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Liability Nightmare of Overspray

You name it, they’ve seen it: overspray removal specialists can relate horror stories that would make any coatings contractor shudder. You may even have one or two of your own. Unfortunately, overspray happens, even when you take the best precautions and think you’ve crossed every “t” and dotted every “i” in “containment.” Some jobsites, like bridges and water towers, simply can’t be fully contained. You do the best you can, but then the wind suddenly whips up or changes direction and, jeez Louise, you’ve unwittingly sprayed a parking lot of cars with epoxy or urethane.

Consider these real-life examples:

• A contractor in New Orleans spraying a steel structure near the airport decided to work on the weekend, hoping to minimize traffic around the jobsite. What he didn’t consider was that the block behind the structure housed three car rental agencies and four used-car lots. Wind coming out of the south blew the overspray across a four-block area, covering 875 cars with epoxy primer in a lovely shade of gray.

• When a bridge spanning Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge received a fresh protective coating, so did the entire city of Astoria on the eastern end of the bridge. Cars, buildings, and even 60-foot yachts were nailed by coating droplets and sand-blasting particulates. When environmental officials discovered that lead paint had also fallen into the river during surface prep, liability claims against the painting contractor soared into the tens of millions of dollars.

• High-school football games are big entertainment in West Texas, and half the townspeople turn out on a Friday night to cheer on their home team. It’s bad enough to lose when you’re a visiting team, but even worse when 400 cars in the visitor lot are oversprayed with epoxy and urethane in the home school’s colors. What began as a normal coating of the school’s water tower ended up in a mud-slinging mess between the towns’ mayors and rivaling citizens, played out in local newspapers.

• A contractor used brushes and rollers to repaint a Chevy dealership near Indianapolis, but decided at the last minute to spray epoxy on one small area, inside a service department work bay. When workers lifted the bay door a few inches to vent the fumes, it created a wind tunnel, blowing epoxy through the dealership’s lot of 350 new and used cars.

Removal vs. Repainting

Welcome to the world of overspray removal – an industry that has arisen because of another industry’s errors. The good news is that overspray is usually easy for these trained professionals to remove. In the vast majority of cases, cars do not need to have a costly paint job to look like new, and you’ll pay a fraction of the price of repainting.

“Twenty years ago, we would shave cars with a dull razor blade,” says Patrick Beecher, vice president of sales for Detail Masters in San Antonio, Texas, one of the leading overspray removal companies. “Shaving is still used in seven to 10 percent of the jobs, usually with polyurea. But today there are many more techniques that are friendlier to the user.”

One of these a clay product that “works like Play Dough, only denser and less pliable,” Beecher says. “You use it with a lubricant, rub gently, and the overspray goes away.” Gregg Goodhart of Just Like New in Gulfport, Mississippi uses a product called Clay Magic, which acts like an eraser. “It grabs the paint and pulls it off without taking the paint job with it,” he says.

Times have changed significantly for the better, agrees Gary Neal, a general adjuster with MLC Insurance Services, who’s handled overspray cases since he started with Allstate in 1976. “In the early ‘80s, the belief was that if overspray got on a vehicle, it required a complete repainting,” he said. At $1,500 to $3,000 per car, Neal said, you could be looking at a significant amount of money, especially if you’ve oversprayed hundreds or – heaven forbid – thousands of vehicles, as more than a few contractors have. “But if you have someone who can clean it, you can radically reduce your costs, to $150 to $400 per car,” he adds.

It’s not unusual, however, for owners to doubt the effectiveness of overspray removal techniques and insist on a new paint job, sparking a frenzy among fellow claimants, says Neal. “You can end up with 1,000 people screaming, ‘I want a new paint job!’ and then you’ve got a nightmare on your hands,” he says. Neal recommends getting an experienced overspray removal company on board from Day One so that they can respond to the affected parties within a 24-hour period, before the inevitable telephone chain takes on a life of its own.

“When people call local body shops that aren’t experienced in this, they’re often told that overspray can’t be cleaned off. Then word spreads quickly, especially in a small town,” adds Beecher. “How fast we respond to the situation is critical.” Otherwise, misunderstanding and greed can quickly propel things out-of-hand.

Overspray Removal Specialists Are Your Friends

As a coatings contractor, you can learn a lot from overspray removal specialists and insurance adjusters who see overspray scenarios every day. If and when you experience an overspray problem, their advice can greatly minimize your aggravation. It may even help you prevent many oversprays from happening in the first place.

Aside from actual removal, public relations is perhaps the most valuable service supplied by overspray removal companies. Few contractors are equipped to bear the burden of contacting and dealing with all the individual owners, most of whom are unhappy about the condition of their cars and the inconvenience of getting them repaired. Experts know how to keep the hysteria and hassle to a minimum.

“Contractors don’t like to have to call us, but what we provide is nice – they just give us a list of names [of oversprayed vehicles’ owners] and we take it from there,” says Just Like New’s Goodhart. “We call the people, handle the scheduling, and go to their home or job and clean their vehicle. When we do jobs on big plants, we provide the shuttling back and forth, making it as convenient for the owners as possible.”

The Bottom Line

Liability for overspray almost always falls on the shoulders of the contractor, despite the fact that a job’s price did not allow for adequate containment. “It happens on numerous jobs, and you can’t completely get around it, other than by fully containing a tank, which is not a cost that most people can deal with,” notes Patrick Healtsley, vice president of Pittsburgh Tank and Tower of Sebree, Kentucky, a contractor who’s dealt with his share of overspray problems. Containment on windy, elevated structures such as tanks, towers, and bridges can more than double the cost of a job, usually making it prohibitive, he adds.

Large contractors may have a general liability policy that includes overspray, but overspray coverage is getting increasingly harder to obtain, says Neal. “Getting insurance these days has radically changed,” he notes. “Sometimes policies have per-car deductibles of $250 or more; others have $5,000 or $10,000 deductibles. Some large organizations end up biting the bullet and insuring themselves. For small contractors, even if they have insurance, overspraying a parking lot with 2,000 vehicles is a catastrophe.”

In smaller overspray scenarios, it may be easier just to pay the per-car price charged by most overspray removal companies. “Some companies are now bidding overspray into the job, depending upon what’s around,” says Goodhart. “If you’re doing a job in the middle of town or on a bridge and containment isn’t economically feasible, you may want to try to get overspray removal costs included.”

Preventive Measures

When it comes to overspray, a little prevention can be worth a fortune. There are measures that can be taken at various stages. In the case of water storage tanks, for example, prevention should begin when the location for the structure is being selected, says Healtsley. “The city should pick a site that is secluded from everything,” he says. When he is called on to coat a structure in a tight area, he selects a “dry-fall system” – one of the many coatings that are engineered to air-dry before they hit the ground. “It does have a different appearance; it’s flatter,” he says. “That may be a problem when people want a nice gloss on structures.”

Besides choosing a dry-fall system whenever possible, contractors should always be away of what’s in the vicinity of where they are spraying. “If you’re working on a water tower that’s in the middle of an auto mall, you’d better think that you’ll have some serious exposure,” says Beecher. And don’t underestimate the power of the wind. Goodhart recently cleaned 300 cars that were oversprayed by a contractor who had checked the wind at ground-level and thought it was fine. “Later, they noticed that a piece of plastic tied to a power line was blowing wildly,” he said. “Just because there’s no wind on the ground, doesn’t mean it isn’t blowing 50 feet above your head.”

Neal advices contractors to develop a partnership with an overspray removal company before they actually need one. “Things are going to happen, but sometimes you can avoid them by talking to someone who’s been there,” he said. “Overspray companies have a wealth of information that contractors can embrace.”

“Get referrals from peers who’ve had good luck with an overspray company, and then invest the time to strike up a relationship with them,” adds Beecher. “It may be a relationship that will never be called upon, or it could be called upon tomorrow. It’s better to have a contingency plan in the event that a disaster does happen than to be scrambling after the damage is already done.”

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