Craig Walters says something is wrong with warranties in the painted metal products industry. Having been on two sides of the equation, he is certainly equipped to know.
Walters’ personal residence is topped by a steel roof. After seven years, he says, the paint faded so badly that the difference between the trim facing the side and the trim facing the top was visibly noticeable. He filed a claim, and welcomed a paint company representative to his house, but his claim was denied.
“The failure of the system is so apparent, and yet they deny it,” Walters says. “So, as you can see, a 25-year warranty turns into a joke. This is what we face in the field every day.”
That’s because Walters, vice president of operations for Walters Buildings, sells post-frame buildings for a living, the majority of which are roofed and sided with painted steel products. In recent years, he and other industry experts have noticed an inflation of warranty lengths, which are increasing in length at a rate not always justified by improvements in coating performance. When building owners do file claims for faulty paint systems, the result is often lots of finger pointing, little reparation.
“Warranties being issued are very ambiguous,” says Walters. “I don’t know how larger people are handling them, but most builders and contractors are saying, ‘Hey, I hope 90 percent of people don’t notice it, and we’ll take care of the rest.’”
But as rural buildings become more expensive, and move into more high-profile areas, their performance expectations increase accordingly. It is not unreasonable to foresee a time when increasingly demanding and litigious building owners are responsible for a dramatic increase in warranty claims against builders, panel manufacturers, and paint companies.
“Most of the people making decisions on warranties aren’t thinking 15 years down the road,” says Walters. “We’re leaving all this stuff to some other person to cover, and that’s got me frustrated.”
He’s not the only one.
Nowadays, most major manufacturers selling siliconized modified polyester-coated panels to the rural building market offer limited paint warranties that fall along these lines: 30 years for film integrity, 25 years for chalking and fading, plus or minus five years. Warranty lengths for panels coated with Kynar, a more expensive paint generally acknowledged to retain its original color better than SMPs, are slightly longer.
One major panel manufacturer details on its Web site the evolution of its products’ warranties. In the mid-1980s, its standard ag panel had a 15-year film integrity and 10-year chalk and fade warranty; the lengths were 20 and 10 in 1990, 20 and 20 in 1991, then moved to 25 and 20 in 1995 with the introduction of an improved SMP paint system. The company improved that system again in 2001, bringing its SMP warranty lengths to 30 and 25 (its Kynar products carry warranty lengths of 35 and 30 years).
Paint performance and warranty lengths have taken on more importance in recent years, as metal and post-frame buildings have shed their traditional stereotypes. “In the ’70s and ’80s, when these buildings were used for farm machinery storage, owners didn’t notice the difference when the panels faded,” says Walters. “People notice more now because these are not farm buildings, they’re suburban buildings, horse barns — people take pride in how they look.”
“This is going to come into play on churches, businesses, other buildings on the commercial side,” says Steve Keith of Stockade Buildings. “There’s an awful lot of exposure out there for warranties.”
The greater participation of architects, with their heightened demands for aesthetic performance, is another reason warranties have gained importance in recent years. Bill Croucher of Fabral points out that while buildings in which architects are involved will have a greater chance of claims being filed, most of those projects are not going to be post-frame. Those jobs will use architectural products, with different paint systems.
The number of years attached to a paint warranty does not materialize from thin air. Coating performance can be monitored, and its future performance predicted, by product testing. One method of collecting real world performance data is using test fences in southern locations, and projecting their performance in other locations and climates. For instance, if a paint product holds its initial color to a satisfactory degree for 10 years at a South Florida exposure site, it can be reasonably predicted that the product, when used in a roofing application, will hold its color for 20 years north of Jacksonville. Accelerated testing is used, and can yield results more quickly, but is not as reliable. Panel manufacturers also test products themselves.
One problem: Paint technologies have made great strides in recent years, but many of these technologies have not had time to prove themselves in real world outdoor degradation conditions. “We keep upgrading paint systems, but we no longer have 35 years’ experience on some of the current paint systems we’re using,” says Croucher. “Some of (how warranty lengths are determined) is based on accelerated testing, some of it is a gut feel based on South Florida testing, some of it is based on experience with the previous paint system.”
Sometimes, commercial and market forces determine warranty lengths, rather than performance data or other technical considerations. It is a risky cycle that affects all parties along the supply chain:
A builder, looking to get a competitive advantage in his market, wishes to offer a longer paint warranty than his competitor. His panel manufacturer, looking to retain the builder’s business, asks its paint supplier to warrant its paint system for a longer period of time. The paint supplier, looking to keep its customer and prevent it from migrating to another paint company, must choose between lengthening the warranty it will honor or delaying that move until performance data suggest it is safe.
The end result is a building version of keeping up with the Joneses, with everyone involved sharing the risk. Paint suppliers and coil coaters risk being hit with large claims. Panel manufacturers risk seeing their marketing claims lose credibility. Builders risk footing the bill if their suppliers determine a claim is nullified by exceptions.
Building owners risk buying into a promise that might not be kept.
Learning the language
This is an especially large risk when end users fail to take the time to read and understand the fine print on warranties. Beyond the word “warranty,” the rest of the language can sound to a customer like the teacher from Charlie Brown — blah, blah, blah.
Three key terms are at the root of the confusion: film integrity, chalk, and fade. “I think consumers understand what the terms mean, but not what they mean to their product,” says Randon Arney of Central States Manufacturing. “Take ‘fade.’ Everything fades, but looking at my panels today, what does it mean 20 or 30 years from now? Is green going to look purple, or will it still be pretty green?”
Throw in other obscure measurements (Hunter units) or testing standards (ASTM D4214-89) that are integral to the language of exceptions, and it is easy to see why warranties leave building owners hearing gibberish. In layman’s terms:
Film integrity: A promise that paint film will not crack, check, or peel. Cracking covers breaks in the flat coating, as opposed to breaks in the film caused by metal forming. Cracking, checking, or peeling caused by corrosion of the metal substrate is typically not covered under the film integrity provision. Film integrity guarantees that paint will remain on the metal surface. In layman’s terms, it means the paint will stick and stay there.
Chalk: The whitish powder that forms on the surface is primarily paint resin and pigment that has been degraded by UV and moisture. Chalk is measured on a scale of 1 to 10 as outlined in ASTM 4214, the D659 test. Most SMP warranties guarantee the paint will not chalk in excess of a numerical rating 4 to 7 on roof panels, and 7 or 8 on sidewall panels.
Fade: Color fade is largely the result of in situ pigment degradation caused by UV radiation, but color loss also occurs when pigment is washed out of a resin that is pitting or dissolving. To distinguish it from chalk, fade is measured only after cleaning weathered panels of surface chalking in a specified manner, such as with water, cheesecloth, and detergent. What appears to be a badly faded panel may in fact be merely chalked — which is why both measurements are important. Fade is measured in NBS or Delta Hunter units, with 1 NBS being the slightest color differential perceptible by the human eye.
Most SMP warranties guarantee the paint will not fade in excess of 6 to 11 NBS on roof panels, and 5 or 6 on sidewall panels.
Many manufacturers will differentiate the allowable fade and chalk by color. Lighter colors are expected to chalk and fade less than certain darker colors, and these different tolerances are noted in warranties.
On the surface, the claims process seems clear cut. A customer files a complaint. The panel manufacturer sends a field representative to investigate. If it appears that the claim might be covered under the company’s chalk and fade warranty, the next person to visit the jobsite may be a paint company representative. Chalk and fade measurements are taken in the field, samples are taken back to a laboratory for further testing. In the end, the responsible parties are determined, and the building owner is awarded a power washing, a new paint job, or even all-new panels.
If only it were that simple. In reality, a building owner must navigate a series of obstacles in order to collect on a warranty claim. These obstacles include:
Lack of paperwork: Remember that microwave you bought last year? Remember where you put the warranty information? That was only last year — most customers are not organized or diligent enough to retain warranty paperwork for building products they purchased 10, 15, or 25 years ago. This can kill a warranty claim before it gets off the ground.
Non-transferable: Even if the paperwork is located, it will most certainly indicate somewhere that the warranty is non-transferable. Given the average American moves every seven or eight years, metal-clad residential structures will likely have two or three owners during the course of their warranty coverage period, but only the first will enjoy warranty protection. This becomes less of an issue with buildings that are owned by the original purchaser for longer periods of time, like commercial buildings, or institutional structures like churches and schools — markets rural buildings are moving into with increasing regularity.
Exceptions: A building owner may think his red panel has faded to something pinkish, but if a field representative or spectrometer determines that the panel’s chalking and fading fall within acceptable limits covered by the warranty, the owner is out of luck. Other exceptions spelled out in warranties exempt manufacturers from liability for failures caused by acts of God; exposure to corrosive atmospheres; edge corrosion; improper packaging, processing, or shipping; any other scratching, abrasion, or impact that alters a system’s integrity; improper usage (vertical panels used in a low-slope application); substrate corrosion; or faulty installation.
Who’s to blame? With at least five parties potentially at fault in any claim situation, finger pointing is bound to follow. Did the paint company supply a bad batch? Did the coil coater clean the substrate properly, use proper pretreatment, apply enough paint? Did the panel manufacturer fabricate the panel using proper handling and storage procedures to prevent scratching and abrasion during the roll forming process? Did the builder leave the panels uncovered at the jobsite for two weeks during a rainy season? Did the building owner plant a pine tree too close to the roof?
The answers are difficult to come by one year after installation, and determining the responsible party becomes increasingly difficult 10, 15, 25 years down the road. Sometimes the process is simple, with one company along the supply chain admitting fault and shouldering the burden for repairs. But there are plenty of long, drawn-out claims processes in which responsibility is passed from one company to another, and costs are grudgingly split — or never paid.
To be certain, just as the coatings on metal panels have been improved, their warranties also can be improved. By taking preventative measures today, the industry would be spared hardships brought about by a rising number of claims several decades from now. Conversations with builders, panel manufacturers, and paint companies yielded the following suggestions.
Shorten warranties: This is wishful thinking. The likelihood of getting every single panel manufacturer, from national players to regional roll formers, to essentially forfeit a key component of their marketing plan would be next to impossible. Besides, even if the industry reached a consensus to shorten paint warranties to lengths more reasonably determined by real world performance data, such an action would likely violate anti-trust regulations. But a 10- or 15-year, no-questions-asked warranty, with no fine print and no exceptions, would make things easier for building owners to understand, and easier for manufacturers to cover with confidence.
Registration: What if building owners didn’t have to sort through old files to find their warranty certificate? American Building Components lets customers register their warranties with a simple form online. “That way we have that information on hand long-term, our customers are not required to go back and dig that up,” says ABC’s Bill Coleman.
Simplification: Is it really necessary to include seemingly endless lines of legalese in a warranty? Unfortunately, the answer in the eyes of lawyers is yes. No company wants to leave open a loophole and be stung by a large claim that was not its fault. But warranties can be condensed to one or two pages. Even more important is explaining terms of the warranties in an easy-to-understand language.
Expectations: Metal roofing and siding is promoted as a lifetime building product that will hold its aesthetic and weather tightness qualities longer than competing systems. But that does not mean it is a maintenance-free product. In the world of building products, decks need annual maintenance, as do gutters, windows, and siding. In the world of metal products, cars need regular washing, waxing, and other work to maintain their appearance and performance. Why should metal building products be dramatically different?
Builders should inform their customers up front that a certain amount of maintenance will be required to keep their buildings in top shape. “We try to give them realistic expectations,” says Coleman. “A homeowner buys a metal roof and 30 years from now expects it to look the same as when they bought it. We seem to get questioned on it, but our paint is no different than auto paint — you would not expect to purchase an automobile and drive it for 30 years without maintaining it and expect it to look the same as when you bought it.”
Education: Along those lines, there is a greater need for increased knowledge of paint products among all parties, particularly the further the product gets from its original manufacturer. If a builder does not understand and articulate what chalk and fade mean, it is unrealistic to expect his customer to grasp the concepts. “I think it’s an education from the vendors of the paint to the roll formers to the customers to the end users,” says Arney. “We go to paint classes with our paint supplier, it’s very basic: here’s what (the coating) looks like now, here’s what it will look like 20 years from now; here’s what the competition looks like now, here’s what it will look like. It’s going to take a massive effort.” Coleman says ABC offers an easy-to-understand illustrated guide along with its Millennium 3000 paint system warranty. The guide details the coating system components, shows what colors look like at various levels of fading, explains the elements of paint systems (pigments, resins, binders), provides reasons for paint failure, and graphically compares chalk and fade performances of various paint systems.
Paint warranties are not an issue that has reached a crisis state. Paint technologies are improving all the time, and it is realistic to expect coatings to perform markedly better than they did 20 years ago. As long as members of the supply chain make a good faith effort to remedy legitimate warranty claims from building owners, any product shortcomings should be well covered.
But there are plenty of problems that could mushroom if not addressed soon. Longer warranty lengths driven by marketing concerns, rather than technical data, will lead to much finger crossing by builders, panel manufacturers, coil coaters, and paint companies in the latter stages of a product’s warranty period. Improperly handled claims, where finger pointing leads to a delayed or unsatisfactory conclusion for the building owner, can breed dissatisfied customers. Even worse is the negative word of mouth that accompanies building products that fail to meet expectations, which could drive building owners to rival systems.
Warranties are an issue that, if not addressed, could haunt the rural building industry well into the future.
“Fifteen, 20 years from now I want to be selling steel, not processing claims,” says Coleman.