Leaf blower is a pest. Why is it so hard to get rid of them?

In Montclair, New Jersey, the leaves are falling.

They fall from the oaks that tower over Tudor-style mansions. It’s falling from the sugar maple trees that line the city’s cozy streets.

Most years in the upscale bedroom community outside New York City, the scenic season also brings with it a distinctive, deafening sound: the gas-powered leaf blower. Not anymore.

Last month, a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers went into effect in Montclair. The city, citing its desire to reduce pollution and noise disturbances, joined more than 150 municipalities that enacted similar bans.

From small West Coast cities like Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, to East Coast metros like Washington, D.C., a consensus has emerged that leaf blowers are dangerously loud and unhealthy, and life is much more peaceful without them.

A crew blows leaves in New Jersey. (John Grimm/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But autumn in Montclair, though largely devoid of the hum of a gas-powered leaf blower, has not been exactly quiet.

More than a dozen landscapers have filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking an injunction to ban leaf blowers. (A judge ruled against them.) Similar resistance has spread across the United States, including a preemptive law passed by the Georgia legislature that essentially prohibits cities in the state from banning gas leaf blowers.

Although leaf blowers represent an environmental hazard, they have been built into the business model of thousands of landscaping companies and into the expectations of millions of discerning Americans.

About 40% of US residents with lawns pay for landscaping, as well Richard Goldstein“They don’t want to see the leaves,” says the owner of Green Meadows Landscaping in New Jersey.

The blessing and curse of suburbia

After leaf blowers hit the market in the 1960s and 1970s, homeowners and landscapers viewed them as a saving grace.

Popular Science He described the gadget as a “powerful airplane on wheels.” The maintenance crew at Williams College in Massachusetts claimed that the blowers instantly cut leaf picking time on campus by more than half. California residents have noticed that leaf blowers, used as an alternative to washing sidewalks and driveways, save countless gallons of water.

By 1990, the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association estimated some 5 m In the United States, 75% of leaf blowers were operated by non-landscapers ~850k Blowers were sold in 1989 alone. In 2015, ~11 p.m They were in operation, according to the EPA, including the popular backpack leaf blower, which features a two-cycle motor, and the four-cycle leaf blower, a larger model used primarily in landscaping.

The crowd

Despite their popularity, leaf blowers have long courted controversy. Carmel, California, banned gas-powered blowers in the mid-1970s, and cities such as Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach, and Belvidere followed suit over the next two decades, until by 2000, about 20 California cities had enacted bans.

The arguments against informants then, as now, are clear and straightforward:

  • Their exhaust is harmful to the environment and workers’ health: In 2011, automaker Edmunds found that a gas-powered backpack leaf blower released more toxins in 30 minutes than a Ford F-150 did on a drive from Texas to Alaska. (A more conservative estimate from the California Air Resources Board suggests that a gas-powered backpack leaf blower produces the same amount of harmful emissions in one hour as driving a car 1.1 thousand miles.)
  • They’re really loud: Blower operators recorded decibel levels up to 100 dB, and 83 dB to passersby at a distance of 50 feet. (When landing, noise levels in the aircraft cabin are around 75-80 dB.)

What’s worse is that the leaf blower’s sound is low frequency, which means it penetrates the walls.

“One of the problems is you can’t get away from the sound,” he says. Jimmy Banks, president of Quiet Communities and chair of the American Health Association’s Noise and Health Committee. “You go into your house and close your doors and windows, and you hear a sound coming through.”

On top of being annoying, this noise can cause hearing loss and produce stress hormones that damage blood vessels and lead to cardiovascular disease. In terms of economic health, a study by University of Michigan public health professors estimated productivity losses and health care costs from excessive noise in the United States at $3.9 billion annually.

There is a noisier and emissions-free alternative: the electric leaf blower, which is battery-powered or plugs directly into an outlet. These blowers usually have a higher pitch and therefore seem quieter than their obnoxious gas-powered counterparts.

A decent electric blower with a battery can cost more than twice as much as a gas-powered model. (Landscapers also have to pay for multiple batteries and charging infrastructure because leaf blowers can drain the battery in just 30 minutes.) But they can be less expensive in the long run, requiring no gasoline costs and less maintenance.

Popular Science October 1977 (via Google Books and Popular Science)

In 2020, Black & Decker estimated that electric-powered garden equipment represented 44% of total sales, up from 32% in 2015. The rise coincided with millions of Americans working from home during the pandemic and pushing for bans that would put… Someone. to the annoying leaf blower sounds that interrupted many of their zooms.

  • Nearly every month, another county or municipality bans or phases out gas leaf blowers, sometimes offering discount programs or rebates to landscapers for purchasing electric equipment.
  • In 2021, California banned the sale of gas-powered garden equipment, effective next year. Seattle plans to phase out the use of gas leaf blowers by 2025 for contractors and 2027 for residents.

in montclair, Ever Ricardo Gutierrez, owner of Ever24Seven Landscaping LLC, was initially against the ban. When he began researching the health risks he and his crew might be exposed to, he changed his mind. It has also been found that the use of electrical equipment attracts potential new customers.

But Gutierrez says he hasn’t made the complete switch away from gas-powered leaf blowers. In some of the cities he serves outside of Montclair, yards are larger, and he’s not sure he can get the job done without one, a scary prospect for many landscapers.

High scale business model

At first glance, the disputes over leaf blowers in Montclair and across the country may seem to run along clear lines: concerned citizens who want to improve their environment and quality of life versus stubborn business operators unwilling to embrace the future and abandon outdated equipment.

But people on both sides point out that it’s not that simple.

Banks, despite her work analyzing the risks of gas-powered leaf blowers for quiet communities, doesn’t always support outright bans, citing a systemic problem at hand: Americans typically prefer the aesthetic of a manicured lawn, and most landscaping companies have developed large-scale business models to meet Their requests.

“The business model is really how quickly can landscapers go from house to house to house to house, achieve that beauty, and move forward,” Banks says. “And when you have an electric blower, even the most powerful electric blower is not going to give you the same level of work production that you get with much more powerful gas blowers. So that’s a problem.”

A gardener in California in the late 1990s. (Bob Reha Jr./Getty Images)

while, Daria Paxtonwho organized the lawsuit against the ban in Montclair, hates the fumes of gas leaf blowers and hates filling up the blowers at the gas station. I ordered an electric Ford F-150 Lightning, spent thousands of dollars on electric lawn maintenance tools, and I’m okay with the limitations of blowers most of the year.

But during the fall cleaning season the leaf cover is thick and wet. Some Montclair properties, as large as one acre, have as many as 25 trees, Paxton says. She says she needs a powerful leaf blower, and an electric one is not enough.

“(The electric blower) is really great for homeowners or a single property owner,” says Paxton, owner of Gaia Gardens. “But for a company whose mission is to do that for other people, it’s not efficient enough.”

says Paxton and other North Jersey landscape designers The crowd Clearing leaves in the fall with electric blowers and rakes means spending nowhere 1.5x to 5x longer For each property than it may require using a gas-powered blower. The cost is also rising.

The crowd

“I had to price people out,” says Paxton, who had 156 clients in Montclair last year. “I canceled all my cleaning contracts in the fall and said, ‘This is uncharted territory, you have to agree to pay us by the hour.’”

Because the work was so difficult (and to get rid of Montclair customers, they wouldn’t have time to serve), Barbara Yuhasa third-generation owner of Holmes Landscape Inc., says some landscapers may charge Montclair clients too much $95 per hour worked To remove leaves, compared to ~$60 per hour worked With gas blowers.

Paxton says it could increase rates by 10% to 15%. Gutierrez says he charges about $800 for some fall cleaning packages that include two visits with four workers. It previously cost about $600.

In Montclair, most of Gutierrez’s customers stuck with him despite the high prices. The city has a large percentage of wealthy, environmentally conscious residents. But across the country, as larger and more economically diverse municipalities consider bans, landscape industry advocates worry about losing customers unwilling to pay higher costs.

  • severely 95% Many landscaping companies consist of five or fewer employees, and many include one or two workers who set up the business and clean up the yards themselves.
  • It competes with a small but growing share of large landscaping companies that are being gobbled up by private equity firms.

Workers who, on average, make ~$18 per hourHe may also have to work harder and longer hours.

The crowd

These workers, who are mostly immigrants and speak English as a second language, have limited influence over the ban. In Palm Beach, California, Latino workers claimed the city did not ask them for enough input before the ban began in 2019.

When Los Angeles considered a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers in the late 1990s, after a campaign spurred by Hollywood actors, Latino gardeners organized against the measure. Still passed.

At the time, State Senator Richard Polanco noted that Los Angeles placed the burden of compliance squarely on “poor immigrant gardeners.” It will take another 20 years before California puts pressure on manufacturers to come up with better electrical equipment for workers by phasing out the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment.

End of manicured lawn?

There’s a possible solution to the thick, wet leaves covering Montclair’s yards: not picking them. At least not the way garden designers have done it for decades.

Years before the ban Jose Germán Gomez I started a green landscaping company in Montclair. For fall cleanups, his crew has been using an electric mower that has a component that picks up leaves for customers to use as fertilizer. They were collecting the remaining leaves.

German Gomez, who lobbied for the ban as part of the group Quiet Montclair, says his crews have spent about 15 minutes longer per yard than competitors who use gas-powered leaf blowers and can still service several yards a day. He says he had about 350 clients before the company closed.

“It was manicured lawns,” he says. “He was cleaning everything.”

Manicured yard in Montclair. (Wikimedia Commons)

Others in the industry do not believe it is possible to provide this level of service in such a short time without a gas blower. But they acknowledge that the ban on gas leaf blowers may provide opportunities to use techniques similar to Germán Gomez’s: They can shred most of the leaves with a mower, leaving them scattered on the lawn as mulch.

Lawn care professionals have claimed for years that this strategy results in improved lawns, but it will only work if clients are willing to accept a change to the manicured status quo, a look that real estate agents and landscapers claim boosts home values ​​and some homeowners’ associations say. required in its regulations.

To enjoy a world without leaf blowers, in other words, we’ll have to learn to live with leaves.

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