Review Week: Battle of the Eco-Friendly Paints Pt. 1: Elements by California Paints

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California Paints Elements zero-VOC line

Paint is an interior decorator’s best friend. It is an easy, fairly inexpensive way to completely change the look of a room, and it can be changed easily if you don’t like it. Not so long ago, painting a room meant making sure it was extremely well-ventilated, and resorting to the fact that you had to give yourself a couple of days to let the smell dissipate. The unseen consequences of that smell were the offgassing of toxic chemicals for weeks after painting and the release of ozone-depleting gasses into the air. In fact, paint is one of the biggest contributors to poor indoor air quality. So if you’re an eco-savvy decorator, it is imperative to use paint that has either no- or low-VOCs and is non-toxic.

Lots of companies are now making paint like this. Some are from companies that make traditional paint, but have added a low-VOC line. Others are from companies that were founded on the principles of sustainability. Either way, what you really want to know is how well they perform. How many coats does it take to get good coverage? I had an opportunity to review California Paints’ no-VOC Elements line, Olympic Paint’s low-VOC line and the non-toxic, zero-VOC Mythic Paint, and all paints are not created equal. To level the playing field, all walls were primed before painting.

California Paints’ Elements

California Paints developed a line of paints called Elements, which are billed as being completely odorless and VOC free. It also has a germ-fighting component called Microban, which is an anti-microbial additive. I received a pint of the interior flat finish paint to try. My color of choice was “Chihuahua,” which is a deep, rich tan. The colorant did contain VOCs, so the resulting paint was low-VOC instead of zero. When we moved to Tennessee, we painted our bedroom, with one accent wall in this color.

Coverage

We were only working with a pint of paint, and I was a little worried it wouldn’t cover the whole wall. Even after priming, darker colors often require more than one coat, so we really went out on a limb in hopes that we’d have enough paint. We laid on the first coat pretty thick, and that really did the trick. We only wound up touching up a couple of areas with the roller, and we wound up with a nice, even coat with no bare or light spots. And unlike a lot of paints, the color in the can was very true to the color on the wall. It dried only slightly darker, and that was a good thing. My husband and I were really happy with the coverage.

California Paints Elements zero-VOC line

Odor

This is where the Elements paint fell short. Considering that the paint is marketed as being completely odorless, I was surprised and disappointed to open the can to a strong, distinctly ammonia-like smell. It was actually pretty overpowering. We were working in a small room with only one window. Even with both the window, door and vents open, the smell was very strong. Much stronger than I would expect from a no-VOC, or even low-VOC paint. The smell also lingered for about 4 days after we painted, though it was less noticeable as the days passed. If all of this smell was a result of the colorant, California Paints needs to work fast to develop a no-VOC option. However, Elements finishes are LEED compliant, and can earn you indoor air quality credits under the indoor environmental quality category.

Colors

The Elements line is available in a huge variety of colors via California Paints’ Perfect Palette color center. You should easily be able to find a color that fits your taste and decor needs. However, you should definitely keep in mind the fact that you’ll be adding VOCs to the mix by adding color.

Availability

Elements is sold by a small selection of paint dealers. You can use the company’s dealer locator to search for a dealer in your area. However, even in a city as big as Atlanta, there was only one dealer who carries the California Paints. I didn’t search the whole country, but I suspect that California Paints products aren’t as widely available as other paint brands.

Overall Performance

As much as I loved the one-and-a-half coat coverage, even for a dark color, I was really turned off by the smell. There is a reason that low- and zero-VOC paints are near odorless. The smell indicates the presence of chemicals, much like the smell of a new vinyl shower curtain indicates the presence of chemicals there. I know it’s not exactly a scientific indicator, but barring extensive air quality testing, that was my impression. I would reconsider if a no-VOC colorant is developed, but otherwise I would probably use another paint.

Why It’s Green:

  • Contains no-VOCs (without colorant)
  • LEED compliant and can earn you indoor air quality credits under the indoor environmental quality category

Price: $35-40/gallon

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1 comment… add one
  • Avatar Jim January 10, 2016, 10:03 pm

    Colorants added to paint can drastically add VOC’s/ toxins to paint. Ben Moore has a no VOC colorant system. California too came out with their own Trillion no VOC colorant system. But it came out a few years ago and I’m not sure if all paint stores selling Cali Elements had the colorant system when you painted. So maybe it was the colorant system used.

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