Greener on the inside

Greener on the inside

Features - Formulas for Success

Internal efforts to operate more sustainably can pay off.

May 4, 2012
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

Water, electricity, gasoline: We use these resources daily (and nightly) to run our businesses, generally without considering what would happen if, one morning, the lights didn’t go on and the gas tanks for fueling equipment were dry. Let’s be honest, we tend to take these essential elements for granted.

But that is changing every day. Green industry businesses are tweaking services and rolling out offerings that boast a lower environmental impact. And inside their operations, they are finding ways to waste less and save more.

Frugality is nothing new. But it’s a concept businesses are revisiting with vigor. And it makes sense. Because taking measures to tread lighter on the environment is only natural in the green industry.

“We don’t get credit for being the true environmentalists in lawn care,” says Brad Johnson, president of Lawn America in Tulsa, Okla. “The public sometimes perceives us in an unfavorable light when it comes to being stewards of the planet. But quite the opposite is true. We just use tools, whether fertilizer or herbicides, to help us improve urban environments.”

And the tools and business practices companies adopt on the inside are just as important as the “green” services they offer to customers.

This month, Lawn & Landscape spoke with three firms that are “green” from the inside out. (You can steal their ideas.)

Teach them 'good'

The fleet of 27 spray engines and equipment that Lawn America puts to work on properties in Tulsa, Okla., runs significantly cleaner now that Brad Johnson converted them to propane power. One spray engine emits the pollution of 15 cars – that’s what Johnson read, and he acted. “During spring and fall, those gas engines were running continually,” he says.

So Johnson connected with a propane conversion/supplier at the GIE+Expo and began weaning his equipment fleet off of gas in 2011. He purchased conversion kits for his sprayers – each cost about $200 – and replaced the carburetors and gas tanks.

A converted spray engine looks a lot like a gas grill fixed to the back of Lawn America’s trucks. But this isn’t a beauty contest, it’s an environmental benefit, and Johnson has been committed to such efforts for decades. Johnson is a former science teacher with a wildlife ecology background. Today, he’s educating his employees and customers about efforts like conversion to propane gas and tweaks made to lawn care programs are just the right thing to do.

“Bottom line, these spray engines run cleaner, they are more efficient and they put out significantly less emissions because propane is mainly made from natural gas,” Johnson says. “We feel like we are doing our part, in a small way, to decrease our dependency on foreign oil.”

As for the cost benefit, Johnson isn’t sure if the conversion will completely pay itself off. And he’s not overly concerned about that. “I get that I’m in this to make a profit,” he says, adding that propane does result in less wear and tear on equipment. Spray engines are fueled weekly rather than daily with gas. “We’d be lugging gas cans back and forth, spilling,” he says. Plus, Johnson is taking advantage of a small tax credit because of the equipment conversion.

Aside from converting the spray engines, Johnson reworked his lawn care program to include organic soil amendments that will build the root systems and soil biology.

Also, by including a turf growth regulator in the program, the slower grass growth rate means less mowing for homeowners – every other week during peak growing time.

Teaching customers why Lawn America has made these choices is important for promoting the services and winning new business, Johnson says. So even if the propane conversions don’t pay off quickly, he figures the genuinely earth-minded intentions of his decision could ring in business.

But marketing isn’t the driver, Johnson says. “This is real,” he emphasizes. “There is a real benefit to burning propane in those engines.”

A waste-less office

Little efforts to save energy and reduce waste around the office can make a real monetary impact. And in a small operation where the owner is the office staff, making eco-friendly decisions can be easier. You just decide to make the change, and do it.

Troy Tiedeman, president of Tiedeman in Saginaw, Mich., began making small changes, like reusing the pack of printed papers for scrap notes, in an effort to pinch pennies. “The more we cut back, the more we save,” he says. And in a tough economy for growing a business, every dollar saved matters.

Efforts at Tiedeman LLC began with a paperless billing campaign. It’s not mandatory – clients can still receive their invoices by mail – but the 30 percent of customers who choose the electronic way receive email newsletters with exclusive discount offers.

The paper bulk Tiedeman saves through paperless billing adds up. Figure, the company sends between 100 and 150 invoices per month: paper, ink (for printing), envelopes, and stamps. “We have really cut back dramatically on paper and envelope use,” Tiedeman says. “We used to order [paper supplies] once a month or more, and now we are down to where we order every two to three months.”

Also, Tiedeman reduces all paper communications to no more than two pages. It’s policy now. “If we run over, we will print on the back side,” he says. Not only does the company save paper, it’s less of a hassle to assemble mailings when there is no paper shuffling and stapling.

Meanwhile, during the day, lights are turned off. Also, after researching LED vs. compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, Tiedeman switched out all of the office fixtures to CFL. (The return-on-investment was greater.) With this lighting switch and efforts to power down computers when they are not in use, Tiedeman LLC saves between $15 to $75 per month on its energy bill alone.

The little savings make a big difference all together.

Cutting down carbon emissions

Large corporate commercial clients are asking their vendors, “What’s the sustainability plan?” They are held accountable by shareholders, and by the public, to make environmentally responsible choices. And that includes the landscape firms they hire to care for their properties.

“When you are going to talk about managing all of the Boeing facilities across North America, you better have a pretty cutting-edge environmental sustainability program,” says Scott Bryk, director of environment sustainability for The Grounds Guys.

Most of The Grounds Guys business is commercial/industrial, and more often these clients want to know what their service providers are doing internally – not just while servicing the property – to be kind to the earth. Because of this, Grounds Guys has placed a concerted effort on reducing carbon emissions and is working toward a zero-carbon goal.

But all of this must make budgetary sense, too, says Ron Madera, president of Grounds Guys at the Waco, Texas, headquarters.

So first, Grounds Guys needed to quantify their carbon emissions. The simple way to do that is to figure out how many gallons of gasoline are burned per year, Bryk says. Then pick an average fuel price, and multiply that by the total gallons consumed. This math helped Grounds Guys recognize that vehicles were the culprit for 80 percent of their carbon emissions.

“You get the biggest bang for your buck by focusing on that area where your carbon emissions are focused,” Bryk says, noting that the company launched a multi-year fleet replacement program to move toward biodiesel and hybrid vehicles.

Meanwhile, vehicles are equipped with GPS units that help reduce carbon emissions by monitoring fossil fuel consumption and also tracking how vehicles are used. Route efficiency, driving habits (jack-rabbit stops) – these behaviors all contribute to the carbon emissions equation. And enforcing efficiency behind the wheel is part of training.

Clients also hear about Grounds Guys carbon emissions reduction efforts when they are presented with the company’s environmental sustainability program. Sometimes, this program is what tips the needle when a corporate client is deciding among firms, Bryk says.

After quantifying the carbon emissions, Grounds Guys worked to substantiate those numbers with third-party validation and numbers on the company’s actual carbon footprint. From there, the company has made operational decisions to reduce that. The fleet replacement program is one, and another is the 10-kilowat solar panel installed at the Canadian home office in Ontario, Canada.

In Waco, Texas, a solar installation on the roof of its franchise sales building provided state and federal energy credits and keeps the lights on for the company. “We had a power outage recently and everyone here continued to function while the rest of the town was shut down,” Madera says.

And in effort to reduce waste, Bryk has institute a compost/recycling pilot program where the city’s waste (fruit and veggie material) is delivered to the Grounds Guys site, where it is turned into pellets that can be reused as organic matter. “When we consider the resources we consume and multiply that by all of our franchisees and their employees and customers they touch, there is a huge amount of waste if we are not mindful of the environment,” Madera says.


The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.