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Protection from the Pressure to Paint


By Burt Olhiser

Editor’s Note: This post concludes issues discussed in the The Drywall Dilemma: Part 1 and Part 2. Both blog entries are also columns in Durability + Design Magazine’s July/August and Sept/Oct 2012 editions.

In accordance with our title, this column is a “Like It Is” effort to present common-sense approaches to how contractors in the real world can best protect themselves from claims based on the seemingly simple act of painting drywall.

The “common sense method” of testing drywall finish is to run your hand over the taped walls.

Photos: Burt Olhiser

The “common sense” method of testing drywall finish is to run your hand over the taped walls.

As we’ve learned, painting contractors cannot solve the problems caused by inferior products, so they should use common sense when working with a Level IV or V (smooth-wall) finish.

Common Sense, Yes; Ideal, No

The “common sense” method of testing drywall finish is to run your hand over the taped walls, taking care to lay your palm and fingers flat against the wall. Any chalkiness will quickly become apparent.

If the chalkiness cannot be removed by simple dusting, and/or it continues to the point where all the applied mud can be removed down to the wallboard or tape, or be otherwise eroded, then the drywall is not suitable for painting. Before proceeding with the project, as the responsible party, you, the painting contractor, must share this fact—in writing—with the powers that be.   

With that said, I certainly recognize that while this may be a good solution, it is not perfect. It still leaves you, the painting contractor, with liability if there are problems, which is especially true on projects with poor or no communication.

And sometimes, the needs of all the involved contractors to simply get the job done and move on create pressure on the painting contractor to apply materials against his or her own best judgment.

Pressure to Paint

So what are a painting contractor’s contractual duties when under pressure to paint in less-than-optimal circumstances? Simply put, a contractor is contracted to do a complete installation of any specified or agreed-upon materials so that those materials can provide the service life they are designed to provide.

Wikipedia describes “service life” as a product’s “expected lifetime, or the acceptable period of use in service.”

It is the time that any manufactured item can be expected to be ‘serviceable’ or supported by its manufacturer. Expected service life consists of business policy, using tools and calculations from maintainability and reliability analysis. Service life is a unique commitment made by the item’s manufacturer and is usually specified as a median.

Actual service life is the maximal recorded life of a product. Service life is different from a predicted life, or Mean Time to Failure/Mean Time Between Failures (MTTF/MTBF)/Maintenance-Free Operating Period (MFOP). Predicted life is useful such that a manufacturer may estimate, by hypothetical modeling and calculation, a general rule for which it will honor warranty claims, or planning for mission fulfillment. The difference between service life and predicted life is most clear when considering mission time and reliability in comparison to MTBF and service life.”

A consumer item (paint, in this instance) will often carry different expectations about service life and longevity based on factors such as location, use, cost, and quality. For example, while most paints come with a one-year warranty, some premium paints are sold with limited lifetime warranties.

Doing Your Job

You’re probably asking yourself, “What does all this have to do with how I can protect myself from liability?” The answer seems simple. You just have to be sure and do 100 percent of your job, which is to install the product in accordance with the manufacturer’s directions so it is warrantable.

Wet Film Thickness Gage
Once you have the proper wet film thickness, to ensure the proper dry film thickness, you must use the notch gage frequently enough during the application process so that you become—and then stay— calibrated.

While this may seem simple, however, it is done all too rarely and costs contractors and their insurance companies many thousands of dollars. Why? Primarily because in the architectural coatings market,  required dry film thicknesses (DFT) are not paid attention to as closely as they are in the industrial coatings world. So architectural installations are often not in accordance with the manufacturers’ directions, and the resulting DFTs are light.

The Cost of Inattention

Two examples of this—and the costs associated with it—can be found in our previous columns. As astute readers will recall from Part 2, we featured a project in which the final average DFT was 3.5 mils, which was 1.2 mils below that specified by the product’s technical data sheets (4.7 mils).

Therefore, the painting contractor “owed” the project 1.2 mils of coating—in essence, a coat of material. This may not sound like much, but since the project involved more than 3 million square feet, it was huge. Actually, the contractor ended up losing about $75,000, as it was decided that two more coats were necessary and the contractor was paid only to apply one.

The second example—and, sadly, the one I see most often, occurs with both new and maintenance exterior installations of elastomeric coatings on concrete tilt-ups. In a recent case, a tilt-up’s owners claimed that water intrusion into the vertical walls caused interior and exterior damage. Upon investigation, it was discovered that the elastomeric was 1.5 mils below the specified thickness. Instead of ranging from 6.0 to 12.0 mils DFT, as the manufacturer required, the coating averaged just 4.5 to 5.0 mils DFT. This cost the contractor more than $100,000 to remedy.

In both examples, simply installing the coating to the manufacturer’s recommended thicknesses would have saved many hours and thousands of dollars.

Take It Up a Notch

So how do you make sure that you are installing the correct amount of material so that the proper DFT is achieved and the coating is warrantable? The simplest method is outlined in ASTM D4414 Standard Practice for Measurement of Wet Film Thickness (WFT) by Notch Gages.

The product data sheet will usually tell you what WFT you need to apply to arrive at the proper DFT. Alternatively, you can use the following formula:


For those individuals who, like me, may be math challenged, I often use this website calculator just to be sure I am on target.

Once you have the proper WFT, you must use the notch gage frequently enough during application that you become—and then stay—calibrated to ensure the proper DFT. I recommend doing it initially, as the ASTM standard recommends, in three locations and then repeat this process every hour. In this way, I find I don’t drift too far away from my target but rather apply a consistent amount of paint.

Once you have installed the coating to the proper DFT—or even a bit higher than specified—you become pretty much bulletproof from these types of claims. Follow this procedure, and you will see that you consistently meet your contractual obligations in this regard. That is “Like It Is” when it comes to successful drywall installations.


Burt Olhiser

Contractor-turned-consultant Burt Olhiser has seen it all—or a good portion of it—as a painting contractor, consultant, and teacher/instructor. He calls it “Like it Is!,” based on his extensive experience in various facets of the trade. But, he adds, he’d certainly like to hear other views and accounts of “How it Is.”



Tagged categories: Coating failure; Commercial contractors; Consultants; Contractors; Drywall; Failure analysis; General contractors; Maintenance + Renovation; Painters; Painting Contractors; Subcontractors

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