Water-based Stains Offer Environmentally Friendly Options

Many contractors are attracted to the characteristics of water-based stains for a variety of jobs, especially those in the decorative realm.

Proper surface preparation is essential when using water-based stains. The stain soaks into the concrete so the concrete needs to be clean and dry.
Proper surface preparation is essential when using water-based stains. The stain soaks into the concrete so the concrete needs to be clean and dry.

Staining decorative concrete is not only aesthetically pleasing but it can also be environmentally friendly. Although there is no one-size-fits-all stain for every decorative concrete job, water-based stains are a great option for contractors looking to make their decorative work a little more green. Water-based stains do not contain the solvents that acid-based stains do. This allows contractors multiple benefits.

The benefits

Low VOC content. Low volatile organic compounds (VOC) content creates a healthier environment. Contractors will not be breathing in the VOCs. Water-based stains also do not have the acid-related smell. This also allows contractors to do work with water-based stains in indoor or outdoor environments where other people are present during completion of the work. Depending on the formulation for the water-based stains, they can also be acceptable for use in LEED projects, says Cam Villar, director of marketing for L. M. Scofield.

Clean up. Acid-based stains require neutralizing and clean up prior to sealing the concrete. The residue and water from acid stain clean up needs to be handled and disposed of properly. Water-based stains do not require the stringent residue removal procedures that acid-based stains do, Villar adds. In fact, water-based stains do not require the floor be washed off after application, says Jim Nielsen, regional sales/training manager for Butterfield Color. Nielsen says contractors doing vertical wall stamping tend to gravitate toward water-based stains because they do not require the wash down and clean up like acid stains. Plus, once a water-based stain has cured properly it may be sealed.

Color selection. "Because of the metallic salts used in the manufacturing of acid-based stains, only so many colors are available," Nielsen says. Water-based stains can have a bigger color selection beyond the earthy tones common for acid stains. "Water-based stains are available in brighter and more primary colors," he says.

Longer evaporation point. Water-based stains evaporate at a slower rate than acid-based stains. This allows the stain to stay on the concrete longer and give the color a longer time to sink into the concrete, says Alex Darmstaedter, marketing manager for American Decorative Concrete.

Possible drawbacks

All the benefits of water-based stains don't necessarily mean they are hands down better than acid-based stains. There are some aspects of water-based stains that might not make them the stain of choice for certain projects.

UV susceptibility. "Water-based stains are generally not as long lasting as acid stains since the organic pigments used in water-based stains are more susceptible to UV light," Villar says. Using a sealer that contains UV blockers can help diminish this issue somewhat, he adds. Some water-based stains are now formulated with UV stabilizers in the stain as well to help prevent fading in sunlight whether the stain is used indoors or outdoors, Darmstaedter adds. 

Color intensity. Although there are more color options with water-based stains, water-based stains have to penetrate into the concrete whereas acid stains react with the surface of the concrete, Nielsen points out. Either type of stain is not intended to cover or hide construction defects, however the stain applicator can sometimes control the amount of variegation or mottling to artistically incorporate the defect into the final look, he adds.

Surface prep. Because the stain needs to penetrate into the concrete, surface prep is a very important step when applying water-based stains. "You need to insure proper floor prep and cleaning so that the stain can penetrate into the surface," Nielsen says. The concrete also needs to be dry. If there is still moisture in the concrete it may be difficult for the stain to absorb and it will not take.

Stenciling. If a project calls for stenciling, water-based stains might not be the best option. "Water-based stains or dyes can tend to seep under a stencil and form uneven edges," Darmstaedter says.

Environmentally friendly companions

If you're looking to install a decorative concrete project with a low environmental impact, water-based stains are a great start. But there are other decorative products that can be used in conjunction with these stains to help keep the project environmentally friendly.

Low VOC, water-based sealers are a great option for sealing water-based stains. These sealers contain less or even no fumes compared to solvent-based sealers, which make them a great option for indoor working environments, especially those where ventilation may be a problem or where people will be present during the work. They also do not contain chemicals that could harm the landscape around the concrete, Darmstaedter adds.

Water-based sealers usually will not darken the color of the stain or concrete like solvent-based sealers might. This could be a benefit or a drawback depending on what the customer wants, Nielsen says. Also, water-based sealers are available in a matte or gloss finish giving a more natural look to the finished decorative job.