Low VOC and zero VOC paint, a tale of our green renovation project

Olympic Zero VOC Premium Paint

I’ve written before about our green building renovation project for Clean Air Gardening. We purchased a commercial building that was built in the 1960s, and we are making the building more environmentally friendly, shooting for LEED green building certification.

Indoor air quality is an important aspect of making a building more environmentally friendly. So we chose to only use zero VOC or certified low VOC paint for our project.

If you aren’t familiar with the term, VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds.

You know how it stinks when you paint a room? Well, that smell is the offgassing of fumes. The smell goes away after a few days, but the paint actually continues to offgas these volatile organic compounds for more than a year, which is not a good thing for your indoor air quality.

Did you know that the EPA says that many indoor environments are more toxic than outside when it comes to air pollution?

In the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.

With all of this in mind, we began our quest for a source of no VOC or low VOC paint for our building, and for the cement floors in parts of the building.

Explanatory note: Flooring like carpeting and laminates can also be a source of VOCs, so that is why we decided to stick with cement floors in most parts of the building, recycled material carpet tiles from Flor in the small office area downstairs, and cork flooring for the upstairs offices. (I’ll do a future post on the flooring choices we made, and why.)

For the floors, we found a no VOC paint designed for cement at a local store called Green Living that sells environmentally friendly products and some building materials. We special ordered it. They also carry zero VOC wall paints, but we are buying a large amount and didn’t want to special order, in case we got into the project and learned that we didn’t have enough paint. We would have to wait for several days to finish painting if we had to reorder, and our contractor didn’t like that idea.

Our painter didn’t really know what low VOC paint was, and didn’t have a source to get it. So we started calling around and driving around to look for it.

I have been totally astounded at how places that sell paint have never heard of low VOC, even though I read about it in both “green” and architectural publications all the time. What kind of businesses have no idea about new trends that are taking off in their industry?  It doesn’t give you a lot of confidence in their advice about anything related to paint.

At the Sherwin Williams paint store, they acted like we were asking for something completely crazy, and they resorted to reading the paint can labels. How’s that for paint expertise? I don’t think I’ll be asking them any technical questions any time soon.

We called Lowes, because we know that they stock large amounts of paint (and because we hate Home Depot). The first time we called, they just said no, they don’t carry anything like that. But the second time we called (because the first person didn’t seem very informed), they said yes, they definitely carry it. We decided that we should drive there and check it out in person to see one way or the other.

When we got there, I asked the one person in the paint department if they have any zero VOC paint, and she didn’t know what it was. She said, “All the paint that we sell is low fume paint, if that’s what you mean.” I was starting to get really frustrated.

I explained that just telling us that it was “low fume” wasn’t really good enough, because we needed it to be certified low VOC or zero VOC because of the nature of our construction project. She said that she wasn’t really able to help then, because she didn’t know for sure, and that we could browse through the paint ourselves and take a look.

After looking around for a while, I found some Olympic Premium Indoor Latex semi-gloss paint that had a Green Seal logo on the back of the can, and a little line that said “0 g VOC per 1 gallon” or something like that. So it was indeed zero VOC paint, and Lowes had it, and they didn’t even know it or know what it was!

I took the can back to the person in the paint department and showed it to her with the logo and the VOC numbers, and she actually did show interest in learning what it was, so I have to give Lowes and the paint lady credit for that.

When I looked it up on the manufacturer’s web site when I got home to confirm, they don’t even mention the Green Seal or the zero VOC status. Even worse, the site doesn’t even include a phone number anywhere so that you can call the manufacturer to ask them about it. Lame! Worst manufacturer site ever, Olympic!

Upon some more searching, the Green Seal site does list the specific paint, which confirms that it is really zero VOC.

I also found these other really helpful pages, if anyone else is on the hunt for low VOC or zero VOC paint.

The Earth Easy Non Toxic Paint page.Â

About.com pages about Low VOC and No VOC paints.

Green Seal product listings.

One final note for anyone whose might be wondering about the quality of low VOC paint. It goes on exactly the same as regular paint, and it lasts just as long as regular paint. In fact, it probably lasts longer because it is a premium paint. The cost at Lowes was around $21 a gallon, so it costs more than the cheapest paint that you can find, but it is in line with better quality paint.

Amy August 22, 2007 at 6:16 pm

Benjamin Moore makes Eco Spec which is GreenSeal and GreenGuard certified.

Benjamin Moore also makes Aura, which is another low VOC paint, but unlike EcoSpec, is able to be tinted in a deep base.

Both are consistent with the quality of Benjamin Moore products!

David August 23, 2007 at 10:01 am

Great overview!! I think it is amazing how there is such a disconnect between the marketing hype and the retail level to push the product! I found a few other manufacturers at http://www.getwithgreen.com under their paints and finishes section.

Lars August 23, 2007 at 2:14 pm

Thanks for the links, Amy and David!

It’s been like this with the whole green building project, to some extent.

First I found it impossible to find an architect who does LEED projects who would even return my calls.

Then I called several places trying to get a LEED consultant or a green building consultant, but none of them would return calls either.

I guess it must be a good business to be in, where they are so busy that they cherry pick their favorite stuff and ignore the rest. (Although none of them even got far enough with me to know what my project was about!)

I ended up with a great architect who is really interested and willing to learn, so it turned out okay.

But we’ve basically had to figure out every step of the way ourselves, because there has been no one qualified to help who is willing, and no one willing who has been qualified!

Green building is definitely nowhere close to mainstream here in Dallas. I can only imagine how it would be in a smaller city environment!

Shari August 23, 2007 at 7:34 pm

I went with my husband to Lowe’s for our paint for our eco-renovation, and the paint person was very proud to tell us about Olympic. We chose a nice, low-VOC seafoam green.

Lars August 24, 2007 at 9:03 am

Hi Shari,

What else did you do with your eco-renovation besides paint?

I am looking for ideas, as well as additional LEED points!

AV August 27, 2007 at 12:24 pm

I had bought the zero VOC paints from the Sherwin Williams store (Brand: Harmony). I found it better to just ask for the brand name.
There is significantly less odor in zero VOC paint. That point alone is enough for me to buy only zero VOC paint.

raphael October 21, 2007 at 8:49 pm


This is a high quality thick paint with great coverage. I bought it because it is advertised as no voc ( evil off gas) and low odor. I was going to by a soy paint or even milk paint t use in my 2 year olds room. I decided to give a major company a chance. I was so glad to see such a product in lowes! When painting the smell might not have been as strong as latex I’ve known. I painted my daughters room and she hasn’t been able to sleep in it for 2 weeks because it still stinks! How can this be called low odor? I had to buy a 300 dollar air cleaner to use the room!

Audrey February 2, 2009 at 3:30 pm

From what I have researched. Most paint claiming to be Low or No VOC is still toxic. Look for paint with no formaldehyde. AFM SafeCoat is very forthcoming about what is in their paint.
Zero VOC paint is allowed to have 50 ppb (parts per billion) of VOC in them. SafeCoat’s Low-VOC paint has 20 ppb, and it can be tinted in a variety of colors. Best choice on the market in my opinion. Easy to find online using AFM SafeCoat’s website dealer locate button and can be ordered online from several sites.

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