It’s Easy Being Green
The R+W guide to making your shop environmentally friendly—without breaking the bank.
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Accidents happen, and Charley Wilson completely understands that. Leaks, spills, ruptures—it’s all part of the daily grind of working on vehicles.
The often-negative consequences of those accidents, though, are something Wilson can’t accept.
“An oil leak or a split radiator hose shouldn’t mean fluid all over your shop and it shouldn’t mean taking the time to clean up and fix this problem,” he says. “Have a plan. If I’m pulling this radiator hose, where’s the fluid going to go? If this thing I’m working on leaks, where is that leak going to come from? Identify it and put a pan down, or something to prevent it from hitting the floor.”
Wilson is the owner of The Organic Mechanic, an Asheville, N.C., shop that takes its environmental responsibility as a business very seriously. While his shop implements a number of much grander-scale green initiatives, Wilson says it’s that focus on the little things that makes the difference.
“You can go buy solar panels and radiant floor heating and build your whole shop out of peat moss if you want, but it’s really about a whole process of continual improvement,” he says. “It’s a mindset of looking for the best ways of doing things. These are all things that are good for the environment, yes, but they help your shop’s efficiency and they’re going to save you money.”
“Green” is all about business efficiency, says Pam Evans, coordinator for the Alameda County Green Business Program, which operates as part of the California Green Business Program (CGBP). While the intended purposes of organizations like Evans’ are to help businesses become environmental leaders through a certification process, she says that ultimately, becoming a green business will go far beyond that.
“It’s about making choices that improve your business,” she says. “In the end, it’s something that’s going to really help your bottom line.”
Evans helped create the requirements for the CGBP’s auto repair program. She works regularly with facilities, and she helped Ratchet+Wrench outline the specifics of what a shop can do to become a green business on a tight budget.
Why Green Matters Reason No. 1:
“Most shops we work with don’t enter into the program to save money, but nearly every time, it ends up that they do. Some save significant amounts in utilities and product costs. It’ll depend on your business and its specifics, but any time you’re making things more efficient, you’re going to be saving money.” —Pam Evans, coordinator, Alameda County (Calif.) Green Business Program
Since opening The Organic Mechanic in 2003, Wilson is now in his fourth location (it is still a single-shop operation). The shop has grown steadily, snatching up more market share and expanding its customer base. All of that growth has led to bigger and better facilities.
As the business expanded, so did its environmental practices.
“Sometimes you’re limited by your facility, your mechanics, whatever it is,” Wilson, 40, says. “If you’re just a shade-tree mechanic, doing repairs in your driveway or a smaller shop, as you grow a little bit, you can add some more things, and as your business comes into its own, you can keep building on it.”
Wilson started simple by focusing on the little things. Spill prevention was a large one, and he’s always used recycled oil. And, in nearly 10 years of operations, he’s never had a dumpster at his facility.
“I see them at other shops, and I wonder what they even need it for,” he says. “You can recycle or reuse pretty much everything that comes into your shop. We use one garbage bin for our entire shop, just one normal-sized bin. Everything else is recycled.”
As his shop has grown, Wilson has done some more elaborate green initiatives. His current location, which he built in 2009, was designed so that it can be repurposed as another business if he were to ever move again, or have to sell. The bays are separated with walls, and the front office, in a separate building along the street, more closely resembles a neighborhood home than a repair shop.
“We didn’t want it to be an eyesore, and we didn’t want someone to take over that building someday and have to tear it down to have it meet their needs,” he says.
The facility also includes radiant heating in the shop floor and a highly effective drainage system in the parking lot. The lot is graded toward a central location where Wilson installed permeable pavement with a filter system beneath it—all custom designed by a local landscape architect. Any wastewater (which would include oil slicks from parked vehicles) gathers in that central area and goes through the filter system, which Wilson likened to a “giant Brita water filter.”
“There are things I was able to do as I grew and had the opportunities come up,” he says. “Pretty much all of them save me money in some way, but more importantly, I know that my business has a positive impact on my community. And my customers seem to appreciate that.”
Why Green Matters Reason No. 2:
“Our industry has a number of negative stereotypes—dishonest, dirty, grease everywhere. That’s warranted in some places, I guess, but our industry has really come a long way. This is a way to show that, it’s a way to show customers that our industry is one that cares about the areas in which we operate.” —Charley Wilson, owner, The Organic Mechanic
Bruce Howes not only loves what he does, but more importantly, where he does it.
Atlantic Motorcar Center is located in Wiscasset, Maine, a small town on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s beautiful, and it’s one of the reasons I opened the shop here,” says Howes, who’d worked in the Buffalo, N.Y., area for the first 17 years of his career before moving to Maine and opening Atlantic Motorcar in 2003. “We want to provide a service to the community up here, and we want to do it in a way that isn’t detrimental to the environment.”
Howes repurposed a former state emissions inspection facility to create his shop. Today, his facility is a pristine example of luxury and functionality. Atlantic mostly services high-end vehicles, due in part to its European-maker focus and the affluence of the area. Its green features are important to customers, Howes says, as “Maine is an environmental conscience area.”
Recycling, LED signs, high-efficiency fluorescent indoor lighting—Howes’ shop has many of the common green components. His facility also includes aluminum-and-glass garage doors to lend natural light to the shop floor (at a cost of roughly $8,000 each). And he orders inventory in bulk and stores it all in metal cabinets to cut down on paper waste.
Many of the green initiatives are relatively new innovations to make the facility more comfortable for customers and employees, Howes says. However, one of Atlantic Motorcar Center’s most utilized green practices is rooted in a very traditional operations mindset: repair over replacement.
“We try to fix everything, instead of simply replacing it,” Howes says. “That goes for everything in the business, too. Any equipment or electrical appliances, and, of course, with customers’ vehicles.”
Not only does it reduce waste, but it makes his shop money. And “figuring out how to fix things” is one of the best ways to fully understand aspects of the vehicles his staff works on, Howes says. For instance, his staff developed a repair procedure for the retractable roof on MINI Cooper convertibles, something dealerships always replace.
“With any of this stuff, the focus needs to be on what it’s going to do for your business and for your customers and community.”
Why Green Matters Reason No. 3:
“Every employee wants to feel like their employer has their best interests in mind, and putting in things that improve their workplace demonstrates that. We have a bright workshop with tons of natural light. Our glass garage doors let in that light and they also let our technicians have an outside view while they work. It seems to help a great deal with our employee morale.” —Bruce Howes, owner, Atlantic Motor Car Center
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