Although we have seen a lot of headlines in recent years about how the EPA weakened regulations and enforcement under the Trump administration, VOC compliance is still serious business. In 2019, the EPA levied a $140,000 fine (and required the installation of expensive monitoring equipment) on a Chicago-area can manufacturer after an inspection discovered excess levels of VOC pollution, and a repeat VOC polluter in California was hit with a $199,500 penalty by the California Air Resource Board.
Clearly, VOC pollution can have serious consequences for a manufacturer’s bottom line, as well as the environment. Luckily, it is also relatively easy to come into compliance.
One of the most effective ways for businesses to reduce their VOC emissions is to use high-solids coatings. Let’s quickly touch on what VOCs are, where they come from, and why high-solids coatings are so good at reducing VOC emissions.
What Are VOCs?
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are chemical compounds that become gases at room temperature, often after exposure to sunlight. VOCs can react with nitrogen oxides to form smog and ozone. At high levels, VOCs can be toxic to humans, causing eye and respiratory irritation, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and even memory impairment. Some VOCs cause cancer in animals, and may do the same for humans.
Where do VOCs come from? A number of different sources — including car exhaust, gas stations, printing shops and various household chemicals. But two of the biggest sources for VOCs are paints and industrial coatings.
For these reasons, the EPA has clamped down on manufacturers, mandating companies stay below specific VOC outputs.
The Confusing World of VOC Compliance and Penalties
The EPA isn’t shy about hitting VOC polluters with fines. They have a lot of leeway to levy fines, too; if the EPA discovers violations, they can charge fines of up to $32,500, per violation, per day, plus “the value of any economic benefit gained by the company as the result of the violations.”
The regulatory environment can also be confusing. At a high level, there are both federal and state mandates. States like California, Maryland and Connecticut use lower VOC standards than the federal one, so businesses in those states are under stricter scrutiny.
Further complicating matters, there are different VOC standards for different industries. The automotive industry alone falls under six different guidelines, depending on whether you are looking at surface coatings, assembly coatings or various refinishing techniques. And rules targeting specific VOCs can change when certain pollutants are “delisted,” as happened recently with methyl ethyl ketone.
The bottom line is that VOC standards are varied enough to be extremely confusing, and you should make sure someone at your company understands the EPA’s standards, or consult with an industrial coatings professional.
So what can you personally do to reduce — or eliminate — your VOC emissions? The easiest solution is to use low-VOC paint, such as a 100%-solids epoxy.
What Are High-Solids Coatings?
A conventional paint is a low-solids coating, meaning that a substantial proportion of it is made up of solvents. The only purpose of those solvents is to act as the medium for the actual coating, or “binder.” However, when that low-solids coating dries, the solvents evaporate, and that evaporated solvent becomes a VOC.
A high-solids coating is made with little or no solvent, and much more of the binder, pigment or actual coating. Since there’s little or no solvent to evaporate, a high-solids coating produces much fewer VOCs as it dries.
Since much less of it evaporates after application, you can get your desired level of coverage with much fewer applications than a low-solids coating. High-solids coatings also have the advantage of covering more surface area due to their high binder content.
Considering High-Solid Epoxies
The difference between a low-solids coating and a high-solids coating is a matter of degree; the low-solids coating is more or less a watered-down version of the high-solids coating. 100%-solids can have different chemical make-ups, but one of the most commonly used in industrial environments is epoxy.
Epoxies are essentially liquid plastics that can be chemically changed into a solid. Epoxies start out as two separate components — the resin and the hardener. When you combine them, they chemically bond together to form a strong plastic material.
That material is very strong, highly durable, resistant to heat and chemicals, has low porosity, and is extremely adhesive as it transitions from liquid to solid. Those qualities make epoxies a very high quality of coating.
Most importantly for VOC regulations, there are many 100%-solids formulations available on the market today.
The Pros and Cons of Epoxies
Epoxies offer some unparalleled advantages over other industrial coatings, but they do come with some drawbacks, too.
• Easy to Maintain: Epoxy presents a smooth, rigid surface that is easy to clean, and because it is so hard, it is extremely stain resistant.
• Strong and Resists Impact: Epoxy is strong, so it is not going to crack or split upon impact with another object.
• Resists the Elements: Many coatings break down or corrode when they are placed permanently outdoors. Epoxies are virtually immune to the elements, including wind, rain, heat and cold.
• Chemical Resistance: In settings where strong chemical cleaners are used with regularity, most coatings wear away from exposure to these chemicals. Epoxies are resistant to chemical exposure.
• High Solids Options: Epoxy formulas can be up to 100% solids.
• Cost: Epoxies are generally more expensive than other options, especially the 100%-solids variations
• They Require Extensive Prep Work: Epoxies bind well with nearly all surfaces — provided that that surface has been cleaned and prepared. If you fail to prime the surface for the epoxy coating, it won’t be able to form a strong bond, and you will be left with a low-quality result.
• Their Advantages Are Contextual: Two of the biggest advantages of using epoxies are that they dry quickly and only require a single application. But these advantages don’t always pay off.
Applications for High-Solids Epoxy
There are a number of industrial settings where epoxies are indispensable.
Food Service Settings
Remember when we mentioned that epoxies are easy to wipe down and are resistant to cleaners? Food service settings, which need to be cleaned and sanitized continuously, use epoxies in many of their work areas. High-solids epoxies also reduce odor from solvents, so they can be ideal for an industrial kitchen.
No surface takes more of a beating than the floor, and epoxies can provide an excellent floor coating — even in heavy-duty settings like factories. They are popular in a home setting too; epoxy is one of the most popular garage floor coatings in the United States.
Epoxies provide great adhesive qualities even underwater, and are often used in hull coatings and boat repairs. However, some commonly used electrical corrosion prevention systems can interfere with the epoxy’s bond with steel hulls, so be mindful if you are thinking of using an epoxy in this setting.
According to the EPA, their VOC regulations apply to any premises where the total potential to emit VOC emissions is equal to or exceeds 25 tons per year, or 20 pounds per day from all vehicles. In other words, your marine coating system needs to minimize the VOC output from all vessels within the fleet. High-solid epoxies come in anti-fouling, chemical-resistant and high-temperature formulas for various applications (e.g. decking, hull, cargo tank, etc.).
When You’re Working Under Strict VOC Standards
100%-solids epoxies emit almost no VOCs, so whether you’re worried about an EPA fine, or are just environmentally conscious, high-solids epoxies are your best bet to keep your VOC footprint small.