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From the Field: To Wash or Not to Wash

17 June, 2019

The Impact of Your Roller Cover Care

By Scott Burt

Earlier this year, APC ran an online poll asking paint contractors: “If you have to paint the same color the following day, do you clean your rollers at night?”

Seventy-six percent of respondents said no. The overwhelming reasoning was that you would wrap them overnight in most cases for reuse the next day. So, it seems safe to assume that a lot of painters are fine with reusing a roller that has been wrapped overnight, or maybe even over the weekend.

As long as a roller is kept wet with paint and reasonably airtight overnight, it will come back in good shape for several days. We have used the Kovrd zippered bag system a lot on jobs over the years to keep rollers and trays fresh for the duration of a job. Aluminum foil, Saran wrap and basic lightweight painter’s plastic also serve the purpose.

But this decision leads to a bigger-picture question that turns up at the end of the job.


Roller covers may not be your most sustainable tool. Either you send them to a landfill after every job, or you have to figure out how to safely dispose of dirty wastewater as you clean them. Could there be a better solution?

What should we expect from a roller nap?

Roller naps (or covers or sleeves) generally cost between about $3 to $9 depending on the quality and type you prefer. I am all for buying good ones, regardless of cost. On interior paint jobs, the roller cover is where the rubber hits the road. Walls are the largest, and often most colorful, surface that we paint. Customers want pretty walls. However, that isn’t just about how they look but also how smooth they feel—and that is a direct result of the roller and the person operating it.

It is not just a random act of putting wall paint and roller nap together. There is the issue of how roller covers work and what type of look they leave behind. Unless you are using foam rollers, there is always some slight texture.

You have probably noticed that there are just some combinations of wall paint sheen and roller nap type that require directional layoff. For example, when spreading eggshell, it is usually important to lay off the wall paint coat with the roller in the same frame orientation and without changing direction between upward or downward layoffs.

If you have never analyzed your product/process game at that level, it really is important. The same way you would “sight down” trim is the way you should be looking at your wet roller layoffs on the wall as you proceed. We can never lose sight of the reality that the quality of our finishes is what we leave behind with our customers after the project is complete.

Is it a tool or a sundry?

I’ll go right out on a limb and say that historically, in my contracting company, roller covers have always been considered disposable items at the end of a job, not tools that will be maintained and taken from one job to another.

There are a couple of reasons for this. With the cost being under $10, it really is not worth much labor, either in time or cost spent, for me or someone I am paying to wash roller covers. There is also the issue of where the wastewater goes. Generally, I’d guess it goes down the sink or gets dumped in the earth. Neither of those impacts has ever looked great to me. And if you work in rural areas where septic systems are more common than city wastewater treatment, this decision should be particularly concerning.

Ultimately, however, the biggest reason that I have never been a fan of washing roller covers is because the quality of the nap itself begins to deteriorate after a wash or two. The fibers dry out and become “doggy,” which can greatly impact the quality of the laid off look in the dry paint on the wall.

I know that those who wash and consider covers to be tools do focus on the recycling aspect of keeping the covers out of landfills. But there is equal concern about where large quantities of dirty water end up. With the added “quality of finish” concern, it is not difficult for me to dispose of dried up and well used roller naps the same way we ultimately end up disposing of used paint cans and tray liners.

We have so many other labor-intensive tools to clean and maintain — brushes, sprayers, roller frames and extensions, all the gear — that it is just hard to justify putting labor hours into items that only cost a few dollars.

Can technology help?

That being said, I am totally open to seeing technology assist in this endeavor going forward. I think it will take some advancement on the roller cover manufacturers’ part to create roller naps that produce high-quality results on the wall, while also being designed for multiple wash and reuse cycles.

They are just never the same to me after being washed, and they would need to be the same for me to justify the washing process. Of course, who knows if it is or isn’t in the interest of applicator manufacturers to improve this critical niche.

Brushes, on the other hand

I get more attached to good brushes than I do to good roller covers, and not entirely because of price point. Sure, I spend more money on my cutting brushes than on my roller naps, but that is because cutting is more of a craft than rolling. You can teach most anyone to roll for you pretty quickly, but it takes a bit more time to master the art of cutting and feathering with a brush.

Therefore, brushes get a bit more preferential treatment in my toolbox. In fact, I have recently separated my brushes from my general painting toolbox to create for them their own space. I haul everything from artist brushes, foam brushes and chip brushes to my money-making fleet of cutting snippers.

I never wrap my brushes overnight. I always clean them at the end of the day for sure, and sometimes even once or twice throughout the day just to make sure they are as precise as I need them to be.

It is a constant rotating game of inventory for me and the whole applicator family. Whichever side of the discussion you fall on, I do encourage you to review your systems with consideration to both the environmental impacts and the true labor costs of how and how much you clean your applicators.

Scott Burt is a freelance writer and owner of Topcoat Finishes in Vermont. He enjoys communicating with paint contractors at topcoatreview.com.

 

 

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