. The process moved quickly and we’re quite happy with the product. Each conversion has been easier and with better results.
Matt P: We were up and running pretty quickly. We’re using the DuPont Cromax Pro product and we’re very happy with it. Dupont provided us with new air blowers at no charge, so the initial expense was low. There was a learning curve with our painter and his preppers. Painters are naturally resistant to change, but once they got over the philosophical hurdles and felt comfortable with the waterborne, they said they would never go back to solvent borne paint. The waste water issue was easy to deal with. It’s the same as before, but now we have twice as much to deal with.
Keith G: It’s been fairly easy. We do 130 cars per month and we’ve found the PPG waterborne to be a good product. We’ve learned that waterborne helps us do better color matches, except on some of the older cars. In fact, we’re struggling with a ’94 Honda Accord right now. If a vehicle was made prior to 1995, the color codes aren’t as readily available, so matches are a little tougher. The metallics are also a different shade with waterborne; they’re more brilliant, so we have to blend many of them.
If we were to do it again, we’d do it pretty much the same way. Prior planning helped. One thing we might do differently is practice painting cars before we officially announced that we were doing waterborne. The waste water issue was also a change—now we have double of everything—two gun washers and two waste barrels. We also have to buy ionized water now. But, the system is still pretty much the same. Everything is captured and treated like hazardous waste. Nothing goes down the drain before it’s completely treated.
Sean S: It was quite a transition, but fortunately we ran into very few hiccups. We decided to keep our solvent borne system in place during the transition, just in case there were hitches in the giddy up. We learned during the training process that you have to follow the waterborne rules specifically. If it says use five pounds of pressure, that’s what you have to use. You have to follow the tip requirements and you can’t take shortcuts, or you’ll run into color match issues. We started going exactly by the manufacturer’s specs and pretty soon we found that we were getting superior color matches over solvents. We’ve been able to butt-match pearl, which is incredibly difficult with solvent. We’ve done it right out of the can in some cases.
The waste water issue was not crucial. All we really had to do there was add a second barrel and purchase a different gun-washing product.
Don S: It was a fairly simple transition. PPG was very proactive in getting us samples of the product prior to the changeover, which made it easier. Peninsula Color also gave us a lot of support and useful information. They really stepped up and put a lot of effort into the transition. I don’t think we’d do it any differently if we had to do it again. There was definitely a leaning curve with technique, procedures and tinting colors, but once we got up to speed, we were back to painting nine cars per day. Our two painters, two helpers and one trainee have all picked up the entire process pretty quickly.
ABN: What was the investment in time, equipment and/or training?
Steve S: It was mostly an investment in time. We paid to have our guys trained and certified through PPG. They took a two-day course and we’ll be sending them back for more training soon to get the newest and latest information. It wasn’t a tough transition, although during the first few weeks, we weren’t producing as many jobs. Our painters were a little gun shy at first, but once they began to feel comfortable, we were back to shooting as many cars as we did with solvent. I think we did the whole thing properly and within the timeline we had set early on.
Craig M: We didn’t need to retrofit our paint booths. The main investment was in equipment and supplies. It was fairly inexpensive actually. We paint more than 1,000 cars a day when you add up all our locations, so it’s been a big deal. The training part of it was the most important and PPG has been great.
Matt P: Equipment costs were low. It was mostly time. The product itself is significantly more expensive, but that’s offset by the fact that we don’t have to put down multiple coats. Once the painter was up to speed, we found it takes pretty much the same amount of time. We’re back to doing approximately 130 cars per month; the same amount we were doing before we switched over.
If I were to say anything to shops that have not converted yet, I would tell them to rely on the manufacturer to help them make the transition. They’re selling the product, and they want you to be successful, so use them as much as you can for training and knowledge. They’re motivated to make the whole thing as seamless and easy as possible.
Keith G: The paint is more expensive, but the investment in equipment wasn’t bad at all. We had to get new spray guns and some new blowers for increased air flow. You want a cross draft as opposed to a down draft. It’s a whole new culture now—with solvents, you wanted to suppress air flow and now you obviously want to increase it, so it’s a whole new approach. We’re located right near the coast, so it can get foggy and humid here, which has presented a lot of challenges, because the cars take longer to dry.
The on-site training from PPG was great. Our two painters picked it up pretty quickly. It took our painters a couple months to get the knack for it, but once we cut the cord, they got into the swing of things and went at it full-bore. We had to get new gun cleaners and set up a second waste water drainage system, but that was fairly easy and inexpensive.
Sean S: We had to get new paint guns, new water-based gun cleaners, and new air movement mechanisms with stand-held and hand-held blowers. We went to a less-expensive system to avoid a complete retrofit, which has worked well for us. We’re in a less humid environment, which helps. Less moisture in the air means drying has been easier for us than it might be for shops in other locations. The training consisted of two days on-site. With waterborne, you pretty much have to forget everything you knew before and switch gears. After one or two weeks, we were doing well, because we stopped trying to do it the old way.
Don S: Training was probably the biggest investment, not so much in money as in time. Some of our painters took to it immediately while others were a little more reticent. On the equipment side, we had to get new blowers and we switched paint guns, but other than that it was just technique-related things mostly.
ABN: How does using waterborne differ from solvent-based paint?
Steve S: It takes longer to dry and the paint is more expensive.
Craig M: I think it’s better overall. Color matching is better, because most of the car manufacturers have been using waterborne for years. It’s also easier to mix; we don’t have the issue of running into problems if we don’t properly agitate the toner. Waterborne takes that right out of the equation. We find that we’re getting better color matches and using less paint. We also discovered that the tight areas on the vehicles we paint—like the spots around the mirrors and door handles—require more air movement. So, in these instances, we have to go around with the handheld blowers or set up the blowers in braces.
Matt P: The cost of the paint is the main difference. Air flow is another. And the fact that you have to deal with two waste water systems; those are the main things. We work with Pacific Coast Lacquer (PCL) and they recycle everything, so it’s been easy in that regard.
Keith G: Longer drying times and procedural things. You can’t hammer on the paint with waterborne. You can’t rush it. If you do, you’ll get a dye back issue, where the paint on top is dry, but it’s still wet underneath. It will end up looking porous and dull after you apply the clear coat if it’s not completely dry.
Sean S: The main difference is that it takes longer to paint cars. You have to wait for the water to evaporate. But, it’s probably a wash in the end, because we haven’t had to shoot as many test panels with the waterborne.
Don S: Waterborne takes longer to dry and we have to spray more test panels to make sure we get it right. As it dries, it changes; so you have to be more aware of it and anticipate it. San Francisco has its own rules and they’re telling us we need to change our waste recycler, so we’re in the process of doing it. Other than that, it’s been a fairly painless process. In the meantime, Pacific Coast Lacquer (PCL) picks up the waste water and recycles it properly.
ABN: Do you think it matters to your customers that you’re using waterborne?
Steve S: Yes. I think they appreciate the fact that we’re running a green shop. In the end, they will never know, because the finished product looks exactly the same.
Craig M: Yes, I do. It’s all part of a green philosophy. We explain it to our customers and I believe that they appreciate it. We tell them that their car was originally painted with waterborne paint, and that usually gets them 100% onboard.
Matt P: Yes, and we need to leverage it more and use it as a selling point. We’re letting everyone know about it, because being eco-friendly is important to us. All in all, people are more cognizant about waterborne. If I could tell shops that haven’t changed over yet one thing, I’d say don’t be intimidated. You won’t have to retrofit your shop and a competent painter can adapt quickly.
Keith G: We hope so. Some will care and some won’t. If they’re driving a Prius with a Greenpeace bumper sticker on their car, then it will obviously mean something to those people. One of the main questions some folks have is it really greener? I’m not completely convinced that it is. My advice to other shops would be to get on the changeover as quickly as possible. That way you can anticipate problems that may come up.
Sean S: I think they do. I know we feel better to be doing the right thing. If I had to give advice to other shops who haven’t switched over, I’d tell them to do it now. Don’t wait until the last moment, because that way you can anticipate problems and have the time to adapt. If you wait, it will be a rushed transition and you’re more likely to make mistakes. Hopefully, your painters will be open to the switch over to waterborne. Our painter wasn’t willing to switch, so he left to go work for a shop where he could use solvent-based paint. But, now they’re all going to have to change this year, so you want a painter who is open-minded and willing to learn. Last year, they had a choice. But, now it’s join the party or get out of the business.
Don S: Customers don’t care in most cases. As long as it looks the same, they’re happy. We need to leverage it more, so that the people who do care know we’re doing it.