Body shop cleans up its act

Judging from its no frills exterior, Cut Off Classics seems to be your average, modest-sized auto body shop.

Judging from its no frills exterior, Cut Off Classics seems to be your average, modest-sized auto body shop.

However, something strange is going on inside.

Within the garage, there’s a separate room that looks like a scene out of Star Wars, lit a bright white by the vertical lights that line the walls.

Inside, a masked man in a jumpsuit sprays down a bumper with a paint gun.

What’s strange is not the hard at work storm trooper, but what’s in his gun.

The paint that he’s using is waterborne.

What does that mean?

“Well, first of all it means that it’s more environmentally friendly,” explains the owner of the shop Harold Flemming.

“It also means that we’ve had to make a few changes around the shop.”

Paint pigments need a vehicle to transport them to the surface — from liquid in the can to dry on the hood of your car.

Traditionally, oil-based solvents were used as this vehicle.

However, the solvents contained volatile organic compounds that are released into the atmosphere while spraying and as the paint dries.

These compounds have been found to contribute to ground-level ozone and smog, which can cause serious environmental and health effects.

While the majority of the air pollutants are from car exhaust, as much as 28 per cent can be attributed to paint solvents.

As a result, Environment Canada is looking to impose tougher regulations on volatile organic compounds — regulations that would make the use of the traditional solvent-borne paints illegal.

The regulations could take effect as soon as January 2009.

Which means that auto body shops across Canada will soon have to switch to waterborne paints.

“We had to install an air dryer which takes out all the moisture in the air lines,” said Flemming.

“We also had to modify one of the compressors to take its air from outside where it’s colder and dryer.”

Because of the water in the paint, excess moisture has to be controlled.

The water can also cause metals to rust, so everything it touches has to be plastic or stainless steel.

All of the air lines at Cut Off Classics had to be replaced with plastic ones; disposable plastic containers had to be used to mix the paints and new stainless steel spray guns had to be purchased.

Aside from problems with moisture, a cleaner work environment is needed when working with waterborne paints, as they are more susceptible to contaminants.

The Star Wars-like spray booth had to be modified with an exhaust vent on the floor to create a downdraft.

Yet another big investment for Flemming’s small business is that he’ll have to finally use a computer.

The formulas for mixing specific colours for each model of car have to be downloaded from the internet.

The upgrades to his business are going to cost Flemming over $20,000.

“It’s a big investment,” said Flemming. “I’ve heard rumours about some shops having to shut to down.

“One man businesses could be a thing of the past.”

“There’s a lot of shops converting across Canada,” said Clayton Pelech a sales representative for DuPont Canada.

“And they’re all different sizes — some bigger and some smaller.”

Pelech was in the Yukon to help Flemming make the transition to the waterborne technology.

“The changes needed depend on the shop,” said Pelech, leaning on a ’65 Jaguar that the shop was touching up.

“Because it is water it is more susceptible to contamination, so it can be more challenging if the shop is not properly set up.”

Once the transition to waterborne paints is made, there are many benefits besides those for the environment.

“The finish with the new paint is a little nicer than before,” he said.

“And the cost is probably going to be very similar in the end, possibly even a little less expensive.”

The paint is more expensive, but you use less so the costs more or less balance in the end, he said.

The replacement of oil-based solvents with water means that the fire hazard is significantly cut down as well.

DuPont manufactures the paint in Europe, where waterborne paints will soon be mandatory, said Pelech.

“We’re really following the lead of Europe — they all have to be converted by the end of this year.”

So far, Flemming’s shop is the first to make the switch in the Yukon.

“We had to do all of this in one week because while you’re changing over you can’t do any work,” said Flemming.

“So we just had to go like hell.”

“We would’ve had to do it sometime or another though,” he added.

“And now nobody can say that body shops aren’t environmentally friendly.”