12 August 2013

Why Is Anti-Foul Paint So Darn Expensive?

Do you know it costs over US$10,000 to hire someone to paint the average 30-40 foot boat? See here if you don't believe me. That is a lot of money! Well, I think it is a lot of money. If you don’t think it is a lot of money, let me know if you’re looking to adopt two middle-aged sailors. We would be more than happy to help out.

Even if paint your boat yourself, you still have to shell out for the paint and other materials which makes the cash register go cha-ching! Now that we have made the decision to move onto our boat full-time, I’ve started to pay far more attention to how much all of this is going to cost us, especially as we’ll have to write a pretty big check next year when we upgrade and get a bigger boat.

When we bought our current boat we knew we were going to have to haul her out to repaint her bottom with anti-foul paint. This is when I first started to show some interest in how much things with the magical word “marine” in front of them cost. When Scott told me that the paint alone cost NZ$200 I almost fell over and this was on sale! And that doesn’t include the cost to haul your boat out of the water and get her water blasted. While I can spend almost as much on a pair of shoes, I really can’t get too excited about spending that much on a can of paint. It is just now starting to dawn on me that owning a boat means that how much we spend on “marine” products is going to increase dramatically while my spending on cute shoes is definitely going to have to go down. And since you have to anti-foul your boat regularly, I thought I should find out a bit more about anti-foul paint and why it is so darn expensive.

So what is paint anyway? Seems like a basic question but sometimes those are the best ones. Paint is a pigmented coating material which when applied to a substrate forms an opaque film having protective, decorative or specific technical properties. Makes sense so far – something with color which makes your boat pretty and keeps it safe from nasty things like barnacles. (Varnish is like paint, but transparent.) Paint has been around forever. You’ve probably seen pictures of Paleolithic cave paintings and, unless you live in an actual cave or on a sailboat in an isolated anchorage, you’ll definitely have seen the Mona Lisa. Both are great examples of how paint has been used throughout human history for decorative and artistic purposes. But paint can also serve an important role in protecting surfaces. This is particularly true when it comes to boats. The last thing you want is for your boat to corrode and start letting water in or collect a whole lot of creatures attaching themselves which will slow you down. Keeping the bottom of your boat clean is also important for the marine environment as it helps ensure unwanted marine pests aren’t introduced into new areas. (You can find a handy pamphlet here which shows you how seriously New Zealand takes anti-fouling and marine bio-security. It also has pictures and descriptions of local marine pests. Some of them look cute but don't be fooled.)

You can basically divide a boat into two – above the waterline and below the waterline. If you have a fiberglass boat*, you can generally choose whether or not to paint above the waterline. You may be perfectly happy with the color of the gelcoat (i.e., a colored resin applied to the boat when it is made - we'll learn more about this at some point) and/or too cheap to paint it. It’s your choice – you can paint it or not.

Our current boat has a “lovely” pink hue to her especially when the sun hits her just right. I think it is the result of the years she has spent in the harsh New Zealand sun. I turn pinkish when I get sunburned and I assume that’s what has happened to Rainbow’s End. At least I hope so because I can’t imagine why anyone would deliberately choose a gelcoat which has a slightly pink Pepto Bismo hue to it on purpose. We’re too cheap to paint her topsides so pink she stays. Plus it would be a big hassle. Money + Hassle = Not Going to Happen. (If you’re looking to buy Rainbow’s End when she goes on sale next year, we’re only kidding. She looks great! No pink to be found here. The best looking boat on the block!)

Below the waterline is where anti-foul paint comes in. This is the kind of paint you really don’t have a choice about. You have to do this - no ifs, ands or buts. You can see a picture of what our boat looked like when we hauled her out before we bought her here. She hadn't been anti-fouled in a while. It wasn't pretty.

Basically, the free loaders of the marine world love nothing more than to hitch a ride on your boat. At least when you’re driving down the motorway the hitchhikers stick their thumbs out and politely ask for a ride. They don't assume you'll give them a lift. Not so when it comes to barnacles, molluscs, tube worms, slime, the occasional gummi-bear etc. They just hop right on like they're entitled. But fortunately we're humans and we're bigger, smarter, have opposable thumbs and we have access to credit cards and marine stores. So we water blast the nasties off regularly and then apply a couple of coats of anti-foul paint every year or two. While anti-foul paint looks and smells like regular paint and you put it on the same way, it actually behaves differently. It has "biocides" inside it which ooze (a technical term) out in a continuous and controlled manner. The paint is actually porous and lets water in so as to dissolve the biocides. It must make the boat taste bad or something because it inhibits the marine hitchhikers from clinging on to your boat. Take that barnacles!

The type of anti-foul paint you choose depends upon what color you want, where you sail your boat (i.e., what local nasties are prevalent) and any local regulation around copper biocides. Like many things in life, anti-foul paint is certainly not without its controversy. And when it comes to anti-foul paint, some people consider copper to be a bad guy. There are very few biocides that will work well in anti-foul paint. They either don't react well to salt water or they're too toxic to be handled safely. During the 1970s and 80s, tributyltin (TBT) was commonly used but has since been banned internationally. As a result copper biocides are now in vogue, however, there is now some question about their level of toxicity and impact on marine life. As a result, its use is now banned in certain areas. So my takeaway is, marine creatures bad on your boat, but good in the water. Substances that keep marine creatures off your boat both good and bad. It is all too confusing. Fortunately, the marine industry is beavering away coming up with fabulous new non-toxic anti-foul products so I won't have to waste precious brain capacity thinking about it.

Phew! That was a lot to take in. If you zoned out during the middle of the post, here are the key things to remember for fiberglass boats:
  • It's your call if you paint above the waterline (there are exceptions I'm sure).
  • Keep your bottom clean and apply anti-foul regularly below the waterline.
  • Make sure you know about the regulations and conditions in your area and pick the right type of anti-foul paint.
  • Read the labels and be aware of the impact sailing and other human activity has on the environment.
And the most important thing you should keep in mind is that anti-foul paint is expensive. In New Zealand, 4 liters of ablative paint will cost you around NZ$179 for the non-premium kind and NZ$269 for the premium kind (prices with a store card).** However, you do get your choice of some exciting colors - black, red, blue and white. There are two big marine shops in Auckland - Burnsco and Smart Marine. It pays to compare prices between the two. Fortunately, they're right across the street from each other so it is easy. Also, if you're cheap like us, get a store card to get the discounted price. Yes, they'll have access to all sorts of information about your shopping habits, but I'm guessing the NSA knows far more about you anyways.

I was curious how much house paint cost in comparison so I looked it up and it seems like you can get 4 liters of Resene house paint for NZ$115. You also get a far greater choice of colors. That's a pretty big price difference between anti-foul paint and house paint. Those biocides they put in anti-foul paint must be expensive creatures. But then I guess homeowners don't usually have a problem with barnacles attaching themselves to their siding.

If you’ve been really fascinated by this discussion of marine paint you can find more information here including lots of technical mumbo-jumbo, formulas (like 4Fe + 302 +2H2O = 2Fe2O3H2O) and diagrams. Read at your own risk. We cannot be held liable for any boredom you may experience.

*We currently have a fiberglass boat and are likely to get another one when we get our new boat, so I haven't looked into painting wooden or steel boats.
**There are number of types of anti-foul paint: (1) Copolymer ablative paint is a soft paint which wears off over time. Good for boats that get taken out of the water as the paint doesn't lose its effectiveness when dry. Our boat stays in the water, but we've used an ablative paint. I think it is a pretty common choice in NZ for your average boat. (2) Epoxy or modified epoxy paint is a hard paint which doesn't rub off. This means you can scrub and scrape you boat while it is in the water to remove marine nasties. Because the paint doesn't "dissolve" like ablative paint, you have to eventually strip off the paint as it will build up over time. Sounds like a messy job. (3) Thin film paints are generally used in fresh water where you get less marine nasties. Some racers also like it because there is less friction on the paint thus shaving precious seconds off of their time. We don't race our boat or keep her in fresh water so we don't use this kind. (4) Vinyl paint is a hard paint which racers like as it is low friction and more effective than thin film paint in salt water. You can also polish the paint to make it super slick. Again only something crazy racers would be obsessed with.

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