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Clean air rules: Will they affect you?

Automotive refinish coatings
Thursday, June 2, 2005 - 00:00

During the last several years, automotive refinish coatings and other products have been subject to clean air regulatory requirements limiting the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be used in them. The objective of these requirements has been the reduction of ozone (smog). VOCs on sunny summer days combine with nitrous oxide to help form ozone. They are used in refinish primarily as solvents and coalescing agents that keep coating components in solution or separated until application or to assist in the appropriate initiating of chemical processes in the combining, curing and drying of the paint film. VOCs also are needed for cleaning agents, surface preparation of vehicles and for equipment cleaning (e.g., spray guns).

Certain shop practices also have been subject to regulation to help minimize VOC emissions, including mandatory use of high-volume, low-pressure (HVLP) spray guns that apply more product with relatively less atomized spray and gun cleaning that requires less solvent.

The primary regulation affecting the refinish industry is the so-called National Autotimer Refinish VOC Rule that was promulgated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1998. This regulation is essentially a “manufacturer’s regulation” because it only directly imposes the VOC coating limits standards on the manufacturer of the coatings, leaving it to individual states to determine if additional shop practice measures should be imposed on the shops.

For the most part, such shop practice standards have been confined to a number of air districts in California and in several northeastern states in the  Northeast Ozone Transport Region. These include Vermont, Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia.

The future holds the prospect for additional regulatory VOC requirements (or the extension of existing ones to additional areas), as well as wholly new formulation limitations based on regulation of materials deemed to be hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). The regulatory drivers will come from both federal and state initiatives.

This update highlights some of these important developments and what the National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA), its individual automotive refinish company member companies and the shop trade associations are doing about them.

As has been the case for all dealings with various agencies on such coatings technology issues in the past, the focus of NPCA continues to be to ensure that the agencies fully understand and appreciate the potential effect of any requirements on the viability of the shops—the entities that ultimately have to live with the requirements. This includes ensuring the full participation of the shops themselves, as well as their associations. 

In general, the regulators concur with the wisdom of this approach.

EPA hazardous air pollutant reduction initiatives

Under the federal Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to examine potential sources of HAPs and determine whether controls should be imposed on these sources. If controls are determined to be necessary, the law requires the use of a stringent “maximum achievable control technology” (MACT). When surface coating operations have been involved (industrial metal part painting, wood furniture coatings, plastic part coating, etc.), the primary approach has been to mandate reformulation of the coatings as opposed to requiring the applicators to add on capture devices. The logic behind this is it is generally less costly and disruptive to end users to make adjustments in coating application techniques than to make substantial physical changes to their production lines, etc.

In the case of refinish, the EPA already set a standard for very large refinish operations (ones with the potential to emit 25 tons per year of HAPs) last year under a Plastic Parts HAPs Coatings Rule. Though housed in a Plastic Parts rule, the requirements apply to all substrates on a vehicle refinishing or coating subject to its requirements. The standard set is 1.34 pounds of HAPs for pounds of coatings solids. Compliance is not required until 2007 and it is believed this provides sufficient time for the coatings manufacturers to make the necessary adjustments in their formulas to meet the standard and for end users to come up to speed in using the coatings.

The EPA also has now initiated a rule for shops that emit less than 25 tons per year of HAPs—“area source” shops. Originally examined for potential controls on certain heavy metal materials, the EPA’s analysis now includes all HAPs materials that may be in the coatings. It is expected that the regulation will approximate the levels of control required under the large source MACT standard. If anything, because smaller sources are involved, the requirements of the Clean Air Act offer the opportunity for the standard to be less stringent as a “generally available control technology.” Also, the EPA is concerned that the smaller shops that would now be affected by the regulation would not be able to cost-effectively maintain the usage records required under the single-number standard that would have to be averaged out each month to ensure that overall the single number is not exceeded.

The coating manufacturers concur in this and are presently working with the EPA to fashion a regulation that would track as closely as possible the regulatory system of the National Rule, in which separate material limits are set for each distinct refinish step, such as top coats, primers, specialty operations, etc. The EPA may allow a shop to still use a material averaging system, but as an option and not a requirement.

It is still in the early stages of the rule development process, and presently, the EPA is gathering information and data not only on the coatings formulations but, more importantly, on the realistic world of day-to-day shop operations to tailor rule requirements accordingly. (To place your name on the list of shops the EPA is compiling to comment on that rule, contact Kim Teal at or by phone at 919-541-5580.) When the rule is finalized—not expected for at least another year—there will be a three-year period after that before compliance is required. This lead-time—coupled with what appears to be a rule that won’t demand the impossible—should provide sufficient time to come up to speed with its requirements.

New VOC regulation for California in the offing

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) staff has recently announced that it will consider a new state model VOC limit rule for automotive refinish operations. California’s air regulations that apply to body shops are administered by some 40 individual air districts in the state, and any rule arrived at by CARB will have to be individually adopted by the districts. As such, the CARB rule will take the form of a “suggested control measure” (SCM)—“suggested” much in the same way it’s suggested you pay your taxes each year. Here, too, it is still in the early stages, but CARB has gathered a great deal of coatings data from the industry and it is likely any rule will take that information into account. Consideration will begin, and hopefully not end, with a draft that had been developed by the California Air Pollution Control Officers Association (CAPCOA) about a year ago. The group of officers that had developed the rule consisted primarily of enforcement officers as opposed to clean air planning officers, and it thus emphasized that side of the agency. The draft included an eventual VOC limit for all topcoats at well below three pounds of VOC per gallon of coating. While technically feasible for some coatings materials, this is seen as impossible for the vast majority of color-basecoats. The draft also would eliminate averaging color base coatings and clear topcoats to achieve a limit that provides needed flexibility. The industry began discussions with CARB last April, with CARB eyeing a fall 2005 adoption date for the SCM. As with the national EPA efforts, the involvement in this exercise by the shops and their associations will be essential.

What the future holds

After what has been a fairly quiet period during the last couple of years in which regulatory activity essentially extended or enhanced coatings technology standards for the refinish industry, 2005 will continue to witness a renewed round of substantial technology discussions with state and federal clean air regulatory bodies. It is uncertain how this all will come out, though early discussions have been encouraging. What the body shops can be certain of is that the coatings manufacturers will ensure their concerns are front and center in all discussions with the regulators and that their associations will be active partners in those discussions.

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