Leaf blowers: out of gas?

Print More

There’s always been a lot of noise coming out of Washington, D.C., but starting this year, there may be a little less.  

That’s because the District has banned what to some people are the noisiest, most annoying devices ever invented: gas-powered leaf blowers. Effective Jan. 1, a D.C. law passed in 2018 bans the sale and use of these machines. Businesses or individuals that use gas-powered leaf blowers face fines of up to $500 for each offense. The D.C. suburb of Chevy Chase, Md., also has banned them.

“Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers Are Prohibited” sign posted by town of Chevy Chase, Md.

More than 100 U.S. cities and towns—Long Beach, Calif.; Greenwich, Conn.; Naples, Fla; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Lexington, Mass.; and Larchmont, N.Y., just to name a few—now prohibit or limit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. California will ban their sale statewide starting in 2024.

In New York, two bills are pending that would ban the sale or restrict the use of gas-powered leaf blowers throughout the state.

What’s behind the recent moves against these devices? Will Rochester or local towns follow suit?

Gas-powered leaf blowers became popular beginning in the late-1970s—and have been disturbing the quiet of our homes and neighborhoods ever since. Back in 1988, in an essay entitled, “I Hear America Mowing,” I described gas-powered lawn equipment moving from house to house in my neighborhood as a “tag team of noise pollution.” And yet even today, I, myself, contribute to the racket: unable to find a local lawn service that uses quieter, electric equipment, I employ one with gas-powered mowers and blowers as noisy as any.

The most-hated appliance?

Leaf blowers have long inspired put-downs and jibes from environmentalists and eco-conscious writers:  

  • A group called Noise Free America, declares leaf blowers the “scourge of humanity.”   
  • Satirist and critic Joe Queenan puts leaf blowers on a short list of things that should be “de-invented.”
  • Australians rate leaf blowers No. 1 on a list of “hated appliances.”
  • Author Margaret Renkle, in an essay titled “The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Leaf Blowers,” calls leaf blowers “the most maddening” of all tools of the American lawn-care industry, compares them to “mechanical locusts, then says the comparison is “unfair to locusts.” 

What is it about this device that inspires such wrath? Critics point to three concerns: chemical emissions, noise, and particulate pollution.

 Emissions. Most gas-powered leaf blowers use a two-stroke engine that burns a mix of oil and gasoline. These engines emit ozone-forming chemicals that harm people and the environment. According to the California Environmental Protection Agency, operating a commercial leaf blower for one hour emits more pollution than driving a 2016 Toyota Camry for about 1,100 miles, or roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Denver.

  Edmunds, the automotive information firm, puts it this way: a two-stroke leaf blower emits 23 times the amount of carbon released by a Ford pickup truck. Emissions of hydrocarbon from a leaf blower in a half-hour of yard work are “about the same as (driving a Ford pickup) 3,900-miles from Texas to Alaska.”

■ Noise. Gas leaf blowers typically operate at between 70 and 100 decibels—in the range of a jet taking off—and with long exposure can cause tinnitus, hearing loss, and contribute to hypertension and coronary heart disease.  Moreover, the sound’s low frequency allows it to travel long distances and penetrate walls. One study, reported by the Centers for Disease Control, looked at the decibel level of a leaf blower from the origin point to 800 feet away. “While the leaf blowers were over 100 (decibels) at the source and decreased over distance, the low frequency component persisted at a high level.” This may explain why sound from one leaf blower can disturb residents throughout a neighborhood inside their homes.

 ■ Particulate pollution. Leaf blowers can push dirt and dust into the air at speeds of more than 200 miles per hour. The resulting dust clouds contain potentially harmful substances linked to cancers, heart disease and asthma, including fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, mold, and fecal matter from rodents, birds, and other animals. Moreover, high-powered air blasts aimed at the ground erode topsoil and demolish seeds, plant spores, and the habitats of bees and other insects and small animals integral to the immediate ecosystem.

In regard to all these concerns—chemicals, noise, and particulate pollution—workers who spend hours a day with this equipment are most at risk.

The pandemic effect

 Gas-powered leaf blowers have been with us for decades, so why the push now for bans and restrictions?

Environmental concerns—including climate change—are certainly one reason, but I think another factor is that the pandemic forced many people to work from home. For many remote workers, these last couple of years have been the first time they’ve been exposed on a regular, daily basis to the noise, fumes, and dust from leaf blowers. (This may also explain why Beverly Hills, Calif.,—where many screenwriters have always worked from home—passed the first leaf blower ban back in 1978.)

State and local measures

State Sen. John Liu

State Sen. John Liu, D-Queens, has introduced S. 1113, a bill that would prohibit use of gas-powered leaf blowers from May 1 to Sept. 30. An Assembly version of Liu’s bill, A. 5375, was introduced by Jeffrey Dinowitz of the Bronx. 

Another bill, S. 7462, introduced by Sen. Pete Harckham, D-Peekskill, would ban the sale of all non-electric lawn equipment (mowers and trimmers as well as leaf blowers) by 2027. 

Both bills, which would have effect statewide, have been referred to committee. 

The bills have sparked controversy. Illustrative are these comments, excerpted from posts on a state legislative website in response to the Liu’s bill to prohibit use of gas-powered leaf blowers during the summer:

For

Yes! Please do all you can to pass this bill…we are tortured 10.5mos of the year every day by these vile machines!

With many of us stuck at home due to COVID-19, the irritation and dangers of gas -powered leaf blowers are ever more apparent.

Leaf blowers are a massive nuisance and disturb the peace and quiet of anyone who is trying to enjoy their yard (or even inside). No other noise like this is tolerated. 

 Against

A ban is a short-sighted feel good reaction based on half truths. A ban would increase lawn care costs for everyone and create social injustices for landscapers, poor, middle class, and fixed income households

I service mostly middle class and poor neighborhoods and the leaf blower democratizes the ability to have a clean yard at an affordable price.

The ban in effect will be a cost increase by a factor of 2-3x for leaf cleanups, and [middle-class] yards will deteriorate as businesses leave them and compete for the wealthy customer. 

I invited several state legislators from the Rochester area to comment on these bills, but none did so; neither did Rochester Mayor Malik Evans’ office. I also contacted two suburban towns on the question of local laws.

The town of Penfield “regularly explores ways to be better stewards of the environment,” wrote spokesperson Chris Tanea, but it “has no current plans to implement mandates that restrict the use of gas-powered lawn care tools.”

Pittsford Town Supervisor William Smith likewise says there is “no such measure currently being considered in Pittsford.”

Retailers gear up

The lawn equipment industry is already retooling to accommodate what the Wall Street Journal recently has called “a gas-to-electric revolution” taking place across American lawns.

Just this year, LandPro Equipment, a John Deere dealer in Central and Western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, began offering a full line of electric-powered lawn equipment made by the Chinese company, Greenworks. “A lot of customers are inquiring about these products,” Tom Sutter, LandPro’s vice president for sales, told me.

LandPro offers Greenworks products at its stores in Macedon, Avon, and Brockport.  

Sutter says customers for the electric products so far are commercial lawn-care firms that service government facilities, universities, and schools—”where green equipment is an incentive to gain contracts,” he explains. 

The total cost, says Sutter, for a commercial-sized, backpack leaf blower—capable of blowing at 160 mph—is $568. That includes $329 for the blower, $169 for an 82-volt battery, and $70 for a charger. A comparable gas-powered backpack blower would run $499. 

Customers would recoup the extra costs in about two years, he says, because the electric blower uses no gas or oil, and does not require replacement of engine filters or most other maintenance.

‘No emissions. Little noise. Beautiful lawns.’

While I haven’t found a Rochester-area lawncare company that services private homes using electric equipment, I did discover in the D.C. area Solar Mowing, based in Bethesda, Md.  Their slogan: “No emissions. Little noise. Beautiful lawns.”

Founded in 2009 by Lyn DeWitt and now co-managed by her daughter, Anna DeWitt Kelly, and Randall Hitchins, Solar Mowing uses all electric mowers and blowers.  They even charge batteries using solar energy sources (with wind energy sources as a backup).  

“If you’re using electric equipment but recharging with energy based on fossil fuels,” says Kelly, “you’re putting lipstick on a pig.”

Solar Mowing co-managers Anna DeWitt Kelly and Randall Hitchins, with founder Lyn DeWitt, right, check out recycling bin with company logo in downtown Bethesda, Md.

Solar Mowing, with three full-time and three or four part-time employees, services about 180 residential customers in D.C. and the northwest suburbs. 

 I asked Kelly if the electric blowers are strong enough.

 “The blowers we’re using this year—80-volt Greenworks backpack blowers—are fantastic,” she says, noting that in the 14 years they’ve been in business, “the technology of this equipment—including batteries—has improved at least 10-fold.” Typical gas-powered blowers, she says, are “overkill.” 

But don’t powerful electric blowers cause the same kind of particulate pollution as gas blowers?

“Our electric leaf blowers have three speeds,” DeWitt told me, “so we aren’t using a big blast when it’s not needed. Most of our blowing and clearing is on hardscapes—driveways, streets, walkways, etc.—where we’re moving grass clippings and other debris off one surface onto another. We don’t use blowers on soil or mulched areas.”

 Do they ever just use rakes?

“We use rakes all the time!” she said.  “We rake between shrubs and on surfaces that we only want to clear but not disturb.”

The only expensive upfront cost for them, says Kelly, is buying extra batteries, which run a couple of hundred dollars each. As a commercial firm, they need extras because batteries provide only an hour or two of running time, so during the course of a full workday, they’ll swap out batteries several times. 

 “But over time,” says Kelly, “because there’s no need for gas and hardly any maintenance on the electric equipment, the costs (compared to gas-powered) even out.”

Are they able to offer their services at a competitive rate?

Company founder DeWitt acknowledges that many Solar Mower customers are affluent. “We’re in fairly well-off ZIP codes where many would be willing to pay more, if necessary, for green services.  But some years ago, we did a price comparison with other lawn-care services in the area and our prices were right in the range.”

 “We might even cost less,” adds Kelly, “because we don’t mow as often. We don’t mow by the calendar—every week—we mow when it’s needed. We also let clippings lie, so our lawns are healthier.” 

Solar Mowing has certainly benefited from local laws banning gas-powered equipment. Do they support passage of more of those laws?

“Small engines are horrible—worse than cars—and we shouldn’t pollute just to trim our lawn,” says Kelly. “If laws can force companies to change and bring awareness to the issue, then that’s a good thing.”

We’re all concerned about the environment—and the air, noise, and particulate pollution caused by gas-powered leaf blowers certainly raises serious red flags.  And yet, questions about whether government should ban these devices get complicated, especially when we consider the costs involved for owners of small businesses and homeowners. It seems to me if there’s enough demand in the market, change will happen.

So, if a firm like Solar Mowing would like to open shop in Rochester—sign me up.

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].

One thought on “Leaf blowers: out of gas?

  1. I have always found leaf-blower noise close to unbearable, and observing others blowing leaves and grass clippings around — often on public land, paid for by tax dollars — underlines how pointless the practice is. But now that I know how jaw-droppingly horrible the environmental damage is, it’s clear that these beasts need to be phased out. Having owned property in leafy areas for 35 years, we’ve always done just fine with a light raking once a year (and we move most of those leaves to our flowerbeds and/or compost bins). Most important, though: Why are homeowners as a group so passionate to get rid of leaves? They provide free mulch, preserve soil moisture, suppress weeds, and create habitat and food for butterflies, moths and birds. Sure, thinning out the leaf cover benefits many grasses that need sunlight and air, but one or two late-season mows will turn them into mulch that can remain in place. (And, yes, a push mower or even an electric one is WAY better than gas-powered.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.