A few years ago, the automotive repair industry was up in arms about the imminent change from solvent-based paints to water-based paints.  Californians, where it was mandatory, were quite upset. Everyone was worried that this shift in paint technology was being driven primarily by “green” philosophies and it would cause a major problem for the country’s body shops and repair facilities.  Fortunately, the paranoia was unfounded.  The manager of the body shop at Kindle of Cape May Court House, NJ, a factory authorized Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram dealer explained to us that the waterborne paints ended up being were just as good as the solvent-based paints that everyone has been using.

Why the switch?

It’s all about Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), the solvents that paints are based on. In the United States, the federal rules governing the use of VOCs fall under the umbrella of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA states that the health risks of VOCs include: “Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.” Plus there is the stunning fact that the automotive industry releases about 210,000 tons of ozone-producing solvents into the atmosphere every year.

Only the basecoat is water-based

Keep in mind that, only the basecoat is water-based. All the other materials that refinishers use, such as the primer, sealer, and clear, are the same solvent-based formulas that have been around for years. The other thing refinishers should know is that waterborne basecoats aren’t all water. Water replaces most of the solvents, but some solvent (around 10 percent) remains in the paint.

The water is just a carrier

The mixture of water and solvents simply act as a carrier to move the pigment from the spray gun to the car’s surface. The water and solvents then evaporate, leaving behind the pigments that give the car its color. The processes and techniques employed between the two systems are very similar, it’s just that water-based systems shed far less chemicals into the atmosphere. In fact, waterborne paints give off almost 90 percent less VOCs compared to solvent-based methods.

The new equipment needs are minor also

The equipment needed to switch from solvent-based to waterborne paint is fairly minimal too. To resist rust, spray guns should be stainless so you may need a new one. And just like solvent-based painting, you’ll want to make sure your compressor is putting out good clean air. The rest of the typical features of a paint booth stay the same.


As it turns out, the anxiety about switching to a  new paint technology was mostly unfounded.  The paint companies that make paints and solvents did their homework and came up with a system that works for both the automobile manufacturers and the auto body refinishing trade too.

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