Ask The Painter: Paint is Paint, Right?

June 23, 2010

All paints are not created equal

Two of the most common misconceptions I hear are that “Paint is Paint” or “It doesn’t matter what kind of paint I use”. The exact opposite is true. To use a car analogy, just as Toyota Motors has the Scion, Toyota, and Lexus lines to meet different market needs, so too do paint manufacturers have different lines of paint that meet various needs.

“Production” Home Builders for example, are generally concerned with keeping costs down in order to offer the most attractive selling prices they can while still maintaining desired profit margins. This generally means using inexpensive (and therefore low grade) paints. Re-paint work, on the other hand, is generally done by/for homeowners who are more concerned with how the paint will perform than with saving a few dollars per gallon.

I classify paint into one of three categories: Builder-grade, Contractor-grade, or Premium-grade. Builder-grade paints meet the low-price point required by builders and may touch-up fairly well, but are generally not very durable. If you have ever purchased a new home, or a home that was never painted since it was built, think of what happened when you tried to wipe a mark off the wall. Chances are, you probably scrubbed some color off the wall along with the soil, right?

What I refer to as “Contractor-grade” paints are generally middle-of the road in both price and quality, and are adequate for many uses. Ceilings, for instance do not need to hold up to wear-and-tear. Higher-end Contractor-grade paints will cover well even when applied by brush or roller (builders typically use spray application, so roller overlap or brush “streaks” are not a concern to them and “thinner” paints suffice). Some of them (but not all) have adequate durability to withstand general home wear-and-tear. Contractor-grade paints are also the paint of choice for many environments where frequent re-painting is planned (such as businesses or schools).

Premium-grade paints are preferred for re-paint work or for any use where increased durability or increased longevity is desired. Premium paints are generally thicker, so they give a little more latitude for changing colors without needing an extra coat, and they are also more durable then lower-grade paints. This means they may last longer or wash better and this translates into savings over time by not having to re-paint as often.
Any reputable painting contractor should be well-versed in various grades of paint and their benefits to you. Beware of any contractor who does not ask you about your needs, or who only offers one option for paint grade. It may be that they are basing their pricing in a specific paint, or worse, that they are using performance characteristics of a lesser-grade paint to guarantee themselves a bigger job. Here are two recent examples that illustrate this.

Case one involves a contractor who was quoting a very attractive price for exterior work using “one coat of Sherwin Williams 25-Year Superpaint”. This is an excellent premium-grade product, however it is meant to be a two-coat exterior paint. In fact, the stated warranty on the side of the paint can explicitly states that the warranty is for 25 years from date of application when two coats are applied. So the contractor’s quote, while attractive, was misleading.

Case two involves homeowners who were getting quotes for interior re-painting work where the color was being changed, but only slightly. These homeowners got three quotes and were surprised that mine was the only one that did not quote two coats of paint. They asked me to explain, in detail, why I quoted just one coat when others told them two would be necessary. I told them it was because they didn’t need two coats since they weren’t changing the color drastically and we could achieve good one coat coverage using a premium grade paint. I went on to tell them that when we first met they had mentioned the need for two coats and I suspected that the other contractors had picked up on this and had quoted what the homeowners *thought* they needed rather than what the job really needed. In other words, the contractors had sought to maximize their profits by taking advantage of the homeowners. Needless to say, the other two contractors did not win this business. I got the job, painted one coat of a premium product and the homeowners were very satisfied with not only the result, but their cost savings as well. A little more in paint cost saved them much more by way of reduced labor.

A quick look at product technical specs (many of the major paint manufacturers have these posted on their web sites) tells the story in numbers. One of the things to look at in comparing paints, at least for coverage, is “Volume of Solids”. The solids are what is left after the “solvent” (water in the case of latex paints) evaporates out of the paint. It stands to reason that paints with a higher percentage of solids in the bucket will cover better than paints with lower percentages of solids. Here is a comparison between two different grades of paint from the same manufacturer: Builder-grade: 25% vs. Premium-grade: 41%. Besides volume of solids, there are other factors such as chemistry of the paint, etc that also come into play (especially when considering durability), but you get the idea. All paints are not created equal, and “Paint is Paint” is not a fair statement.

Copyright 2009 Jeff Stec

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