Proactive body shops that are embracing the inexorable change to waterborne paint in states where the laws are looming, but not yet a reality, are anticipating an advantage over their feet-dragging competitors over the next few years.

One of these forward thinking shops is Old Forge Collision Centers, a 20-year-old company with two locations in Pennsylvania that repair an average of nearly 200 vehicles monthly.

Old Forge’s General Manager, Bob Scarpello, 54, is a 30-year veteran of the collision industry and a former painter. Three decades ago, his first job out of tech school was as a painter’s helper and by continually learning and improving his skills, Scarpello eventually progressed up the ladder into upper management.
One of the first things Scarpello did when he was hired at Old Forge, was to take a long, serious look at converting both of his locations to waterborne paint, he told Autobody News.

“We were one of the first body shops in Pennsylvania to go with waterborne paint. When I came here in 2003, after reading everything I could get my hands on about waterborne painting systems, I realized that it would eventually be coming here. I mean, Europe has been using it for decades, and so what are we waiting for?”

Before he could pursue the changeover, Scarpello had to persuade the owners. “Our owners, Peter Watson and Larry Schoppert, were environmentally conscious guys already, which made it easier. It didn’t really take much coaxing on my behalf to get them on board. I met with them and told them, ‘this is the way things are going and pretty soon we will have to do it anyway. I told them that the conversion will benefit us in two ways. First, we’ll get recognition around Pennsylvania for being a waterborne early adopter. Several local newspapers have published articles about our conversion process, so that was great. Second, we’re providing a safer environment for our crew and for the planet. It’s all positive stuff and from day one it’s been a great journey. I can’t complain about any aspect of it.”

Scarpello met with several paint companies and decided to go with PPG and their Nexa Autocolor™ Aquabase® Plus waterborne product. “I wanted to be a step ahead of everyone else, so we met with PPG to discuss their waterborne products. I had used PPG solvent-based paint extensively at other shops where I worked before, so I knew that their quality was outstanding and the service was always excellent. So, we took two months to strategize the changeover and hash out the details.

“My biggest concern was how the painters would react when they have to start using waterborne after using the solvent for so many years. But I didn’t need to worry so much. PPG made the switch as smooth as butter. They took all of my painters to their school in Baltimore and after one day there my paint crew came back and reassured me about the product. They were especially happy with the color matches and the blending aspect of the Aquabase® Plus. They were literally blown away, even my lead painter, Dave Miller. Now, we don’t have to spend time taking spray outs and tinting them for 45 minutes to get a color match. The color matching qualities of Aquabase® Plus is a lot better than what we encountered with the solvent.”

The conversion took place in 2008, aided by Old Forge’s jobber Bill Flannery and his crew. “We had to reorganize our paint department in several ways. The drying system, of course, was considerably different with the waterborne. The old solvent system we were using was based on heat and now it primarily involves air flow. We had to revamp our paint booth and install several air movers in there to get the air flow suitable for the waterborne. But my painters love it and they will never go back to solvent, guaranteed. Once they adapted to the PPG waterborne, they were saying ‘Why did we ever use solvent?’”

Have any of Old Forge’s local competitors made the switch to waterborne? Some have, but Scarpello is baffled that other body shops are reluctant to make the move to waterborne. “The only switch involves the basecoat, because the sealers and primers and top coats are still solvent. So, it’s not like everything has changed. One piece of the puzzle is now different, but it’s so easy that I can’t believe when I hear that other shops are fighting the change.”

“Some are in the process of converting, but we were definitely the first in this region,” Scarpello observed. “A lot of them are getting on board with it, but I know that many of them are waiting until the last minute to change, and we didn’t want to wait until the final hour. As a result, we got more attention from PPG and my jobber, because back then we were the only ones doing it. In the next few years, there will be a rush to these waterborne systems and body shops will be competing for their attention. A lot of shops around here will be struggling and shuffling to get it done, and we will already be using the waterborne for five years by then.” If you’re an educated consumer, who would you take your vehicle to?

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