What you need to know about spraying finishes with nitrogen

Sept. 25, 2018
Is it time you took the dive into what could be a better way for you to apply finishes? Consider the following responses to the most common and significant questions surrounding this product from both experienced repairers and spray manufacturers.

“At what point can we stop jumping on every efficiency effort and just get paid fairly? Why do we have to be the ones who are constantly expected to change?”

That was the lament a repairer confided in ABRN nearly a decade ago when one seemingly could not open an industry trade journal or talk business with a consultant without hearing about “lean processing” and “lean operations.” The repairer had a point. Shops, especially those wanting to survive and expand, were under considerable pressure to expend resources to cut every last bit of waste while hoping the results showed up in their revenue columns. Sometimes, it seemed, their efforts didn’t pay off or pay off enough.

Repairers can be excused if they are more than a bit skeptical of every new cost-cutting product that hits the market. But they also need to take a long, hard look at those that are proving their worth. Such is the case with nitrogen spraying systems. This technology has been around for more than a decade, steadily, though quietly, gaining converts.

(Photo courtesy of NITROHEAT) Nitrogen spraying system typically consist of technology that filters oxygen and trace gases out of atmospheric air that is already 78 percent nitrogen. Painters simply plug their guns into the system.

Is it time you took the dive into what could be a better way for you to apply finishes? Consider the following responses to the most common and significant questions surrounding this product from both experienced repairers and spray manufacturers.

Why nitrogen?

Due to its chemical properties, the nitrogen (N2) used for spraying offers a number of benefits over standard compressed air.

First, it’s anhydrous, meaning it contains no water, so flash and bake times are reduced significantly. Some nitrogen spraying manufacturers says flash times can be eliminated all-together, allowing painters to move from one coat to another with no wait time.

Second, nitrogen is inert--its molecules don’t contract or expand. More uniform molecules translate into more product transferred to the vehicle so there’s less product waste. The uniformity also translates into more uniform distribution of the product onto the finish and fewer coats needed for a job.

Nitrogen sprays also are ionized so they aren’t drawn away to static surfaces like the spray booth or painter. This factor further reduces product use and cuts spray booth filter maintenance costs. Additionally, the ionization prevents contaminates from being drawn to the new finish, cutting down the number of potential flaws that must be addressed later.

Solvent levels too are significantly reduced (manufacturer Eurosider says levels drop from 40 percent to seven-10 percent). Shops not only benefit from having fewer harmful emissions in their work spaces, a higher gloss finish is produced with fewer coats and less sagging and dripping. Moreover, using fewer solvents helps eliminate orange peel, saving considerable time spent fixing this flaw later.

Finally, nitrogen-enriched air (as much as 99.5 percent) is much cleaner than compressed air. Impurities from oil, oil fumes and dust are eliminated.

The overall result of moving to nitrogen is a much more efficient paint department that produces better finishes using less product with far less waste, reduced costs and improved cycle times. That’s more money in the pockets of repairers.

How does this technology work?

Most nitrogen systems utilize an in-line nitrogen source located between a shop’s compressed air supply and its spray guns. The system pulls nitrogen out of the atmospheric air--which is 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen and one percent trace gases. Air is pushed through a pre-filtration system and then through a nitrogen membrane separator before being heated in a hosing outlet. The process filters out oxygen and other elements leaving only nitrogen, which is then ionized and heated.

(Photo courtesy of Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes) Because nitrogen sprays contain no moisture, flash and bake times are reduced, which in turn cuts spraybooth costs such as maintenance and electrical use.

To use the system, painters simply connect their guns as they would with compressed air. No special spraying techniques are necessary, though painters should be aware they won’t need to apply as much finish as they previously needed.

What does spraying with nitrogen cost in 2018? What should shops expect to invest?

Derek Naidoo, CEO of NITROHEAT, reports his system costs $21,000, with annual maintenance running $600 to cover changing two sets of filters every six months.

What kind of ROI should shops expect?

Naidoo says the system can pay for itself in 14 months if a shop adds just one more paint job a week (though he says on average most shops using nitrogen technology add one more job every day). The higher a shop’s work volume, the more quickly the investment is recovered.

Does nitrogen spraying deliver what it promises?

Apparently so. ABRN found plenty of dedicated fans of the technology. Naidoo alone has sold his product to more than 700 shops. Randy Drury, owner of Full Service Auto Stop in Houston says he moved to the technology 8 years ago and couldn’t be happier. “It does everything it claims,” he says. “My guys were skeptical, but that changed one day after they began using it. It really did change how we worked for the better.”

Considering all the benefits and ease of use, why hasn’t spraying with nitrogen become far more popular over the past decade?

A number of factors have conspired against large-scale adoption of nitrogen sprays.

Consultant Ben Bailey points to three. The first is simple timing. “When nitrogen was becoming more affordable and practical, the industry was already focused on a more pressing issue—converting to waterborne finishes, “he says. “Shops were already being tasked with one significant change. Adding one more seemed excessive even for the best businesses.”

(Photo courtesy of Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes) Costs for sandpaper and other materials can be cut since nitrogen spraying typically produces more uniform coats and fewer flaws.

Bailey says this reluctance to “pile changes” on paint departments is also a reflection of how most owners/managers prefer to follow their lead painters in making modifications to this part of a shop’s operations. Painters, he says, like many other workers, tend to be creatures of habit. They prefer to go with what they know before investing in wholesale changes. “When you’re dealing with finishes, you’re taking in multiple considerations and processes at once: prepping, mixing, spray technique, bake times, etc. Why complicate it further with another technology even if it’s an upgrade,” Bailey explains. “You’re already busy enough, so when are you supposed to find the time to experiment with something you may later decide not to adopt?”

Third, many shops still have difficulty quantifying ROI. “A lot of people haven’t been and still don’t look at their numbers, so how can they get a real understanding of any benefits?” Bailey asks. “It can make more sense to keep working a certain way—even if it means fixing flaws and redoing work—since you’re familiar with this process and getting by.”

“Change, even good change, can be intimidating. If you’re already making money, you have even less reason to do something different,” he adds.

Naidoo points to a single cause—cost. He notes that shops pulling in a million dollars a year will see the system’s ROI recovered in a year, which is a remarkable selling point. However, those shops make up a small percentage of the industry market. Most shops make less than $500,000 annually so paying for the system could take an additional year. For those repairers, that’s a big downside. “We’ve looked at lowering pricing every way we can, but it’s a matter of simple volume,” explains Naidoo. “If we sold 50 more a month, we could cut costs in half. That just isn’t happening.”

Should you buy in?

Nitrogen spraying arguably has proven its value for some time. Shops making the transition, by all accounts, aren’t going back to compressed air. Based on the factors Bailey and Naidoo point out, whether other repairers buy in will be based largely on how they measure improvement and if they’re willing to wait for what might be 24 months to see a return on a $20,000 - $30,000 investment.

(Photo courtesy of Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes) Painters spray as they normally would, with no need to change application styles.

That’s a tough call for many shops who are already struggling to keep their doors open or to find ways to afford other investments, such as certification. Ironically, cutting waste and building revenue in the paint department could be just the ticket to helping resolve both those issues.

Such is the dilemma repairers face as they review new technological solutions and ask, “What can I afford to invest or potentially risk losing by not buying in?” Once again, shops find themselves asking critical questions for which there are no easy answers, only the need to choose wisely and continue moving forward in some direction to survive.

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