Interesting things happened to Joel Solly after he joined and helped establish an indoor air cleaning company in 1993 and spent a couple of years perfecting how to clean ventilation ducts without using harsh chemicals.
He found out the same proprietary tea tree oil blend he developed for Indoor Air Professionals made a great air purifying gel, spray and wipes for use on boats, in RVs and other motor vehicles, and in homes and commercial buildings – as well as on humans, dogs and horses.
The Lancaster-based company recently released the fourth product in its Kanberra line: hand soap.
Kanberra may not be a household name in the U.S. – or even Western New York – but the unique ability of its products to clean and deodorize surfaces and the air, without leaving covered-up, lingering odors, has created a buzz in the marine trade, including the U.S. Navy, which uses Solly’s company to clean its ships around the globe.
“We’re not Sahlen’s or Weber’s mustard today, but we’re a unique brand that’s worldwide. I’m selling gel into Europe and through Canada. We’re on Amazon Japan,” said Solly, CEO of both business brands.
Solly, 50, grew up in Colden and still lives in the town. He holds an industrial engineering degree from the University at Buffalo. He started his career in the heating, air conditioning and sheet metal business in 1989 before he helped launch Indoor Air Professionals. He has aspired to live a green life since his father died a quarter-century ago at age 47 from asbestos-related cancer.
He spun off Kanberra in 2008, after the tea tree gel that he, his workers and his friends were using in their cars and RVs found a bigger market.
Q. You stress you’re not making air freshener?
As the tea tree oil gets airborne through the evaporation process of the water, the blend of the oils destroys organics that cause odor, rather than masking. Our big pet peeve is when someone calls it another air freshener. I trademarked the name “all-natural air purifier.” When you purify air, you’re removing the contamination that’s causing the problem. You’re removing the source. The best analogy I can give you is someone has a wet dog and it runs around the house and they have wet dog smell, they spray it with cherry Febreze, now they have cherry wet dog smell. Spray it with Kanberra, you have nothing but clean air smell.
Q. How did Kanberra begin?
When we started cleaning ventilation systems, there wasn’t any technology to do this. We had to invent everything as we went. It started around the invention of an air nozzle from Sweden, called a Collom duct cleaning nozzle. That’s what formed the thought to start Indoor Air Professionals. We had this really unique technology that could go into duct systems and clean them really efficiently and more thoroughly by using high-volume compressed air that would send these nozzles down long lengths for duct work without needing a lot of access points. It did an amazing job of cleaning all four sides of rectangular duct work and all surfaces of circular duct work. That’s the main reason we got into the Navy. They couldn’t figure out how to clean duct work systems because you can’t add access points to naval ships because you degrade the water tightness of the ship.
We became so good at cleaning ventilation systems that the next step is to sanitize those systems. The only sanitizing systems that were available were heavy chemical sanitizers, chlorine-based or Quaternary (ammonium)-based. It never sat well with me that we would do all this work to clean your ventilation system and make it really healthy to breathe, and then spray in heavy amounts of chemicals to sanitize. In the mid-’90s, we stumbled upon pure Australian tea tree oil, one of the most essential oils there is for its anti-microbial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. All those things are great for ventilation systems and providing sterile, clean air. Pure tea tree oil is known for all kinds of uses, from dandruff to acne to head lice, toe fungus and on and on. ... That’s how it started. We would clean ventilation systems and we made the product into a water-based gel form. The way it works is that as air moves over the gel, it evaporates the water and lifts the oil in the air. Now tea tree oil is active in your ventilation system. That worked so well in every place we put it that we started putting it in our cars and our boats and RVs and sports bags and second homes, anything that had odor. It worked every single time.
Q. How has Kanberra moved since its start?
We got a real big start quickly in the boat industry. Boaters found out about us very quickly, especially those with mega-yachts. Those multimillion-dollar yachts you see on TV can’t afford to have odor. They heard about our products, called us up, asked if it’d work in a mega-yacht and – true story – we asked, “What’s a mega-yacht?” These are 300-foot and bigger. A yacht chandlery in Fort Lauderdale, the largest in the world, took our product on immediately and started buying large quantities of it. It started to spread to the mega-yacht market very quickly worldwide and it’s kind of what got us started so quickly.
We still sold it for ventilation cleaning and Indoor Air Quality, but the marine business launched us more quickly. We started doing all the boat shows, from Fort Lauderdale to Monaco, and became a brand name in boating.
The next thing we did was get into RVs and pets. Anything that has odor and that sits or doesn’t get used a lot are prime opportunities for the gel.
But through the mega-yacht distribution, they started asking for other products using the same blend of tea tree oils that we made. We then came out with a Kanberra spray. The spray is very unique because it not only can be used to clean the air - for bathrooms and garbage and pet odor - it can also be used as a surface cleaner. Tea tree oil is a very good de-greaser and cleaner. It not only removes the odor but cleans. The blend is also a natural insect repellent, so you can use it on your skin or your pets. It’s great for fleas or ticks, or hot spots on dogs. Equestrian people use it on their horses to keep black flies away during trail rides. They use the Kanberra Wipes, the third product we made, to wipe the horses down and shine the coat. The wipes also can be used to shine stainless steel appliances. I have people who spray the spray on their dreadlocks so they don’t have stinky hair. We’ve not so many testimonials, you wouldn’t believe it.
Q. How was the soap developed and what are some of its most common uses?
Selfishly, a lot of the products were developed for my own use because I drive a diesel pickup truck. The worse thing when you pump diesel is that no matter how careful you are, you get something on your hands and you smell of diesel all day no matter how many times you wash your hands. The only thing I’ve found to get rid of diesel smell quickly is the Kanberra blend of tea tree oil…
Q. Where can you buy the products, particularly the soap, and how much does it cost?
The soap at 200 milliliters, is $9.99. Locally, people can punch in their ZIP codes on our website, kanberragel.com, to find the closest store near them. We have pet stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and general merchandise stores in the Western New York area. The independent retail stores are the early adopters.
Q. Working on any other products?
We are. We have three more in the pipeline. I can talk about one. We’re making a shammy cream for cycling. It’s an anti-chaffing cream. It’ll be the first shammy cream that has the properties of tea tree oil. I’m an avid cyclist and bicycle racer. Pretty much everything I’ve done is because I can’t find something out there that does what it’s supposed to.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon