Graphic Films meet Low-VOC Paints: Read This Before You Wrap Another Wall!

We thank Sign Biz Members and 3M for information contributed to this article. These partnerships serve to enhance the sign industry’s professionalism and they demonstrate the extraordinary positive impact that great signs and graphics have on our world. Check out the amazing wall graphics in the galleries below!

Today, the miracle of Low-VOC paints means you can paint today and sleep in the same room tonight with zero or negligible paint fumes. “VOC” stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. Why were VOCs in paint in the first place? They keep the other components — pigment for color and a binder or resin to make the paint stick — in a liquid solution long enough for the paint to be applied, then conveniently evaporate so the paint can dry. It’s the evaporation of those chemicals that can create an unhealthy environment. VOCs contribute to ozone and smog formation and are linked to respiratory illnesses and memory impairment.

And so today, low-VOC has emerged – or re-emerged – as the path forward for paint. Federal VOC limits are now set at 250 grams per liter (g/l) for flat paints and 380 g/l for others. Some states and regions have lowered the VOC levels for paints that can be legally sold in their areas. California’s standards are stringent: 150 g/l for nonflat finishes and 100 g/l for flat. Even tougher is the 50 g/l level for all finishes set by California’s South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD), around Los Angeles.

So why are we talking about paint...

when this article is about digital print and cut vinyl graphics? Because the new low-VOC paints are antagonistic to the adhesive properties of these wall graphics and murals. Because the paint formulations are protected by trade secrets, it is difficult for any film manufacturer to understand how film adhesives interact with these paints. More than a year ago, we began an investigation into graphic applications that were literally falling off of walls. We brought 3M into the discussion, because 3M has devoted many resources to learning the cause of this problem and how to resolve it.

“Graphics not adhering to walls is a very real problem for installers, no matter what film they are using,” said Joe Walton, 3M advanced technical service engineer. “We have received videos from installers showing film peeling right off the wall. We’ve seen photos of films installed one day and they are lying on the floor the next morning.”

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Sign Crafters of Oregon, Inc., Salem, OR
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California Signs & Graphics, Pleasant Hill, CA
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Maryland Signs & Graphics, Baltimore, MD
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Elite Sign & Design, LLC. Lubbock, TX
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Mustang Signs & Graphics, Kennewick, WA
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Solano Signs, Fairfield, CA
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Art Guild, Richmond, VA
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Sign-Age, Clearwater, FL
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West Mountain Sign, San Jose, CA
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ImageLife, Nashville, TN
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Sign Pro, Edina, MN
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3V Signs & Graphics, Hermosa Beach, CA

These failures occur after the graphics has been designed, printed, laminated, shipped, and installed. It is not printer, ink, material or installation failure per se, and so is not covered on those warranties. The shop will be on the hook for significant lost time, money and unhappy customers unless they recognize the growing problem and understand the solution.

Wall Graphic Peeling

This puts the “Pain” in “Paint!” But there is one tried and true method to assure success when it comes to sticking these films to that paint.

Film Adhesion Testing and Wall Prep – It's No Longer Optional

The new low-VOC paints vary so much that one film may adhere satisfactorily to one paint, but very poorly to another. The way a graphics manufacturer and installer can be assured of a successful installation is by using the right advanced wall cleaning method and film adhesion testing before installing the finished graphics. Build time into your job estimate for wall prepping and testing!

“Sign installers and graphics manufacturers must test film adhesion on every job,” says Walton.

How to Test

Testing is simple. Just clean an area on the wall using the 3M™ Enhanced Adhesion Cleaning Method (see PDF instructional guide below). Apply samples of the film you intend to use to the surface. Wait 15 minutes and then measure its adhesion value as you pull down on the film. (Researchers at 3M have found that cleaning the wall TWICE with a mixture of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol (IPA) and 30 percent water can significantly boost adhesion for nearly any wall film applied to a painted substrate.)

“Every application surface must be considered contaminated and be cleaned before testing adhesion or installing the job. Isopropyl alcohol is readily available everywhere in the U.S.,” said Walton. “Cleaning with it is easy, fast and economical, and proper substrate preparation makes all the difference to the success of an installation. Many installers take the time to thoroughly clean a vehicle to be sure they have a great installation. It’s just as important for walls.”

“Our projects in Clearwater, Chicago and New Jersey for Catalina Marketing use 3M 180CV3 with 3M 8519 laminate. We worked with 3M to help correct low-VOC paint issues and they recommended a clear coat shellac be applied first, which works well. Since then, they have also taught us the alcohol wash down method,” says Linda Levitan, President of Sign-Age in Florida.

The solution may be as simple as washing the wall just one more time with the IPA and water solution. Here’s another option. Consider applying a high-tack film, such as the new 3M™ Scotchcal™ High Tack Graphic Film IJ39, to the substrate as a “sub-surface.”

The aggressive adhesive on this film provides a permanent new surface on the substrate, and allows you to easily apply any smooth wall film, and even change out graphics, if required.

California Signs & Graphics used 3M ICJ35 for 1400 square feet of graphics on a freshly-painted barricade at Sunvalley Mall in Concord, CA. See the finished result in the gallery above.

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With the rapidly changing formulations of paints, there is no single film or adhesive from any film manufacturer that works best on all painted surfaces. However, by establishing the best practice of testing every film you plan to use for a job, on every wall that will receive graphics, and using the 3M™ Enhanced Adhesion Cleaning Method both for the test and for the actual job installation, installers can have confidence in the performance of the graphics they install. Again, be sure to read the Ask the Expert column for specific instructions on how to test and prep walls.

Other high-tack media have proven successful. Arlon’s DPF 8000 with matching overlam worked for the Art Guild’s barricade wrap and per Keith Willis, the owner it’s “great for low energy surfaces like no-VOC paint.

You and your clients can visit The Master Painters Institute™ (MPI) website to learn about low-VOC paint. www.paintinfo.com

Download the instructional PDF “How to Clean a Wall.” Just click the link!