Renters' Review 2014: A Little (Paint) Goes a Long Way

It’s always with a mixture of both anticipation and anxiety that I approach our annual Renters’ Review project, for I know it means something will get done around my house. The questions are what, and perhaps more importantly, how will it turn out?

After much reflection on the various aspects of my home that could use improvement, I decided to tackle the front porch. We have a porch which runs the entire front of the house and around half of one side. Like many porches, it includes a railing made up of a ridiculous number of wood spindles. Being more than 20 years old, these were in dire need of a paint job. And what’s more, the lower beams supporting the spindles were beginning to show signs of rot.

So, I thought, I’ll solve this problem. First I’ll replace the rotting subrail pieces between the spindles, then I’ll rent an airless paint sprayer to make easy and fast work of what would otherwise be days worth of hand painting around the curves and crevices of some 200 spindles. I couldn’t wait to get started.

Since I’d visited mostly smaller, independent rental houses for this feature over the past few years, I decided to give a big box rental department a try this year. Knowing that DIYers are a large part of their customer base, I looked forward to working with professionals who would be trained to help me with my project.

The first step was calling the nearest outlet. This proved rather daunting since I had to wade through several minutes of automated phone prompts to finally find out that the location I’d called didn’t have a rental outlet. This meant calling another location, and another, until I finally found one that rents equipment. As a result, I had to sit through the automated phone prompts three times before actually speaking to a human being. By the time I got an actual person on the phone, I was losing faith that I would find anyone very helpful. Thankfully, the person I spoke to was both friendly and happy to help.

I explained that I wanted to rent an airless paint sprayer and why. “Do you think a paint sprayer will be overkill for a porch railing?” I quickly asked after telling him about my project. The employee I spoke to reassured me and said it should be “ideal.” He also pointed out I should rent the “medium-duty” model, not the heavy duty one. I asked if I could reserve it, and was told machines go out on a first-come, first-served basis.

I waited for the weather forecast to provide a couple of clear, dry days and when they came along, I went to pick up the paint sprayer. Upon entering the big box rental department, it looked like every other I’ve been to. These places are rather small, with a wide variety of equipment stored very efficiently around the shop. There was a short line, so I browsed a bit and found the paint sprayers. I would be renting the Graco RentalPro 210. Looking at the paint-splattered machine, I began to wonder what using a paint sprayer would really be like.

When I finally got up to the line at the counter, I noticed it was being held up by an unsatisfied couple who’d returned a pressure washer they claimed didn’t work. I felt for the person behind the counter who had to deal with unhappy homeowners while the line stretched into the shop. I began to worry the employee wouldn’t have time to really help me with my project because there were so many other customers waiting. But by the time it was my turn, things had calmed down a bit and the employee was able to focus on my explanation of my project. He recalled our conversation on the phone and proceeded to wheel out the RentalPro 210 and explain how it works. It seemed pretty simple, but I was worried about cleanup, and it seems this employee was too, because he stressed the importance of flushing the unit with clean water immediately upon completing my job. He mentioned there would be a $100 fee if the machine was returned with paint in the hose. Yikes, I thought, I won’t let that happen.

Even though I knew it wasn’t his department, I explained to this employee how I had to replace the “shims” between the spindles on the subrail. I’d hoped it would be as simple as buying a bag of ready-made wood blocks and hammering them into place. I figured I couldn’t be the only one with rotten subrail blocks on my porch railing. Shouldn’t there be a product to make this repair easy? Apparently not.

But not to worry, my new friend actually left his department and walked me through the lumber section to help find a solution. He ultimately found the lumber department manager and the three of us determined that since there is no ready-made product for my needs, I’d have to buy a 7-foot strip of wood and cut it to size. “But I need 150 4.5-inch pieces of wood!” I said. “I don’t really have the tools for that.”

The lumber department manager said I could either score the wooden strip with a utility knife and break it into pieces, or I could buy a $10 miter box kit. Determined to make something work, I said yes to the saw kit. The manager left me alone with the rental employee to discuss my options, but before I could fully absorb the time commitment involved with sawing 150 pieces of wood, he came right back with a miter box kit and was happy to report it was the last one in the store and was on clearance for $6. I was thrilled.

With wood and saw in hand, it was back to the rental department we went. The employee I was working with gave me a short demonstration of how the paint sprayer worked, briefly explained the rental contract, handed me some papers which I assumed (but was not told) were safety instructions and sent me on my way.

Upon returning home, I was soon disappointed to realize it would take me all day to size, cut, hammer and nail what turned out to be 142 pieces of 4.5-inch wood pieces. There was to be no painting that day, which meant I’d lost a lot of valuable and semi-expensive rental time. I would just have to hope the weather continued to hold out the following day and get up early to start painting.

Luckily, the weather cooperated and I got an early start putting drop clothes up around the windows and siding of our front porch. I should add that the base of the porch is concrete, so it was really important to cover that surface as it would be nearly impossible to get paint off of it if any accidentally landed there. I also attempted to cover the bushes in front of the porch, but with a pretty healthy breeze blowing that day, my efforts to protect the surroundings were constantly thwarted. Eventually, I decided to just get started and hope for the best. I’d just be really careful... (ha!).

Fortunately, the machine is easy to operate, so I had no problems with getting it to start or figuring out how to make it work. My only criticism of the unit itself is that the handle and nozzle are designed in such a way that makes it easy (I think) to confuse which end the paint is going to come out from. I came very, very close on more than one occasion to picking up the business end of the machine and spraying myself right in the face. Which brings me to an important point: my rental department friend never talked about safety. He never suggested I use (or try to sell me) any personal protection equipment such as goggles or a face mask. I happen to own my own goggles, but if I didn’t, or if I decided to go without them, there was a very good chance I could have aimed that nozzle right at my face and accidentally blinded myself with a high-powered stream of latex paint. While the printed materials he gave me did say to use these safety precautions, it was never mentioned, and I count myself extremely lucky for not making the mistake of aiming the paint in the wrong direction. That sort of error comes pretty naturally to me.

The moment of actual painting had arrived. It took less than five seconds of operation for me to find out that this tool was not going to work for my project. Paint immediately covered every surface around me. Everywhere I stepped, I stepped in paint, which meant I’d track it with me all over the sidewalk (which I didn’t cover), plus the overspray was floating through the air and landing on things 10 to 15 feet from where I was working (and no, I didn’t cover that stuff either). I soldiered on, and finished one 10-foot section of the railing, but decided to cut my losses before I did any real property damage. I was disappointed by this turn of events because I knew it would mean finishing the job by hand, which was what I was trying to avoid in the first place.

But the real disappointment came a few minutes later when I picked up paint-soaked newspapers and drop cloths and discovered the paint had found its way onto the concrete despite my best efforts to prevent it. I might have panicked just a bit there because I ran for the garden hose and began to spray down the concrete. This was a terrible idea, of course, because the overspray from the hose was hitting the wet paint on the railing, creating an even bigger mess.

I finally gathered my wits, grabbed a bucket and scrub brush and proceeded to begin furiously working on the concrete. I managed to get the worst of the paint up, but by then, I was worried about the time needed to get the machine cleaned up and back to the store on time. So, I began the process of flushing the paint out of the sprayer, and let me tell you, that is no picnic. I understand why they charge $100 for failing to do it because 1) it takes a long time, and 2) it is one messy job. I managed to get paint on my lawn, my driveway and the storm sewer grate in the process. And then I had to put the wet, messy machine back in my car. Luckily, I had an extra drop cloth and was able to prevent any more paint from finding its way into even more unwanted places.

When all was said and done, I returned the unit an hour late and was charged an additional $11. I told my friends in the rental department that the machine performed well, and the wood-working portion of the project was a huge success, thanks to them, but that overall, an airless paint sprayer was too much machine for the tight quarters I was working within. I would recommend a paint sprayer for covering naked drywall in a brand new home or perhaps for painting the side of a barn in the middle of a field, but there’s just too much paint going everywhere to make this machine a practical solution on a 4-foot deep porch made of concrete.

So what is my final review of this rental? I give the company lots of points for really digging in and helping me find a creative solution to my rotten wood problem, and I give them high marks for having a good machine in solid working order that performed easily and effectively, but I have to give them a thumbs down for not mentioning safety precautions, for being a tad inflexible on the late fee, and finally, for not “painting” a realistic picture of how the machine would behave in the surroundings I was using it in. This last issue could have been resolved if they had simply asked me a few more questions.

It seems to be a recurring theme each year with this feature, but it’s vitally important to really delve deeply into what your customer (particularly if they’re a novice, or a DIYer) is planning to do with your equipment. It might be tough to do when it’s busy and time is scarce, but it really can make the difference between a satisfied customer and an irate one.

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