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Image: Green Garage
Photo courtesy Green Garage
Green Garage opened its first shop in Boulder, Colo., in 2009 and a second shop in Denver last December.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 3/29/2011 7:28:39 AM ET 2011-03-29T11:28:39

Feeling a twinge of guilt as you chug down the highway in your SUV? Now you can now ease your mind with green car tune-ups — no Prius necessary.

Eco-friendly auto shops are popping up nationwide — from Green Garage in Denver to Green Drop Auto Shop in Portland, Ore. — offering green tune-ups for the masses with gas-guzzling vehicles. Think recyclable windshield wipers, biodegradable engine additives, recycled motor oil, low-VOC paint and non-toxic shop cleansers.

“It’s a dirty business, and we want to be in a constant state of learning [about] how we lighten our environmental impact,” said Ryan Ferrera, CEO and “chief car hugger” at Green Garage, which opened its first shop in Boulder, Colo., in 2009 and a second shop in Denver last December.

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These new eco-friendly tune-ups have spawned dozens of green auto products — from EcoTouch, a non-toxic automotive cleaner, to MicroGreen oil filters promising lower oil consumption.

At Green Garage customers pay $70 for the “Drive Good” green tune-up package, which includes an oil filter that lasts up to 6,000 miles and biodegradable oil that lasts up to 24,000 miles. The priciest package, called “Drive Epic,” costs $300 and includes an oil change plus a biodegradable engine additive, nitrogen-filled tires, energy-efficient spark plugs that promise to lower emissions up to 25 percent and an “energy intervention inspection” that gives you the lowdown on how you can save on fuel consumption.

With its hip and minimalist décor, Green Garage aims to shake up the image of a repair shop. It hires “car huggers,” “greens-keepers” and “smileage reps.” It bans Styrofoam cups for coffee. Employees ride bikes and mopeds to pick up customers’ cars and then deliver them once they’re finished.

Revenues at the Denver garage have been doubling every 60 days since the shop opened a few months ago, and sales have grown 400 percent in Boulder over the past year, the company says. Buoyed by more than $1 million from private investors and an advisory board that includes former Chrysler CEO Tom LaSorda and Whole Foods board member Bud Sorenson, the company plans to sell franchises nationwide beginning this month.

The concept won over Kelli Nooning, a 26-year-old Boulder marketing manager. She says she never gave the environment a thought when she took her 2002 Saturn sedan in for a tune-up at the local Saturn dealership. Then she heard Green Garage could cut her gas consumption, so she bought the green oil change, engine lubricants, a new oil filter and nitrogen for her car’s tires. She says she is using less gas and can go 10,000 miles between oil changes.

“I totally believe in it now,” Nooning said. “As long as Green Garage stays in business, I probably won’t go back to a typical dealership.”

Phil Reed, a consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com, is wary of claims that a green service will make a car run better. Edmunds has done testing for fuel efficiency, he notes.

“I would be skeptical of people who say they can do something to your car that can boost fuel efficiency,” Reed said. “There’s little that can be adjusted, tuned up or improved in a way that would improve fuel economy more than just the regular maintenance.”

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The best way to protect the environment, Reed said, is to look out for how a car shop handles, recycles or disposes its hazardous liquids and materials.

An estimated 200 million gallons of oil are improperly disposed of each year into storm sewer drains. That’s dangerous when just one gallon of oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of drinking water.

Auto shops also have been known to use paints and paint thinners, antifreeze, scrap metal, batteries, fuels and acids that contain ingredients linked to lung cancer and other health problems, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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But many mechanics are cleaning up the way they do business and getting green certifications from groups in New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and California. In Oregon alone, 150 car shops — some new and some existing — received green certifications from a quasi-governmental group called Eco-Logical Business Program, or EcoBiz. The voluntary certification program recognizes businesses that reach high standards in environmental protection.

Shop owners say that by going green they can cut operating costs, reduce waste disposal costs, cut long-term liability and improve employee health. They can also benefit from the marketing power of being green, said Brett Hulstrom, chair of Portland’s Eco-Logical Business Program.

“It affects their bottom line,” he said.

Still, there’s no such thing as a completely green auto shop, according to Scott McDougall, president of TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm that runs an eco-certification program called EcoLogo.

McDougall predicts that national eco-standards may emerge for the auto industry within the next five years, which could help consumers sort out misleading claims.

Farhad Ghafarzade, founder and president of Green Drop Garage, a seven-employee auto repair shop in Portland, says too many people believe that driving green means buying a $30,000 hybrid. But the manufacture of any new car eats up natural resources, such as water, electricity and mining of materials, he notes.

“You’re doing a bigger service to the environment by keeping your old car and making sure it lasts longer,” Ghafarzade said.

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