Color It Green

New and improved 'eco-paints' have fewer chemicals, more pop

August 03, 2008|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun reporter

Paint. It's about the color.

It can give a room an entirely new look, from dramatic to soothing. And nothing does more to freshen a house for sale than the clean luster of newly painted walls.

But it's also about chemicals, especially the volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that give off that new paint smell and are considered hazardous to breathe and environmentally dangerous. Some VOCs used in paint are suspected or known carcinogens. Some chemicals, released as the paint dries, damage the atmosphere.

For years, homeowners seeking low- and no-VOC paints - because of allergies, product sensitivities, health fears or eco-philosophy - faced a palette of wan colors, yearned for better paint performance and expected to have to repaint faded walls frequently.

The last few years have changed that.

New air-quality regulations, and more on the way, have pushed manufacturers to curb VOC levels in paints. In addition, the environmental movement has gone mainstream, luring paint makers to reformulate their paints and expand their lines or introduce new ones. Companies that already catered to the niche market for environmentally friendly paints have also upped their paint game.

The result is that more high-quality, low- and no-VOC paints are available. They come in thousands of shades, including deep ones that didn't exist a couple of years ago - even though, generally, the deeper the color, the higher the VOC level. Major manufacturers, hardware stores, specialty paint companies and others have high-performance lines low in VOCs.

"In the last number of years - one to three - there has been an explosion of paints in that market," said L. Bryan Koerber, president of Budeke's Paints, the Baltimore company that is one of the oldest paint retailers in the country.

That, he said, has been good for professional painters, who regularly inhale paint fumes and are finding that even the deep tones of some premium low- and no-VOC paints require two coats for fine coverage, not four. His stores that dot the Baltimore area - a new one opened recently in Columbia - carry several lines of low- and no-VOC paints, from industry giants as well as specialty companies.

For homeowners picking up a brush and roller, the changes mean less smell, fewer chemical headaches and lots of color choices, whether painting to stay put or to move.

Christina and Jeffrey Harrison are rehabbing their older home in Towson, trying to do the work themselves in an environmentally friendly way.

"One of the easiest ways is buying the low-VOC paint," Christina Harrison said.

Their search for very low- and no-VOC paints that lack other toxins led the couple to Amicus Green Building Center, a green hardware store in Kensington that carries several specialty brands. (The owners are looking to open a Baltimore-area store later this year.)

"It's so much nicer because it does not have that awful smell," she said. "I just think that is an easy way to take one step toward being greener."

But green did not mean white.

The laundry room is a blue-gray, the kitchen a smoky rust, the living room a bone. The couple's master bedroom is a soothing sage green.

Their son, who prefers dark colors, went for dark green for his bedroom. And their daughter chose bright raspberry for hers.

But Koerber, painters and decorators say that relatively few homeowners begin their forays into house painting being VOC-savvy, or even with much knowledge about paint quality. Their chief concern is color.

Carol Grillo of Carol Grillo Designs in Baltimore said that while few clients seek out low-VOC paints, using them has not presented color challenges.

Mark Fuqua, who owns Cockeysville-based Residential Services of Maryland, said he often tries to steer homeowners to a premium low-VOC paint.

He points out environmental benefits and talks about paint quality: A better paint goes on more evenly, requires fewer coats, wears better and is more likely to last longer.

"Most people have a low-level understanding, but if you tell people the difference, they're interested in doing the right thing," he said.

The cost of the paint is a fraction - usually around 15 percent - of the cost of having a home professionally painted because clients are paying for labor, time and other materials.

There are no specific standards for labeling paints as "low-VOC." But, generally, low-VOC refers to no more than 50 grams of VOC per liter of flat paint, or about half of Maryland's legal limit (no-VOC means trace amounts).

But is that 0 grams or 10 grams or 49 grams? Consumers can read manufacturers' specs. Details are online and paint sales specialists can help consumers decode labeling, Koerber said.

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