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Feature   August 1, 2010   by J.D. Ney

Conversion to Low-VOC Coatings Nearly Complete

Waterborne benchmark survey results show a vast majority of bodyshops have converted to waterborne systems.


As recently as last August, almost 40% of Canada’s bodyshops had yet to convert to low-VOC paints to meet Canada’s new regulations. In the past few months, the landscape has changed considerably.

Results from surveys conducted by Jobber News’ sister publication Bodyshop Magazine, showed that some 37% of those that took the survey in August 2009 had not yet made the conversion. Nor was there any great hurry to schedule an appointment with paint companies–which, for their part, were leery of facing a last-minute rush that could leave some out in the cold. While it might be premature to suggest that all of that hand-wringing was for naught (at least in terms of getting Canada’s bodyshop community converted on time), this year’s results show a great deal of progress.

While we can’t publish the full results of our 35-question survey in this space, we’ve tried to pull a few of the more important themes from the data, and hopefully present you with an accurate snapshot of where the industry stands in terms of its overall conversion from solvent-borne to waterborne paint systems, from a compliance, cost, and overall satisfaction perspective.

With the sell-through period for the old solvent-borne stuff set to strike on December 19th, this year’s edition of the survey showed that 83.3% of respondents have already converted their shops, an impressive increase of some 25% over just a year ago. While that still leaves 16.7% of shops on the outside looking in, the situation is undoubtedly clearer than it was a year ago, in terms of conversion of the industry’s last-minute adopters.

What’s more, at 16.7%, the question of full compliance should also be raised, and our survey can shed at least some light on this matter. Much like an unemployment rate of nil would be unrealistic and frankly impossible, Canadians have a generally accepted number–around the 5% mark–that they might consider to be full employment. In this case, it would be equally unrealistic to assume that every shop that responded has made the time-consuming and costly investment to keep their business compliant. What’s more, not all of these refusing shops are of any ill repute; they have simply chosen to use this opportunity as their exit from the business. In fact, when asked for further details, answers such as “I have a small shop. (Work alone). I started in the trade at age 13 part-time. I have been in the trade for 42 years and am going to quit when I can no longer buy the paint that I am using,” are prime examples of this sentiment.

In fact, the government of Canada was keenly aware of this possibility when it drafted the legislation, building in large one-time equipment costs to be amortized at 5% interest over the next 10 years, as well as the general assumption that the cost of paint products would likely be higher, at least in the interim. For owners close to retirement, this combination of long-term price increases, along with the prospect of incurring more long-term debt in order to update and upgrade equipment, is clearly more than they are willing to bear. According to the survey, there were some shops across the country for whom the capital investment was not a terribly painful prospect. That says little about the increase in paint cost, but at the very least, the big-ticket items were simply not required, likely due to constant investment over recent years, which meant that waterborne paint could be more seamlessly integrated into the shops’ existing infrastructure. In fact, nearly 24% of those who responded said their conversion equipment needs came out to $5,000 or less, which is a significantly smaller number than Environment Canada had pegged as the likely average. However, a similar number of shops, 20.4%, claimed their equipment conversion bill surpassed $20,000.

For many, the conversion was expensive, to say the least. But what of overall satisfaction with the transition? When we asked people in July of 2009 to rate the overall experience, nearly 82% of those polled told us that on a scale of one to 10, the experience rated seven or better, with nearly a quarter giving it a perfect 10 out of 10. With everyone now one year older and one year wiser, it appears as though that satisfaction has slipped. In this year’s edition of the survey, 78.8% of respondents gave the whole experience a rating of seven or higher, while the number of respondents who said their transition was a perfect 10, also slipped to 17.3%.

Despite the drop in ecstatic converts, the overall numbers do suggest at least a solid passing grade for both the process and the product. When asked for the new products’ most redeeming quality, nearly 27% of respondents said that waterborne paint simply colour-matched or covered better than their previous solvent-based paint, and a further 40% said that the environmental and employee health benefits of the new system were its greatest attribute overall. The positives aside however, it is worth pointing out, that when asked to expand a little on their answers, 7.2% of those who answered the question identified either “compliance with the law” or “none” as the leading advantage to the switch, pointing to at least some significant dissatisfaction with the law, the product, the transition, or all of the above.

In the end, the transition for the vast majority of shops appears to have been a smooth one, although not universally so, or even universally undertaken. As with any change to the status quo, disapproval and discontent along with the positives of moving forward are bound to be a part of the process.

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Law and Order

While the various laws and regulations have been outlined in the past, the exact order in which they fall is still somewhat complicated, given that there are three separate dates of significance, one of which passed earlier this summer. In order to help keep the other salient dates in order, here is a brief recap:

According to the Organic Compound (VOC) Concentration Limits for Automotive Refinishing Products Regulations, restrictions on the manufacture and import of these products came into effect on June 19th, 2010. Restrictions on the sale and offer for sale of these products will come into effect on December 19th, 2010. As stated in Environment Canada’s executive summary, “This will allow a one-year transition period [for] automotive refinishing product manufacturers and importers.” In addition, for each automotive refinishing product category, there will be an 18-month sell-through period after the regulations are registered. The sell-through period is intended to provide the industry with time to sell automotive refinishing products manufactured or imported earlier, and to provide sufficient time to all repair shops to transition to low- VOC automobile refinishing products prior to the implementation date set out in the regulations. This change is expected to allow automotive repair shops adequate time to convert their equipment to use low-VOC automotive refinishing products. The regulation also allows for a six-month sell-through, ending on December 19, 2010, to use up all non-compliant products in the distribution channel. The complete regulation is available in Gazette II Part II, July 8, 2009, Vol. 143, No. 14, available at http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2009/2009-07-08/html/sor-dors197- eng. html


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