With less than six months to go, cabinetmakers are preparing to be compliant with the California Air Resources Board's comprehensive restrictions on formaldehyde emissions from composite wood products.

Products made and sold in California as of Jan. 1, 2009 must meet CARB's Phase I provisions. To make the change, shops are learning how to use new CARB-compliant products and are altering production processes now.

Managing the backend

While companies are focusing on how to manufacture CARB-compliant products correctly, Scott McConnell, president of McConnell Cabinets, Industry, Calif., also is preparing for a paperwork deluge.

"We will have to change our recordkeeping, which will add another layer of documentation," says McConnell. "The potential is there for us to limit the number of suppliers we use to make sure all material we buy is CARB compliant. If a company has limited computer capabilities it could be a problem with the documentation."

CARB rules require that everyone in the value chain retains all product paperwork for two years.

"CARB has indicated they will constantly test products in the field," says Roger Rutan, vice president of marketing, Timber Products Co. "Shops will have to document all incoming material piece by piece and show that all material used was CARB certified. Executing the required level of documentation will be significant."

Imported products have California shops concerned because countries such as China aren't subject to the same regulations. However, CARB has talked about an alliance with U.S. customs to check imported cabinetry and furniture.

"Many people are making decisions on the cost of a product even if it isn't environmentally friendly," says Clyde Turner, owner of San Diego, Calif.-based CTT Furniture. "While mass-produced imports aren't in direct competition with us, it would be nice to level the playing field."

"The reality is that if California can't police the requirements, then the problem will be what is compliant and what isn't," says McConnell. "The domestic companies won't have a problem. The product from overseas will be a question mark."

New products, new processes

Randy Landis, owner of R. Landis Interiors, Gardena, Calif., has found that in the past two years half of his customers ask for green products. "Right now we're using green as a sales tool, even though not everyone will pay the price difference," says Landis.

Turner also has customers who request green materials. To stay ahead of the trend, he uses CARB-compliant materials and water-based finishes.

"We have clients who are interested in interior air quality, so we're always trying new environmentally-friendly products," says Turner. Even though he uses mostly formaldehyde-free products, he now edgebands all exposed panel edges on the back or top of cabinets even if they are hidden.

As with any new machine or product there is always a learning curve and Turner is working out the kinks well in advance of the January deadline.

"Your tooling will need to be slightly different and the characteristics of how things are formed will also be different," says Turner. "If you wait until the last minute and put all the learning curve into one job, it won't go well."

Turner is concerned how much additional costs CARB will add to the company's custom cabinetry.

"Formaldehyde-free products are more expensive at this point, so the client is paying a premium and we're absorbing some, which diminishes our profits," says Turner. "However, over the next five years as all manufacturers are making CARB-compliant materials, I hope costs will go down a little."

Staying on top of evolving CARB rules isn't easy and most shops are leaning on their distributors for up-to-date information. Weber Plywood & Lumber Co., Tustin, Calif., is getting the word out via different mediums. The distributor has prepped its sales force, sent out literature, increased inventories of CARB-compliant materials, and created a green area in its warehouse.

"We painted a wall green and finished the floor so customers can see and touch CARB-compliant products and learn about the latest CARB updates," says Doug Jenks, purchasing, Weber Plywood & Lumber Co. "A kiosk runs a loop of promotional information for green products as well as other green initiatives."

Many customers are confused on the definition of a green product, according to Jenks. "Is CARB, FSC or LEED green?" says Jenks. "These guys are getting alphabet soup and it's quite a process to get customers up to speed."

Manufacturers such as Timber Products Co. invested in a green road show to help educate distributors and customers. "My staff has been through it two or three times and we've had meetings with manufacturers to eliminate any confusion," says Jenks.

As CARB continues to evolve, shops need to consider where information is coming from. "If you're a cabinetmaker you should be talking with your distributor," says Rutan. "Distributors should be talking to panel manufacturers. Some entities in the marketplace selling imported wood are already interpreting or misinterpreting CARB rules and you don't want to get stuck with non-compliant material."

"Shops need to know the requirements and that their suppliers have the capabilities to meet the rules," says McConnell. "If I was buying product from overseas, I'd be leery of middlemen. You just don't know."

While CARB only pertains to California, many in the industry believe it could become a federal rule. "What's good for California is good for the nation," says Turner. "If we can put in a little extra effort and figure out how this could be applied to the rest of the country it's ultimately a good thing."

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