It’s a sunny afternoon, and two lawn-care crews are preparing to do their thing at residences along Bothell’s Northeast 190th Street.
On one side of the road is the rare sight of a Toyota Tacoma with a solar panel perched on its roof.
Signs on the truck read “Clean Air Lawn Care.”
Across the street is an ’80s-model pickup belonging to the other crew. Its exhaust pipe is belching burnt-oil fumes while the owner revs its engine to avoid a backfire.
Peter Hamilton motions toward the smoke before starting his electric weed whip.
“Talk about a case in point,” he says.
Hamilton is the owner of a Bothell-based Clean Air Lawn Care franchise — one of five in the state of Washington.
The company’s goal is to transform a highly polluting service into one that is environmentally friendly.
“It’s a great business model,” Hamilton said. “You feel like you’re doing the right thing and being profitable about it at the same time.”
Clean Air franchises use electric equipment whenever possible, and buy renewable-energy credits to offset emissions when they can’t.
The solar panels mounted on the roofs of their trucks produce clean energy for the equipment.
Most of Hamilton’s gear is battery-powered, which means he spends around $10 a month on electricity bills rather than paying more than $3 a gallon at the pump every day.
He uses electric push mowers, weed whips, edgers and blowers, as well as a large walk-behind mower that runs on bio-diesel.
Hamilton estimates that he can trim five 1,500-square-foot residential lots without having to do a recharge.
Part of the reason is because his crews perform much of their work by hand.
“We go out of our way to not make the equipment do the work for us,” he said. “If there’s a single leaf sitting in a corner, we’re not going to use a blower on it.”
Hamilton claims his gear leaves nothing to be desired in terms of power.
That’s not to suggest there isn’t room for improvement.
The existing mowers don’t have interchangeable batteries, which means crews have to swap machines when they run low on juice.
It currently takes several mowers for each person to complete a day’s work.
Clean Air has partnered with manufacturer Black and Decker to develop new equipment that will feature interchangeable batteries.
The machines will allow crews to exchange energy cells instead of mowers while on the job.
Black and Decker is also working other improvements, like deck size, RPM production and the capacity to use high-efficiency lithium ion batteries.
“One of our missions is pushing the industry to develop better technology,” said crew manager Sean Alter.
The theory is that product quality will improve as demand grows.
Clean Air strives to be sustainable from top to bottom. Its franchises deliver their yard waste to recycling centers and also use a paperless billing system.
“It’s not much different from your cell-phone plan,” Hamilton said.
The Northshore crew charges around $35 a week to maintain an average residential lot in the Northshore area.
The franchise is partnered with In Harmony, a sustainable landscape-design company based in Bothell.
Hamilton gets most of his referrals from that company, and the businesses work together on scheduling. The idea is to create a smooth transition between landscape creation and the maintenance that is later required.
“In most people’s eyes, we’re almost the same business,” Alter said. “We just bill on separate sheets.”
Clean Air started in 2006 as the brainchild of Kelly Giard, a Walla Walla native who owns a stock brokerage business in Fort Collins, Colo.
His lawn-maintenance company has grown to include 20 franchises in the U.S.
Hamilton, 26, is a University of Texas grad whose interests used to align more with film and music than mowing lawns.
He became a member of the Seattle Opera after moving to Washington, but had to work in construction and Internet marketing to pay the bills.
“I sort of learned the contractor’s way of life,” Hamilton said. “It got me turned on to the entrepreneurial spirit of the Northwest.”
He would rely on that ethos as Giard put him straight to work in a territory that was previously uncharted by Clean Air.
“The day I met Kelly, we went down and bought a new Toyota Tacoma for work,” Hamilton said. “I got started that same day.”
Hamilton now has three crews that cover everything north of Interstate 90 and east of Puget Sound.
His franchise receives up to six estimate requests per day, and the intake rate is around 90 percent.
“It’s been an easy sell,” Hamilton said. “We don’t even feel like sales people because we care so much about what we’re doing.”