Customers excited about Clean Air Lawn Care’s electric approach

The company slogan at Clean Air Lawn Care is pretty bold: Changing the Way America Mows the Lawn. Whether the entire nation adopts Clean Air Lawn Care’s approach is yet to be seen, but its methods and mission are both interesting and innovative.

Clean Air Lawn Care (www.cleanairlawncare.com) was formed in 2006 as a national company offering franchise opportunities around the country. Its goal was to create a sustainable way to maintain lawns. Primarily that meant eliminating the use of petroleum products in mowing and trimming. A groundbreaking approach was envisioned: solar-powered equipment.


Clean Air Lawn Care in Raleigh, N.C., uses electric lawn care equipment, powered primarily by solar panels mounted atop its trucks. The equipment is small enough to easily fit in the back of the truck, where it is constantly charged.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF CLEAN AIR LAWN CARE RALEIGH.

In its January 2010 issue, Entrepreneur magazine named Clean Air founder and CEO Kelly Giard its 2009 Emerging Entrepreneur of the year, noting that the firm’s “sales multiplied from just $7,000 in 2006 to more than half a million dollars in 2008,” and that the company has managed to open franchises in 32 territories at a time when national franchise figures are falling.

Not surprisingly, Clean Air Lawn Care’s reliance on electric equipment means taking a much different approach than most lawn care companies. Most notably, the equipment is smaller, so the company targets mainly smaller lawns. Michael Andre, owner of two Clean Air Lawn Care franchises around Raleigh, N.C., (www.cleanairlawncareraleigh.com), is one of dozens of franchise owners around the country who have found that the formula works. “A majority of our customers search us out because of how we do things. There are a few who stumble upon us and don’t know anything about us, but when they do talk to us, they’re happy about how we work,” Andre explains.

Clean Air Lawn Care uses Toyota Tacoma pick-ups with solar panels mounted on the cab roof using Yakima rack systems. The 210-volt solar panel sends power into two deep-cycle batteries, and from there the power is drawn through an inverter to charge the mower batteries. “They’re four-cylinder Toyotas, so they’re efficient,” says Andre. Each truck is really its own power plant. Andre says anything with a regular power cord can be plugged in. “It’s a very neat system. It’s just like plugging something into the wall. I use it mostly for recharging 18-volt and 24-volt batteries for some of the lawn equipment that we use.”


Michael Andre operates two Clean Air Lawn Care franchises in the Raleigh, N.C., area.

Clean Air Lawn Care uses walk-behind mowers from both Neuton and Black & Decker, with blowers and trimmers from the latter manufacturer. Andre says that while the company focuses on marketing the emissions-free qualities of its equipment, another benefit is that the electric mowers, trimmers and blowers tend to be very quiet. “I think it’s huge for us,” he explains of the noise reduction. “Obviously, there are health concerns involved, not only with the noise, but the exhaust our crew would have to breath in on a daily basis.”

Clients may not initially realize how quiet the electric mowers are, but appreciate the fact once they see them operate. “Some of them are surprised when they see us walking on their lawns because they didn’t hear a mower, so they didn’t realize we were even there,” Andre points out. Especially in neighborhood settings, the noise reduction can be a popular selling point.

Black & Decker recently designed a new mower with a 20-inch cut and removable battery system to help meet Clean Air’s needs. The prior model’s battery was permanently mounted, meaning that once the battery was out of juice, it was necessary to switch to a new mower until it could be recharged.

Targeting smaller lawns opens up a niche market that many lawn maintenance firms are reluctant to take on, or whose large equipment makes it impractical to service. However, Andre decided to add another environmentally minded piece of equipment to help him be able to service larger lawns. “I purchased a Kubota diesel riding mower that I use with B100 biodiesel,” he explains.

Andre works with one full-time employee, and this mower allows them to work more efficiently on bigger properties. “It’s been a huge help,” says Andre. “It gives us the versatility to take on any size yard. And, by using B100 biodiesel, it lets us offer something that most others aren’t able to. We’re fortunate to have some good suppliers of biofuels in this area. It fits our environmental model very well.”

Andre says that because Clean Air Lawn Care is a national company, it continually has access to new equipment for testing. “It’s an interesting time, because more companies are starting to make electric equipment, they’re using lithium ion batteries, and there are electric zero-turn mowers on the market now,” he explains. “Since we are a franchise, our headquarters tests out a lot of new equipment for us and makes recommendations about what they find works well.”

In addition to electric equipment, Clean Air Lawn Care uses only organic-based fertilizer. “We get it from a number of different suppliers. Some of it’s liquid and some of it’s granular,” Andre explains. “Organic fertilizers are starting to come around, so we’re continually testing and evaluating new products.” He says that customers appreciate the use of these organic fertilizers, and that they’re a good match with the company’s model of using environmentally friendly electric mowers. In some cases, Clean Air Lawn Care franchise owners in the same geographic area are able to put in joint orders together on supplies, such as fertilizer, in order to get better pricing, and also have joined together in marketing efforts to reduce advertising costs for both.

On a national level, Clean Air Lawn Care founder Kelly Giard told Entrepreneur magazine that he aims to open 500 locations in the next 10 years, and the company is currently partnering with Black & Decker to produce larger, more powerful mowers and equipment.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.