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How to Choose the Right House Paint

by Don Vandervort, © HomeTips

Whether you’re adding on to your home, reconfiguring rooms, or just looking to update your home’s interior or exterior, you will probably be painting. Because painting involves considerable expense, time, and effort, it pays to choose a paint that will go on smoothly, be easy to take care of, and last for years. What is the right type of paint to buy? The following guide will help.

paint interior valsparPaint Ingredients

The main ingredients of paint are pigment, resin, and a carrier. To give paint its color, pigments are added to the white base of titanium dioxide. If you’ve watched a paint dealer tint a paint by squirting pigments into a can of white base, you’ve seen this practice in action. With today’s computer-based paint-mixing technology, most dealers can give you an exact match of almost any paint chip.

Resin helps paint adhere to a surface. Carrier is the evaporative liquid that thins paint so you can brush or roll it on easily. Latex paints use water; oil or alkyd paints use a solvent such as linseed or soybean oil. Though these are the primary ingredients, small amounts of other materials also go into paint. Clay or other inert ingredients are used to adjust sheen, and secondary solvents may be used to improve drying characteristics or the finish’s gloss.

The amounts and qualities of the various ingredients are what determine performance and price. Titanium dioxide, for example, is the most expensive ingredient; a paint with plenty of this has strong hiding characteristics and  costs more. Oil/alkyd paints that utilize odorless mineral spirits as a carrier are more expensive than those with regular solvents. With this in mind, price is a good indicator of quality.

Latex or Oil/Alkyd?

Should you use latex or oil/alkyd paint? In most case, the answer is latex. Why? Air quality. A gallon of solvent-based paint contains about two quarts of mineral spirits. These solvents evaporate into the air as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), causing pollution. Air-quality laws restrict the use of solvents in oil/alkyd paints. As a result, solvent-based paints that comply with the laws don’t have advantages that oil-based paints once had, such as uniform flow, high adhesion, and hard-shell finishes. Oil/alkyd paints dry slower, are more difficult to apply and clean up, give off noxious fumes, and cost more than latex, so the better bet is a high-quality latex.

Although water-based paints contain various levels of the regulated solvents (in an “alkyd-modified” latex, there may be as much as one pint of solvent per gallon), solvent levels in all water-based paints come in under the limits. There is no question that a good quality acrylic latex has far better gloss retention and fade resistance than an alkyd. You can use it on aluminum siding or vinyl siding, as long as you don’t darken the color significantly on vinyl (the darker color will absorb heat, which can distort the siding). And it’s the only choice for masonry.

The only place really left for alkyds is trim, the front door, and maybe the windows. If there’s an older coating of oil/alkyd paint and the finish is flaking or poorly prepared, it may be smart to seek out an oil/alkyd paint that complies with regulations.

Acrylic, Vinyl-Acrylic, or Alkyd-Modified?

Within the category of water-borne latex paints, there are variations—100% acrylic, alkyd-modified latex, and vinyl-acrylic.

Most paint manufacturers consider 100% acrylics to be their best products. For a high-quality exterior finish, choose either 100% acrylic or alkyd- modified latex. If the siding was previously painted with an alkyd or is chalking, you may want to use an alkyd-modified latex, which may do a better job of penetrating and anchoring the coating on a non-masonry surface.

Vinyl-acrylic latex is the least expensive option and is suitable for most interior walls and lower-durability exterior walls. High-performance interior paints are 100% acrylic; they have better color retention, better adhesion, and, in the case of the enamels, better gloss than vinyl-acrylics.

A Paint’s Sheen

From dull to shiny, paint may have a luster that is flat, eggshell, pearl, satin, semi-gloss, or gloss (in Canada, satin falls between flat and eggshell). Each manufacturer has slight variations in the level of sheen in each category. Luster depends upon the paint’s mixture of pigment, resin, and inert ingredients. Paint with less pigment and more resin is glossier than the reverse. Enamel is a term that usually denotes an extra-smooth, hard surface coating, the result of using plenty of resin in the formula.

The glossier a finish, the more durable and washable it tends to be. Flat paint is great at hiding irregularities and surface imperfections, important for both exterior and interior walls. Pearl and eggshell paints are a compromise—they partially hide imperfections and are more washable than flat paints. For painting interiors, the best choices are often flat paint for ceilings, eggshell for walls, and semi-gloss or gloss for doors and trim. Exteriors typically call for flat or satin wall paint and semi-gloss on trim.

One-Coat Hiding

Another distinguishing characteristic of good paint is coverage, sometimes called “hiding.” When a label says “one-coat hiding,” read the fine print. An interior or exterior finish that is guaranteed one coat, with no exceptions, should cover in one coat when properly applied. Obviously, one-coat hiding is a major labor saver and well worth a premium.

The determining factor for good hiding is the level of titanium dioxide in the mixture—the more it contains, the better the hiding. Some flat paints utilize cheap fillers to achieve high levels of hiding; unfortunately, the rest of their characteristics, such as scrubbability, fall short.

Scrubbable Finishes

Interior paints have a scrubbability rating, established through standardized testing. This is a good indication of a paint film’s toughness and ability to withstand abuse. Though this rating may not be posted on the can, a paint retailer should have information on the rating. By comparing these, you can get a good idea of a paint’s quality.

One problem with using a flat paint on interior walls is that while it can be washed it doesn’t take kindly to scrubbing. If you scrub it with a damp cloth, you’ll remove the dirt or smudge but exposed pigment particles actually become burnished or polished, which ruins the finish. To avoid this, it’s better to choose a high-performance eggshell (not flat) paint.

Some new high-performance finishes are amazingly easy to clean—you just sponge them off as if you were wiping a countertop. Ketchup, food, scuff marks, mud—all of these just wipe clean.

Final Advice

When you buy paint, go with reputable brands. Tailor your choices to the project, but don’t waste money on low-quality paint. You’re also more likely to find an extensive color palette in the quality lines.

Last but not least, don’t forget to check the warranty on the label. This is a benchmarking device that normally gives you a fair measure of the differences between quality levels of various paints.

To get free recommendations for top-rated local contractors, call the most reliable and comprehensive referral service, HomeAdvisor, at 866-350-2983 (toll free).

Photograph courtesy of Valspar

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