Consumer Reports' biggest interior paint test ever put Home Depot's Behr brand at the top of its ratings in all three major categories: low-luster, flat and matte finishes, and semigloss. CR also confirmed that the best make painting faster, easier and greener for less.
For the first time, nearly all of CR's top-scoring paints, including the Behr, are among the lowest in volatile organic compounds, which are linked to pollution, smog and respiratory problems. They contain no more than 50 grams per liter, a fraction of the 380 grams once common in the most-used low-luster paints.
They're also within the tougher federal VOC limits CR called for in its 2009 report, which the Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose this year, and meet stricter regional California limits. Yet some cost as little as $15 per gallon, roughly half the price of paints that didn't make CR's winners' circle.
Greener can also mean less work. Paints that scored Very Good or Excellent in CR's hiding tests provided thorough coverage with just one coat, something only two low-VOC paints managed last time.
CR's scrubbing, staining, mildew and other tests helped it rate more than 50 paints, including versions that let you skip the usual prime coat on bare surfaces. It also found that some ultragreen formulas can cost more than you bargained for and that some familiar brands might give you less than you'd expect. Here are the details:
*More multitaskers. Impressive one-coat hiding, stain resistance and other strengths made Behr Premium Plus Ultra ($33) CR's top paint overall. Behr says it can go directly over bare wood and wallboard without priming; at less than $35 per gallon, it outscored some pricier paints. Low-luster and semigloss versions of Kilz Casual Colors ($22, Walmart) are formulated for indoor and outdoor use. Both did well at hiding in interior-paint tests; CR is evaluating their outdoor performance.
*Paying more can buy you less. You might be willing to shell out up to $45 per gallon for Benjamin Moore Regal if you want maximum fade resistance for a sunny room. But CR's tests show little reason to consider others in that price range.
*When greener isn't better. Freshaire Choice ($39, Home Depot) and Mythic ($48) claim to have zero VOCs and to be as durable and cover as well as top-quality paint. But Mythic was mediocre at hiding, and Freshaire Choice scored no better than Fair.
>How to choose
*Don't buy strictly by brand. Several Dutch Boy and Sherwin-Williams paints wound up near the bottom of CR's Ratings, despite being industry icons. And because manufacturers frequently tweak formulas to improve performance, cut costs and comply with tougher regulations, the paint consumers loved last time might not perform as well this time around.
*Pick the right gloss level. Flat paint hides wall imperfections but tends to stain more easily; save it for low-traffic areas. High-sheen, semigloss paints are easy to clean but tend to dull in the process; use them on trim, windows and doors to provide an attractive contrast with walls and ceilings. Low-luster (aka, satin and eggshell) paints combine the best of both categories and are the top choice for most areas.
*Look for specific strengths. Some paints are especially good at resisting fading in a sunny room, fending off mildew in a steamy bath, or shedding stains in a busy kitchen. Decide which attributes fit the room.
*Consider the store. Many top-scoring paints are sold at big-box stores. Home Depot and Lowe's tend to carry more paint than Walmart and Sears and often offer 5-gallon pails -- a major money-saver on large projects.