Allen Norwood

Why stains and paints are changing fast

You don’t need to start hoarding your favorite oil-based deck stain. Yet. But, depending on where you live, you might have to sneak across a state line to buy it.

Valspar’s director of product management and innovation Russ Neale laughed when I asked him about slipping away at night to buy illicit deck stain, like his company’s popular Cabot brand. As with most such rumors, he said, there’s a kernel of truth in what I’d heard.

Indeed, oil-based stains sold in some areas can’t be sold in others. The rules limiting VOCs – or volatile organic compounds, which contribute to air pollution – vary across the country.

Illinois, where Neale lives, has more stringent VOC limits than neighboring Wisconsin. “So, yes, I could drive to Wisconsin, pick up a stain I can’t buy here, and bring it back to Chicago,” he said. Technically that would be against the rules, although retailers and manufacturers face far more scrutiny than a single homeowner with a run-down deck.

All of this is part of the decades-long move away from high-VOC paints and stains with lots of oils and strong solvents, to no- or low-VOC products like water-based acrylics.

Rules governing VOCs vary by product, even among paints and stains. Your deodorant and disinfectant have VOCs, too. I chatted with Neale specifically about deck stains, since spring is when lots of us clean and stain our decks.

Here’s a short primer:

Parts of California have the most stringent limits, Neale said. The Los Angeles basin, which has an awful air quality problem, is a 100-VOC area. The rest of California, like Neale’s home state of Illinois, sets the limit at 250. States from Maine down to Maryland have the same 250-VOC cap.

The lower the number, the fewer VOCs.

The rest of the country, including both Carolinas, are 550-VOC states. So, no, you don’t really have to slip down Highway 21 at midnight to buy deck stain south of the state line. (Fireworks, maybe, but not deck stain.)

Anyway, Cabot’s top semitransparent, oil-based deck stain is a 550-VOC product. “That full oil is the best stuff there is,” Neale said. You’ll find it front and center at your neighborhood Lowe’s in the Charlotte area from Memorial Day to Labor Day, he said.

You won’t find it, of course, at the Lowe’s store on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Familiar oil-based products are disappearing from shelves not only because they’re being banned, but also because manufacturers have come up with low-VOC alternatives. And because retailers have limited shelf space.

Experts have long said that the best exterior paints are 100-percent acrylics. You’ve read that here.

Cabot still makes an oil-based solid deck stain, Neale said, but doesn’t sell lots of it any more. “It’s mainly acrylics. Not because of regulation, but because they perform better.”

So, I asked Neale, is this transition akin to the transition away from incandescent light bulbs? Even as lots of us railed against those goofy corkscrew compact fluorescent bulbs – and hoarded old bulbs – the industry explained that the CFLs were only an interim product. Ultimately, we’d all be using LEDs.

Another laugh: “I’ve still got a box of light bulbs in my garage.”

And then: “That’s a very, very good question,” he said. “For paint, we’re continuing to push the envelope... There’s some cool science stuff that we’re doing.... For the bulk of your home, acrylics are the standard. I don’t see that changing.”

Allen Norwood: