Turf Magazine - May, 2009

NATIONAL FEATURES

Cleaning Up Lawn Care

A business model based on environmentally friendly techniques
By Jenan Jones Benson
Photos Courtesy of Clean Air Lawn Care
Take a closer look at the panels, which collect sunlight for conversion into the electricity that powers the mowers, edgers and trimmers.

Mowing without hearing protection and frequent trips to a gas station may seem a dream, but at least one lawn care company is doing just that. Combining more environmentally friendly and economically sound lawn care techniques is at the heart of three-year-old Clean Air Lawn Care (www.cleanairlawncare.com).

Headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo., the company views lawn care as a business that can be conducted in a sustainable, safe and efficient way. It has developed a model based upon techniques that produce quality results through processes that are healthy for fauna, flora, humans and the environment.

The company uses electric mowers, blowers and trimmers that are powered with renewable energy sources. Clean Air trucks are outfitted with solar panels to recharge batteries as required during the workday, and in their shops wind energy powers chargers and other equipment. Locally produced biofuel fills the tanks of larger, gasoline-dependent mowers. To ensure that all aspects of the operation are carbon neutral, offsets are purchased from Juice Energy, Inc. (www.aboutjuice.com), an electricity company that works with clients to manage costs and greenhouse gas risks.

One advantage of the electric-powered equipment includes reduced emissions as compared to gas models. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that running a gas mower for one hour produces as much pollution as 40 late model cars. Using renewable energy, an electric mower produces no emissions. Gas mowers typically run at 100 decibels, loud enough to lead to hearing damage; electric models are up to 70 percent quieter.

Clean Air recycles all grass clippings, either on-site or at an area recycling facility. The company helps clients manage water and nutrient use by mowing at optimal blade height and offers organic inputs.

As industry trends move toward more sustainable methods, Clean Air may have a jump on competitors who are clinging to traditional techniques. For example, last September the EPA released new standards aimed at improving air quality across the United States. The rules, which will take effect in 2011 for lawn and garden equipment, will substantially reduce hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and smog-forming pollutants emitted from lawn mowers, edgers and blowers with 25 hp or less. The change will yield annual emission reductions of 600,000 tons of hydrocarbons, 130,000 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx), 5,500 tons of direct particulate matter and 1.5 million tons of carbon monoxide (CO). The EPA expects the new standards to save approximately 190 million gallons of gasoline each year. Manufacturers are expected to meet the requirements of HC+NOx exhaust emission standards of 10 grams per kilowatt hour for Class I engines in 2012 and 8 grams per kilowatt hour for Class II engines in 2011 by improving fuel systems, engine combustion and, in some cases, adding catalysts.

Building the business

It all got started in 2003 when Kelly Girard, company founder and chief executive officer who had studied economics and environmental policy at Boston University, was in the market for a new mower. His needs and interests sparked an idea that became Clean Air Lawn Care. A couple of years later, he challenged a family friend and fellow environmental policy guru to model a profitable lawn mowing concept that significantly reduced air pollution. In the space of a summer, a sound plan was developed, and Clean Air Lawn Care was in operation in Fort Collins the following spring.

Girard slowly built a financing and marketing team to test viability of the business nationwide. In 2007, 10 locations were successfully launched.

Clean Air continues to operate the flagship office in Fort Collins, which also serves as a test site for new equipment, services and methods. Those innovations that pass with Manager Chris Cassis are incorporated into the standard business model.

“We run the solar system to failure on 100-degree days, we test the viability of compost teas, and we also test the limits of the human body,” he says.

Today, Clean Air has franchise locations in Arizona, California, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon and Washington.

Clean Air Lawn Care uses electric mowers, trimmers and blowers to cut their carbon footprint.

Inside a franchise operation

Mill Nash owns a Clean Air Lawn Care franchise in Marin County, Calif., which he opened in 2008. He says a large portion of his work is in educating potential clients about the benefits of the Clean Air method.

“Once people understand the damage that traditional lawn care produces, it is a layup,” Nash says.

His clients are drawn by the pollution-free, chemical-free and gasoline-free methods that Clean Air uses. Nash prefers not to use pesticides, but does offer low-toxic inputs, such as corn gluten or beneficial nematodes, to clients demanding pest treatment.

“Customers love the fact that we are much quieter,” Nash says. “I had not realized how important that has become to people, and yet it seems so obvious. Many local communities in Marin County have actually banned gas-powered leaf blowers.”

Nash worked in lawn care during high school and college and went on to a management career working with such companies as Starbucks before returning to his roots in the green industry. He says that anyone who operates gas mowers will be pleased with the greater ease electric models offer. There’s no gas tank to fill, no oil and plugs to change and no need for tinkering with the engine. They are easy to start and no more costly than traditional gas mowers. Clean Air uses mowers from Neuton Power Equipment (www.NeutonPower.com), based in Vergennes, Vt. Nash says overall operating costs are comparable to those for companies using traditional techniques; thus, electric lawn care firms can be competitive with other providers.

For electric mowers, sharp blades and charged batteries are musts. Working with the batteries is the biggest challenge. Although their running time is improving, it can be difficult to keep batteries charged for a full workday. However, several lawns can be completed before a battery change is required.

“Most electric mowers say the life of a charge is about 1/3 of an acre, or about an hour,” Nash says. “I have been able to do at least that and more.” Black & Decker offers an electric mower said to recharge its battery up to 70 percent of full capacity in four hours and to 100 percent in 10.

Most of Nash’s clients are homeowners, although the commercial side of the business is growing. Clean Air customers are likely to be interested in learning about healthy lawn care practices and appreciate Nash’s guidance in reducing water use or creating a composting system. He offers a range of lawn care and gardening services, along with specialty programs crucial in his region, such as fire abatement services to reduce the risk of property damage should a wildfire occur.

Learn more about innovative lawn care techniques online at the EPA Web site (www.epa.gov/greenpower) and the U.S. Green Building Council Web site (www.usgbc.org/leed).

Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.