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Natural Awakenings Austin

Community Spotlight - Curbing Critters without Chemicals

by Sandra Yeyati

When Rick Hansen graduated from college in 1974, he took a parttime job as a pest control technician— they called them “exterminators” back then. Within six months, he found himself in the basement of a furniture store with hundreds of rats. “There were no lights. You could see them in the flashlight. They didn’t chase me, but I got creepy crawly with them,” Hansen says.

Despite the creep factor, Hansen has been in the industry for 39 years, and he is now general manager of Chem-free Organic Pest & Lawn Services, in Austin. “If you like being with people, using your hands and being outside, it’s the perfect job. You can actually fix things and help people,” he says.

Chem-free is the largest green pest control and lawn service company in Austin, and it is growing steadily. Unlike conventional companies, Chem-free technicians do not handle any synthetic chemicals, using only organic or natural materials. Most of their products contain food-grade ingredients, including garlic, rosemary, peppermint, wintergreen, cinnamon and lemongrass. “Compared to zapping bugs on sight with a can of Raid, the products that Chem-free uses will go eight to 10 times farther because we know where to apply them and how to use them,” Hansen says.

The other big difference between Chem-free and a regular pest control company is the amount of time service personnel spend with their customers. While conventional companies rely solely on the chemicals, Chem-free techies work closely with their customers to make adjustments to the house and educate them about best practices.

Their approach, called integrated pest management, begins with a thorough inspection both outside and inside the house, followed by recommendations as to what the customer can do to help, as well as a treatment strategy. After treatment, technicians return every 60 days to inspect again, evaluate the progress and re-treat as needed. The idea is to use the least amount of chemicals possible. “You don’t just spray the baseboards,” Hansen explains. “You want to treat the cracks and crevices where the insects are entering the house.”

Homeowners are advised to keep their grass cut short and to trim tree limbs so they don’t touch the house. Ideally, there should be a two-foot berm around the home where there are no plants, firewood, mulch or other items, which act like bridges to the interior and also provide shade, allowing pests to move more easily. Holes and cracks in the walls, windows, doors and foundation should be sealed, too. Inside the house, homeowners are asked to eliminate food (both pet and human varieties) from floors, behind the refrigerator and under the stove. Regular cleaning is also critical, because dirt and dust will break down the pest control materials.

For termites, a prevalent problem in Austin, Chem-free uses an organic, one-time treatment outside the house that is extremely effective, lasts 13 to 15 years and isn’t toxic to humans or other animals. They offer three options for mosquito control: a liquid or granular treatment to keep the yard mosquito- free for a weekend, a fogging material that eliminates mosquitoes by 80 percent, and a mister installed in the backyard that will reduce the mosquito population by 98 percent.

When it comes to lawn service, Chem-free also takes a unique approach. Unlike other lawn service companies that treat the grass, Chem-free aerates and feeds the soil with an all-natural product that contains seaweed extract, molasses and beneficial microbes to promote root development. “We prefer to do more of a long-term approach,” says Hansen. “The longer you use it, the more it grows. The whole idea is to get the lawn thick enough so that it doesn’t have any weeds.”

The pest and lawn industries are highly regulated, and technicians must comply with strict training requirements. At Chem-free, the initial training period is four to six weeks in the classroom and in the field. Their director of training, a licensed etymologist, teaches the nuts and bolts of pest life cycles, how the chemicals work, safety, how to apply the material and how to operate and fix the equipment. The team also meets every week to discuss new materials, techniques and equipment.

In 2012, Chem-free received the Angie’s List Super Service Award. “We encourage people to check Angie’s List, Yelp and all of those websites. Look us up,” Hansen says proudly, referring to the many glowing customer reviews appearing on these sites, as well as the Chem-free website.

For more information, call 512-837-9681 or visit

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