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A new use for good old baking soda

SodaBlast uses the household staple to safely remove bottom paint

Benny LeCompte wants you to know about another use for baking soda.

The versatile white powder has long been a staple around the house — used for baking, absorbing odors, cleaning toilets or doing laundry — but now it’s possible to use environmentally friendly baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to strip anti-fouling and ablative bottom paints.

LeCompte and his brother, Jerry, launched their company, SodaBlast Systems LLC, 14 years ago in Houston. The soda blasting process uses granulated baking soda, pressurized and shot from a SodaBlast machine, to strip paint.

Business started booming 10 years ago while SodaBlast was still buying its machines from another Houston firm.

“We got the company to build us the machines to our design, and it got to be such a good business that we bought the [other] company,” Benny LeCompte says. The advent of new portable machines now has the brothers eyeing the marine market.

Though he soda blasted his first boat 12 years ago, LeCompte says a contract handling a major paint recall on a popular pickup truck turned their focus to the automotive industry. Sandblasting, one of the traditional methods for stripping bottom paint from boats, is too harsh for cars, he says.

“To me it’s amazing that sandblasting is an option on gelcoat when it’s too harsh for metal,” says LeCompte. Other common methods for removing bottom paint include scraping by hand, sanding and using chemical strippers.

“Soda blasting, by design, is considered nondestructive in nature,” says LeCompte.

The method is primarily used on fiberglass and aluminum boats, he says, and he expects soda blasting to become the industry standard.

“By adjusting the pressure we can adjust it so that we can remove the paint without affecting the gelcoat,” says LeCompte.

Soda blasting does not necessarily require stripping all bottom paint. By scaling back the pressure, LeCompte says, the process can be used to “refresh” the paint by removing oxidation, marine growth and other contaminants.

And soda blasting reveals cracks and blisters, showing owners the true condition of their boats’ bottoms, he says. “By turning the pressure up we can actually open up a blister,” says LeCompte. “I probably would’ve had my boats soda blasted at the time of the survey.”

Non-toxic and non-hazardous, baking soda is friendly to both the SodaBlast machine operator and the environment, LeCompte says. The same, however, can’t be said for the old bottom paint. LeCompte says SodaBlast stresses containment when training the company’s “preferred contractors,” the independent members who make up the company’s nationwide network. Containment involves tenting above the boat’s waterline and placing a liner underneath the boat, he says.

The development of portable soda blasting machines — originally designed for on-site demonstrations and removing graffiti from buildings — has opened the marine market to SodaBlast, LeCompte says. “The City of Chicago owns 30 machines and buys 50 tons of soda per month,” he says.

After preferred contractors purchase a mobile soda blasting machine and are properly trained, they can travel from boatyard to boatyard performing the service, according to LeCompte.

“A 40-foot boat can usually be done in two to three hours,” he says, “as opposed to a week [with traditional methods].”

In addition to being fast and gentle to a boat’s gelcoat, he says the price is competitive. The average 30-footer, for example, would cost about $30 per foot to soda blast, a 40-footer about $40 a foot and so on, he says.