In this week's Q&A Tom speaks about how the Volatile Organic Compound Laws have affected many niche trades. In the concrete world the VOC laws have changed the make-up of concrete sealers. Read on, learn the facts, and go do great work.

How effective were sealers before the new, stricter VOC laws? What have the VOC laws done to sealers in terms of their effectiveness?

SealingTom Ralston: Well first, VOC stands for Volatile Organic Compounds. Before they started restricting the organic compounds contained in each sealer they were much more effective. In fact, we could get away with sealing concrete the day after a pour because they were so "hot".

They had a much higher percentage of the organic compounds. They flashed off a lot quicker and performed significantly better. So the VOC laws have weakened the sealers and they are not nearly as effective today in 2014

What are the most common problems and misconceptions concerning the VOC laws?

TR: A common misconception is that the sealers are as effective as they used to be and they're not. The most common problem is that they fail. Today's sealers fail in many different ways; they fail by fish-eyeing and not laying down flat, they fail by scaling and coming off, and they fail by whitening.

We've found that the solvent based acrylic sealers are less prone to whitening than the water based sealers. However, both the solvent and the acrylic will fail regardless if the conditions aren't right.

There are all kinds of sealers; there's acrylic, epoxy, penetrating, polyurethane sealers, polyaspartic sealers and the list goes on. Also, there are all kinds of different combinations of components. In other words there are different formulations of each one of those categories. So every manufacturer can potentially have their own formulation of these particular types of sealers.

How have the VOC laws changed the way you do business? How have they affected other contractors in the decorative concrete world?

decorative concrete countertopTR: Well, they have changed the way I do business at TRC by being considerably more careful. We do not guarantee any sealer used because the sealers are so ineffective. It's almost like, "seal at your own risk". That being said, when they do fail we come back because we're a good concrete company.

Either way, sealers can be very problematic especially in the colder and wetter months. You simply don't want to seal when those months come around, unless you go to great lengths to dry the concrete. Sometimes we heat the concrete to bring it to an ambient temperature of 60 degrees or more. That's usually the rule of thumb, you need your concrete surface to be 60 degrees or more. How ever you don't want to seal anything that's warmer than 85 degrees. This is because the sealers, especially solvent based, can bubble. 

I have also specified this in my statement of limitations that it's pretty much a "seal at your own risk" policy.We just can't be responsible for sealer failures. If a client wants us to come back and fix a failed sealant we will, but we're going to have to charge them to do that. It can get to be a sticky situation when you have a client that has spent quite a bit of money with you or is just a really good client. So we pretty much bend over backwards to make things right. It's just good to have in writing that you're not going to guarantee a sealer so at least you have a leg to stand on if you're going to try and seek remuneration or be recompensed.

The new VOC compliant sealers have affected other contractors the same way. We all have to be a lot more careful with what we do and how we seal.

How do you deal with the problems that the less-effective sealers create?

Properly sealed floorTR: Well, we're just more careful. We make sure that we always have optimum conditions. In the winter when we get good weather we usually don't start sealing till noon or one o clock. And then sometimes we'll heat the sealer with a torch. If it's a small area we'll heat the sealer with a blow dryer. When we use the acrylic solvent sealer we cut it in half with a solvent like lacquer thinner so it can be applied with an airless sprayer. With this style of application the sealer lays on extremely thin and that promotes a successful seal because it can help the sealer cure and not be as problematic.

Is there anything you can add that isn't covered in the above questions that would be important information for both contractors and clients alike? Particularly up and coming decorative concrete contractors?

TR: Well, I would say that you should do tests on any given sealer that you use. Do copious amounts of tests and see exactly what it does on different applications. If it's a concrete counter top, an outside patio, or an interior floor, do plenty of mock ups. Use different products and compare those products.

If you want to see if a particular impregnating sealer is going to prevent concrete from staining you can use 3 different impregnating sealers and come up with one that is more resistant to salad oil, table wine or things of that nature. Although no sealers are impervious some perform much better than others. The only way you can get this information is to do your own mockups and tests.

Do you have any other advice you would share with regard to the VOC laws and still creating projects that look great?

Sealed concrete stairsTR: Well, you need to be very careful. Take notes and record what works and what doesn't. See what products work what products don't. One thing that I didn't mention was that we have an infrared temperature gauge. It will tell you how warm or cold the concrete is. The same with moisture, you want to get a moisture reader so that you can see if your concrete is dry enough to seal. Because moisture laden concrete is going to prompt your sealer to fail just as cold concrete will cause a sealer fail.

Alright folks, that's it for this week's Decorative Concrete Master Q&A, join us next time for more stories and knowledge from decorative concrete master Tom Ralston. We post these Master Q&A's on the first and third Fridays of each month.

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