When Washington, D.C., banned gas-powered leaf blowers in 2018, the movement started with a small group of residents in the affluent neighborhood of Wesley Heights. Some well-known proponents included Atlantic writer and former presidential speechwriter James Fallows and classical composer Haskell Small. Small composes classical music that his wife, Betsy, has described as an “exploration of the silence within.” The problem with that, of course, is that the incessant noise of leaf blowers in his neighborhood made it much more difficult for Small to explore that silence.
Washington, D.C.’s gas-powered leaf blower ban went into effect on January 1, 2022. Many residents pushed for the ban, including members of a group called Quiet Clean DC. The ban appears to be working so far, and it relies on citizens’ complaints. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs enforces it, and by mid-February, they had already received 52 violation reports. The maximum fine for violations is $500. Battery-powered blowers are still allowed, and gas-powered leaf blowers are permitted on federal land.
Not only does D.C. prohibit the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, but it also bans the sale of the equipment. While a leaf blower ban may seem odd to some folks, these restrictions are becoming more commonplace nationwide. Today, more than 170 municipalities in 31 states regulate gas-powered leaf blowers in some fashion. In California, a new air pollution law phasing out small engines, like those found in leaf blowers, will take effect in 2024, effectively banning the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers in California.
There’s a palpable hatred for leaf blowers, especially the gas-powered ones. Proponents of bans cite numerous harmful noise, health, and environmental effects of older, two-stroke engine gas-powered blowers, and they have the data to back those grievances up. Noise is perhaps the biggest complaint of the “lazy man’s rake” and “devil’s hairdryer.”
Landscaping businesses haven’t been able to effectively fight back against the bans, which are increasing costs for them in some instances. The president of one landscaping company in D.C. estimated that updating his entire leaf blower fleet to newer, battery-powered models would cost $50,000, close to about 5 percent of his company’s annual revenue. Landscapers also argue that less effective electric blowers mean jobs take longer, and time is money in the landscaping business.
In places where gas-powered blower bans are in effect, landscapers and property management crews will have to switch to electric-powered blowers. Banning gas-powered blowers will be better for the environment, will lower noise pollution, and will improve human health, but the bans come with a cost. Property managers should note that the hatred for gas leaf blowers is felt nationwide and seemingly growing by the day, and stricter rules for the equipment could be coming to a town or city near them soon.
Irritating, noisy, and dirty
The first leaf blower didn’t come on the scene in America until 1977. A Japanese-based company had originated the equipment in 1947 as a backpack fogger apparatus, refining the design over the years and then establishing itself in the states and changing its company name to Echo in 1978.
The invention proved to be extremely popular. Rival manufacturers like Stihl, Weed Eater, and Husqvarna saw leaf blower sales explode throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. By 1989, sales estimates of leaf blowers in the U.S. exceeded one million units. But it wasn’t long until the equipment would meet the ire of regulators and concerned citizens’ groups. Leaf blower manufacturers made modified engine designs to comply with California noise and air pollution regulations by 1995, and laws throughout the ‘90s got more stringent.
It hasn’t been until more recently that complete bans against leaf blowers have cropped up. Last year, Larchmont, New York, passed a total ban on gas blowers. In Montclair, New Jersey, the city has had some restrictions on leaf blower use since 1995, but enforcement has been lax. But officials there say that’s starting to change as residents brought concerns about the equipment on a near daily basis throughout 2020. It led to the formation of a group called Quiet Montclair, whose mission is to “reduce the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in favor of quieter, healthier, greener alternatives.”
Part of the push to ban gas-powered blowers recently could be attributed to the pandemic and remote work. As more adults worked from home and kids attended online schooling, the wall-penetrating noises of blowers became a bigger concern and more noticeable. As much as the concerns seem like a trivial “first-world problem,” there are legitimate reasons for bans. One reason is that small engine-based tools like gas leaf blowers are a surprisingly significant source of carbon emissions and air pollution. Just one hour of gas-powered leaf blower use emits the equivalent emissions as driving 1,100 miles, according to the California Air Resources Board. To put it another way, a study found that the amount of air pollution from running a gas leaf blower for 30 minutes is similar to driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck from Texas to Alaska.
Modern cars have gotten cleaner emissions-wise, but many leaf blowers still in use have not. The two-stroke engines used in some leaf blowers are cheaper and lighter than the four-stroke engines in many cars today, but they’re dirtier and less fuel-efficient. Older leaf blower engines slosh a mixture of gas and oil in the combustion chamber and emit as much as one-third of the fuel as an unburned aerosol exhaust. The pollutants have been linked to cancer, asthma, and heart disease, among other things.
The exhaust gas from some gas leaf blowers is potent, emitting carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, and particulates. The sheer power of leaf blowers is also a problem. Dust clouds caused by leaf blowers contain harmful substances like pesticides, mold, and animal fecal matter (yuck) that can cause health irritations and allergy problems. A typical gas-powered leaf blower can blast air between 145 and 195 miles per hour.
And finally, most peoples’ chief complaint is the irritating and eardrum-piercing noise. The sound of a conventional, commercial gas-powered leaf blower is not only annoying but can also adversely impact hearing. Most gas leaf blowers produce noise levels between 80 to 85 decibels while in use. But some cheaper blowers can be as loud as 112 decibels, louder than a plane taking off (105 decibels). The CDC says in less than five minutes, this noise level can cause instant pain, ear injury, and possible hearing damage.
The low-frequency sound of some leaf blowers is powerful enough to travel long distances and through building walls. According to one study, the noise level of many conventional leaf blowers is still over 55 decibels at 800 meters away. The nuisance of leaf blower noise ties into the larger issue of noise pollution in many communities, not just in cities with loud traffic. The sound of leaf blowers in many suburban ‘bedroom communities’ have become a daily occurrence for some, and the noises can be heard several hours a day. A 2016 Greater Boston Noise Report surveyed 1,050 residents across the Boston area, and most folks said they felt they “couldn’t control noise or get away from it.” Loud leaf blowers are a likely racket they couldn’t escape.
The people who suffer most from the ill effects of leaf blowers are the workers who spend hours a day with the equipment. Exposure to the variety of pollutants spewing from gas-powered blowers is one consequence. But lawn care and property management workers are also at risk of premature hearing loss. In a 2016 study of North Carolina university groundskeepers, the maximum sound level of the equipment they used (including leaf blowers) exceeded the safe limit of 85 decibels 82 percent of the time and ranged from 76 to 109 decibels.
Are the bans worth it?
Despite the risk and annoyance of gas-powered blowers, not all states and municipalities are acting against them. In fact, some states are doing the opposite. A new law in the Georgia state legislature is being proposed prohibiting local governments from imposing restrictions on leaf blowers. The law says any regulation against leaf blowers would create confusion and “unnecessarily increased costs” for landscaping companies. If passed, the law would jeopardize some measures taken in the state in places like Atlanta, Cobb, and Gwinnett. Atlanta’s noise ordinance bans using leaf blowers and other landscaping equipment from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. in residential and mixed-use areas.
The main argument against banning gas-powered blowers is the one brought up by Georgia lawmakers: that it would add costs to landscapers. The Georgia Urban Agriculture Council says it supports the transition from gas to electric-powered blowers, which are usually quieter, but “at present, the technology is not viable for most commercial use.” Like an electric car, battery-powered blowers make less noise than gas-powered ones. Gas-powered blowers are typically in the 80 to the 90-decibel range, while electric models average between 65 and 70 decibels. A few newer electric leaf blower models go as low as 59 decibels.
However, gas-powered blowers are still more powerful and efficient than current electric models. For commercial use, very few battery-powered models compete with gas ones, for now at least. Parts and support for battery-powered blowers are harder to get, especially from local dealers. Landscapers and property managers would have to send the tools in to get worked on, potentially losing them for several weeks. Even warranty coverage is sometimes more difficult with battery-powered devices.
Although more landscaping crews are using electric blowers today, especially if required by law, most professionals are likely sticking to gas-powered ones. The run-time of gas blowers is better, and it’s less complicated than carrying several charged batteries. Electric blowers are typically cheaper, and some models are cordless, but most also use a long power cord, which obviously makes them more challenging to use.
So, what’s a property manager to do? Replacing an entire fleet of gas-powered leaf blowers could be pricey, especially today, as inflation has eaten into property management budgets and raised costs on nearly everything. One idea that may seem unconventional at first but may work is simply leaving the leaves in place, as they’ll gradually break down and improve soil fertility. This more natural approach also helps biodiversity. Leaf litter can provide winter shelter for insects, attracting more birds to the property.
If letting the leaves lie doesn’t work, property managers could try leaf-mulching. This is when you simply mow over the leaves and chop them into small pieces that quickly decay. Most regular lawnmowers can accomplish leaf mulching. And then, of course, landscapers can ditch the blowers and use old-fashioned rakes, though this would add a good bit of time and manual labor to each job.
As the push to decarbonize industry and the economy continues, it seems inevitable that battery-powered leaf blowers will become more common soon. “Electrify Everything” is a rallying cry for climate advocates, which apparently extends to lawn maintenance equipment, too. Many property managers and landscaping crews prefer gas-powered blowers, but citizens’ concerns may force restrictions and bans in more places nationwide.
Banning gas-powered blowers has advantages, as older, cheaper models are noisy and spew harmful pollutants. But banning gas leaf blowers altogether will incur a cost on landscaping crews and property management teams. And the easiest way to alleviate the additional expense of newer equipment is to pass it off to the very residents that banned the gas-powered tools in the first place. Are gas leaf blower bans worth it? Probably. But someone has to foot the bill.