There’s Ceiling Tile Painting and Then… There’s Ceiling Tile Painting

“We are talking acoustical ceilings here, folks.”

By:  Ken Woolf

There are more acoustical ceiling tiles in place that are in various stages of aging and discoloring, than there are looking fresh and new.  That is a given.  Another known fact is that the vast majority of aged/discolored ceiling tiles are in occupied spaces where commercial activity is on-going throughout the day.

Who wishes to purchase food in a supermarket that is dark and unattractive?  How many workers enjoy working in an environment where eyes are strained and there is excessive dependence on artificial lighting?

Facility maintenance managers face a Catch-22 situation in trying to deal with this challenge.  On one hand, they would like to improve the situation while on the other hand business must go on as usual during normal work hours.  That means that any intervention must be conducted during nighttime hours when the space is vacated and be completed before employees arrive in the morning. This envelope of time dictates what can or cannot be done.

Looking at the Alternatives

There are four alternatives to correcting the problem of unsightly ceilings. Each has pros and cons that the building owner/manager must consider before making a decision. These are:

Replace the Ceiling Tiles with New Ones

This option sounds simple enough, providing there is sufficient budget to do so.  Before installing new tiles there are a few other tasks that need to be completed.  Sequentially, they are:

  • Cover the area below where the work is to be done.  Over the ceiling is an accumulation of dust and debris that will come down as the tiles are removed.  Protection is a necessity.
  • Remove the old tiles from the grid system and the building, prior to depositing them in a trash removal container heading for the landfill.
  • Clean and/or paint the grids that the tiles lay in for they have discolored just like the tiles they contained.

With all of what has just been described, it is understandable that the amount of square footage that can be completed each night is limited.  Therefore, opting for tile replacement is not only the most expensive option but the longest to complete. And there are indirect costs associated with any protracted project.

Have the Ceiling Chemically Cleaned

This process is completed in a fraction of the time required for replacement and is considerably less expensive. There are positive and negative results associated with the chemical cleaning process.

The positive result is that the ceiling will look better.  How much better is a function of the degree of contamination, staining, and type of material (some products clean easier than others). The area preparation is less detailed and the time required is the least of all alternatives discussed in this article.

On the negative side, only the surface contamination is treated. If the white pigment (in the coating applied by the manufacturer) has faded and is a shade of grey, removing the surface contaminants will not change the pigment color.  The over-all result is a more consistent color but not necessarily one that appears new.

Paint the Ceiling Tiles

Like chemical cleaning, there are positive and negatives associated with this option. It is less expensive than replacement with new materials and can be completed much faster. The negatives are more associated with the actual paint product this is utilized and how proficient the contractor is in protecting from over-spray and dust.

For the purpose of discussion, assume the contractor is skilled in the art of area and surface preparation. Further assume that the contractor chooses to paint the ceiling tiles in place, coating the t-bar (grid system) and air diffusers at the same time … the most cost effective way of painting ceilings. Another assumption is that the contractor opts for a typical ceiling white latex paint. The negative results are as follows:

  • The material’s acoustical properties will be compromised, resulting in a higher noise level. The pores of the tile will be closed by a film of paint, thus sealing off the absorption of sound as intended.
  • After the paint has dried, a film bonds the tile to the t-bar, making removal of the panels difficult to do at best, when performing maintenance tasks above the ceiling.
  • Some pores are closed with paint and others are left open and this creates an appearance that is not normal and suggests – “I’ve been painted!”

Restore the Ceiling Tiles

This alternative is similar to the one described using conventional paints. The application procedure is similar, as is the cost.  The difference is that ceiling restoration is a process that is uniquely related to the products used. Contractors who offer a service called “Acoustical Ceiling Restoration” are professionals who have become proficient in utilizing the right materials to achieve the goal of a like-new appearance with long-term benefits.

Just as there are specialty products for boat decks (marine coatings) and concrete patios, there are unique products available for acoustical ceilings. The restoration contractor knows which one of them is best and builds a service around their better characteristics. The better acoustical coatings can:

  • Improve the sound absorbing capability of the ceiling material
  • Retard the spreading of flame in case of a fire and reduce the amount of smoke that is developed by virtue of the ceiling surface burning
  • Provide greater light dispersion and retain its color longer than even new material
  • Allow the option of tinting to any designer color
  • Contribute to gaining LEED credits on “green” projects

Prior to the application of the acoustical coating, the ceiling surface must also be prepared.  Chemical cleaners are used to remove surface contaminants, water stains are primed, and sprinkler-heads and other ceiling mounted fixtures are masked.  In some instances, the ceiling restoration professional may recommend cleaning only, as the most cost-affective alternative.  Typically, vinyl covered tiles are non-porous and can be cleaned quite well, to the extent that a new surface coating is not necessary.  Hence, “Ceiling Restoration” is more of an umbrella term, under which a number of approaches can be selected, based on the conditions.  The professional contractor has all the tools in the kit and pulls out the appropriate one for any given situation.

Paint as a Verb and Paint as a Noun

In both alternatives three and four, a painting process is used in the application of the coating product. As such, the ceiling is being painted … a verb. However, the product that is being applied may not necessarily be a paint (a noun), and therein lies the difference.

Interestingly, contractors who specialize in treating aged/discolored ceilings make it a point to avoid the word paint.  Why?  Because so many commercial building professionals are acutely aware of the negative affects of conventional paint and they would prefer not to have their service associated with those limitations. That is why they say, “We restore ceilings … we do not paint them.” They insist on making that distinction and must do it clearly if they hope to be successful in the marketplace of knowledgeable building professionals.

Selecting a Contractor Starts with the Product

The best place to start is to first choose a ceiling restoration product. This can be done by recommendation from someone who has experience with this service.  But more generally, the internet provides an excellent source of information. Search the internet for “Acoustical Ceiling Restoration” and concentrate on the manufacturers/distributors of these products. Visit websites and look for the following:

  • Which one has been in business the longest time?  If they have been at it quite a while, they are likely to be doing something right. They should also have the greatest experience and more likely have solutions to the unique problems that occur now and then.
  • Did the manufacturer have product testing conducted by independent testing laboratories, utilizing the appropriate ASTM tests, and are the results of those tests easily available?  Words and claims are easily made but facts are more dependable. In the case of ceiling restoration, testing should have been conducted in the areas of acoustics, fire retardancy, light reflectance, toxicity, and aging. If more than one manufacture publishes test data, a comparison of the results should identify the better performer.
  • Do they have a Contractor Certification Program whereby independent contractors are trained in the product technology as well as the most efficient application techniques? How is the training conducted? Do they provide the contractor with a manual and video tape or does a trainer travel to the contractor’s location and conduct the training for the whole crew on an actual job? The latter is by far the more affective method but it requires a much greater commitment from the manufacturer. The advantage is that they will be able to recommend a ceiling restoration professional servicing a particular project area that can be relied upon to do the job right.
  • For architects and designers, do they have project specifications readily available in CSI and conventional formats?

Decisions and Dollars

There are two ways of looking at cost … up-front expense and long-term payoff. Often, the least expensive option is the most costly down the road. Life Cycle Analyses (LCA) have been done in which a comparison of each of the alternatives discussed in this article are projected. The LCA establishes an average cost per square foot, number of applications over a ten-year period, and an assumed ceiling area. It results in a total amount of dollars spent over ten years (as an example) for each alternative and typically shows that the least expensive over the long term is ceiling restoration.

If a given system lasts longer, there are also indirect savings that are not reflected in a LCA. Every time a project is undertaken, there are additional expenses related to project management that should be considered. The fewer times projects are undertaken, less management expense is incurred.

Finally, a Bit of Caution

There is no doubt that in the business of dealing with aged/discolored acoustical ceilings, restoration is the state-of-the-art.  And just like any movement, there are those who want to jump on the band wagon, whether they belong or not. A recent survey of companies in the ceiling restoration business was responded to by many firms who appeared to take “restoration” out of context.

For instance, the contractor who replaces the old with new material may view themselves as restoring the ceiling.  Similarly, the painting contractor or the chemical cleaner can do so as well. That is their perception, either because they do not know any different, or because they have a desire to cash in on what is popular. So, the selection of the contractor should come as a result of first identifying a manufacturer who will then lead to identifying a qualified applicator.

About the Author

Ken Woolf founded ProCoat Products, Inc. in 1983 … the company is generally recognized as pioneering the field of acoustical ceiling restoration and is located in Holbrook, MA.  Ken is a speaker and author on the subject, is an engineer by training, and holds a doctorate in management.  Questions can be directed to Ken by phone at (781) 767-2270 or by email at

Comments (4)

We will be putting a food grade drop ceiling in two yogurt shops and trying to avoid a plain white ceiling. We are looking into painting the tiles but not finding much on if this will degrade them for food service. Do you have any information on this?

Where can I buy pro coat acoustic ceiling tile restorer, in white? Our can is empty! Thanks.

Many new ceilings are installed in a white color and then coated over with ProCoustic, tinted to a designer color. Give me a call at (781) 767-2270 and we can discuss your options.

Is this the paint product for fiber tiles that does not have the latex in it and does not affect the fire rating?

I had some years ago that came from ICWC.


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