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New paint could mean lighter workloads - and lighter ships

Jun. 29, 2014 - 05:49PM   |  
A new paint now in use on some ships could last up to seven years, avoiding the need for multiple coats and even saving fuel — the extra coats add weight. Here, Seaman Francisco Kidwell touches up the destroyer Donald Cook at sea in January.
A new paint now in use on some ships could last up to seven years, avoiding the need for multiple coats and even saving fuel — the extra coats add weight. Here, Seaman Francisco Kidwell touches up the destroyer Donald Cook at sea in January. (MCSA Shelby Tucker / Navy)
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ABOARD THE DESTROYER ROSS IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC OC — The Navy is hoping that a new paint slathering its way into the fleet will mean a little less chipping and painting for sailors.

The sailors on the Ross have begun using the new polysiloxane topside coating — more complex than the classic haze gray. It’s a two-step paint that includes a resin and hardener that requires mixing and extra care when it’s applied — and it can last more than seven years.

“It’s basically the same stuff they put on water towers so that graffiti can just be wiped away instead of repainting the whole thing every time,” said Ensign Anthony Joseph, the Ross’s first lieutenant, whose crew paints the bulk of the ship’s hull. “But you have to prep the surface correctly.”

Joseph said when using the new paint, you have to rough-sand the surface to get it to stick. “Otherwise,” he said, “you can go back after it dries and peel it off in a sheet.”

Sailors who have worked with the old stuff can attest to its shortcomings: It shrinks and cracks easily, can take a long time to dry and is stained easily by running rust.

That means that if there is an inspection or an admiral’s visit coming up, sailors are often told to just slap some new haze gray over the old, forming a layer cake of rust, salt and peeling paint.

This practice is pandemic in the fleet and costs the Navy millions in wasted paint — and can even lead to higher fuel costs thanks to the extra weight, the Naval Research Laboratory reported in April 2013.

The Navy estimates that these half-baked topside preservation efforts can add up to 15 tons, roughly equivalent to the weight of one F/A-18 Super Hornet, to an aircraft carrier. And the old haze gray’s inherent weaknesses add to the problem.

It only lasts between 12 and 18 months, according to NRL, which means that on a ship the size of a cruiser or a destroyer that gets underway about 35 percent of the time on average, the ship’s force could spend time every day in port painting, only to have to start over again when they finish.

The new paint on board the Ross can last more than seven years between fresh coats without losing too much luster, NRL said, which envisions that long, hot hours with needle guns, primer and goopy paint that doesn’t coat well will be replaced by a bucket of solvent and some greenie-weenies to scrub running rust off the washable surface.

The Navy guesses that this will save up to 57,000 sailor-hours each year — or about a year of work by 30 sailors.

But the new paint doesn’t eliminate all grunt work. As Joseph points out, proper preparation is important: Corroded surfaces still need to be needle-gunned, and the paint can’t be put over salt or a chalky layer of freshly sanded paint.

But if a sailor who checks on board a ship only has to paint the same surface once during his entire tour, the trade-off is worth it.

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