There’s plenty of talk about the benefits and advantages of Paint Protection Film (PPF). But what exactly is it? Does it protect better than ceramic coating? How is PPF applied? How long does it last? And most importantly, how much does it cost?
To learn about PPF and gain some expert insight, we asked Chris DiMinico, product manager at XPEL. The company, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary of making automotive protection products, is headquartered in San Antonio, Texas.
What is PPF?
In simple terms, PPF is a thin transparent film adhered to a vehicle’s painted body panels to protect the paint from damage. The material, which ranges in thickness from 7-11 mm, is offered in glossy or matte finishes. In both variants, the vehicle’s original color will be visible.
Technically speaking, PPF is an engineered multiple-layer sandwich of unique materials that work together to protect a vehicle’s paint. XPEL’s Ultimate Plus, one of its premium PPF products, uses four layers. “The outside facing the environment is a thin topcoat or clearcoat (about .5 mils thick),” explains DiMinico. “Beneath that is a Thermoplastic Urethane, or TPU (about 6.0 mils thick). It’s the same grade of urethane that they use in medical devices, and its temperature range goes from about 350 degrees down to about negative 32 degrees—it’s very robust. The TPU is followed by a Pressure Sensitive Adhesive, or PSA (about 1.1 mils thick). Last is a siliconized release liner (about 3 mils thick).” All the layers are clear and bonded into a single film layer, so the PPF and its composition are transparent to the consumer.
Is PPF the Same as Vinyl Wrap?
Not at all. PPF is a “Paint Protection Film” engineered to protect the paint. It is thick to resist impacts and is very durable for longevity. Vinyl wrap, offered in a rainbow of colors and patterns, is designed primarily to change the vehicle’s appearance. It is about 4 mils thick and is not resistant to cuts and tears. Under most real-world conditions, PPF will last twice as long as vinyl wrap.
Is PPF Better than Ceramic Coating?
PPF has been engineered to be extremely tough and durable—the thick urethane defends paint from pebbles, gravel, and other debris that may hit the vehicle. In addition, PPF physically protects from bird droppings, bug splatter, acid rain, sap, and hard water. Effectiveness does not diminish with time.
Waxes, polymers, and ceramic coatings only create a thin microscopic barrier between the paint and the environment. While they enhance shine and improve hydrophobicity (water beading up), they are useless against any physical impact, and the protective layer slowly deteriorates. They must also be reapplied every three months (wax) or five years (ceramic coating).
How is PPF Applied?
Most experts agree that an experienced professional should apply PPF, as proper installation requires training, specialized tools, and practice. The film arrives on rolls, which are cut to the approximate shape of the body panel. The paint surface is thoroughly cleaned of all contaminants, such as oils and waxes, and polished to remove swirl marks (this process is called a ‘paint correction’). High-end installers will remove lights, trim, and other accessories to fit the film cleanly beneath them.
Once the vehicle is prepared, the protective backing is removed from the film (exposing the PSA), and it is ‘floated’ onto the surface into place. “Installers use a ‘tack and a slip’ solution,” describes DiMinico. “What constitutes the tack versus the slip solution would change per installer because they have different techniques. So, with the tack solution, that is an isopropyl alcohol mix, typically with distilled water, just to ensure there are no contaminants. And then with the slip solution, it’s typically a baby shampoo and distilled water again.”
After the installer is pleased with the placement, a plastic squeegee presses the film against the paint—adhering it to the surface— while the liquid and air bubbles are forced out. Lastly, the excess material is cut away, and the edges are tucked cleanly out of sight. The process takes time and patience.
What is “Self-Healing” PPF?
‘Self-healing’ PPF refers to the TPU’s ability to return to its original shape when it is warmed and softened—minor scratches and abrasions on the surface will disappear with time.
“The best way to explain self-healing PPF is not technical at all,” notes DiMinico. “You have a bunch of molecules that really like each other, and they will self-heal on their own no matter what, even at ambient temperatures. Now, when you add heat to it, whether from a heat gun or hot water from a Keurig, you’re making that reaction happen faster. That is the justification of self-healing properties. It’s just molecules that are very similar and like each other and always going to gravitate toward each other.”
How Long Does PPF Last?
Most owners will get 7-10 years out of their PPF, which is longer than most people will keep their vehicle. As with any high-quality finish exposed to the elements, service life depends on exposure—if the vehicle is driven on dirt roads daily and only parked outdoors, durability will be compromised. If the vehicle is just taken out on weekends and always garaged, it could last the life of the vehicle. “PPF is the sacrificial layer to protect your car from everyday road rash and is not indestructible. There are times that the film will take the beating instead of your paint, and at that time, if you are not happy with the aesthetics, you choose to replace it,” explains DiMinico. The best PPF manufacturers will stand behind their product, which shows confidence in longevity. “XPEL PPF has a 10-year transferable warranty, which protects owners from peeling, yellowing, and cracking,” he adds.
How Much Does PPF Cost?
The cost of PPF installation is based on several variables—the product’s quality, the installer’s skill, and the amount of surface area (vehicle paint) covered.
Assuming you are specifying a quality PPF installed by a professional, a simple job such as wrapping the front bumpers could cost as little as $500. More involved installations, including the bumper, hood, and quarter panels, could cost about $1,500. A full vehicle wrap may cost $8,000 or more—based on the complexity and size of the car, truck, or SUV.
How do I Choose a Reputable PPF Installer?
Consumers should do research before they have PPF installed. Tyler O’Hara, owner of American Wrap Company in Thousand Oaks, California, suggests that consumers search for local installers online and select those with excellent reviews and high ratings. “Walk into the shops and meet the owners, meet the management, and maybe meet the installers,” he explains. “Scope out the scene and take a good look at the shop. Is it clean? Is it dirty?” Premium shops will serve high-end clientele with expensive cars, so ensure your vehicle fits the shop’s demographic. Most important, stresses O’Hara, is that you “find someone that you feel comfortable with… and always ask to see their finished work.”