Herb Hauls grew up far from environmental nirvana, in an asphalt-heavy North Philadelphia neighborhood where buses and cars junked up the air and blades of grass were few.
He earned a degree in electrical engineering at Drexel University, working first at Peco Energy Co. and then for the Navy in ship acquisitions, overseeing vessels' electric plants and control systems. He cleared six figures last year, he said.
Now, he's mowing lawns for a living.
This is not an act of desperation. It's a fully reasoned career switch based on a belief that Philadelphians, no matter how tiny their allotment of turf, and their lawn-rich suburban counterparts will have an environmental conscience akin to that of property owners in other parts of the country - and will be willing to open their wallets to back it up.
Hauls' Clean Air Lawn Care launched in January from his home in East Mount Airy, becoming the first Pennsylvania franchise of a Colorado company started in 2006 that remains unique in its offerings. A second franchise opened May 1 - to serve 10 zip codes from Overbrook through the Main Line - owned by former banker Kelly Min, 49, of Wayne. (New Jersey and Delaware have none.)
As the name implies, Clean Air is more than organic treatment of soil and the green stuff it sprouts. Non-chemical alternatives have been around for at least 20 years.
It's what's on each of its trucks that distinguishes Clean Air: a roof-mounted, 135-watt, 12-volt solar panel and an inverter to charge its all-electric equipment for mowing (except for ride-ons), trimming, and blowing.
"It's a great talking point," Hauls said of his solar-powered offerings. "Whether people care is another issue. I don't think we have on the East Coast as environmentally conscious people as on the West Coast. It's a matter of educating."
Clean Air's website (cleanairlawncare.com) does some of that with the following assertions:
That its electric mowers emit 3,300 times fewer hydrocarbons, 5,000 times less carbon monoxide, and one-fifth as much nitric oxide as gas lawn mowers. Emissions are reduced to zero when the equipment runs on renewable energy.
That the electric equipment is 50 percent to 70 percent quieter than gas-powered.
That gas-powered lawn equipment contributes 5 percent to 10 percent of U.S. air pollution annually.
"It's a niche, for sure," Kelly Giard, founder and CEO of Clean Air, said of the company he started from his garage in Fort Collins, Colo., while he was still a stockbroker. It emerged from boredom and a desire to start a company with the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profits, he said.
At the time, electric lawn-care equipment was not nearly as reliable as it is now, but the consumer response to what Giard was offering was robust, even at a 10 percent to 15 percent premium over traditional professional services, he said.
So Clean Air decided to franchise, selling the first in Portland, Ore., in 2008, and the second in Marin County, Calif. Franchise fees are $25,000 to $35,000, with royalty options ranging from 7.5 percent to 8.5 percent.
There are now close to 55 in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Revenue has been increasing 35 percent year over year, said Giard, Entrepreneur magazine's emerging entrepreneur of 2009.
"We think the consumer is waking up to what we do," he said.
Donna Palmer of Roxborough has, having lost two dogs to diseases she attributed to the chemical fertilizers and insecticides her husband, Darryl, was using to rid their lawn of pests. An Internet search offered few organic options, with no one but Hauls also featuring solar-powered equipment, she said.
"I thought it was kind of impressive," Palmer said. "We can't keep on contaminating the environment."
Hauls is trying to reclaim the Palmers' lawn from moles, doing grub control with beneficial nematodes and milky spore. A spring cleanup included aeration, seeding, and applying topsoil and compost. Fertilizer treatments including granular food and compost tea are next.
Clean Air franchisees can expect annual revenue of $100,000 to $150,000 within three to five years, Giard said.
"It's not a get-rich-quick kind of business," he said. "It's one customer at a time."
Hauls, 33, is living off his Navy-work savings and rental-property income as he devotes this grass-cutting season to becoming known. With one truck and one employee, he expects to bring in about $25,000 this year, and, after that, quickly grow to 20 trucks and 40 to 50 employees.
"Ultimately, I want to own my own farm and grow my own organic food and do composting to supply other landscaping companies," he said.
A far cry, indeed, from Airdrie Street in North Philadelphia.
Herb Hauls, Pa.'s first Clean Air Lawn Care franchisee, explains features of his eco- friendly business. www.inquirer.com/businessEndText