The Blow by Blow on Leaf Blower Abuse

I try to keep a level head and my language clean when I’m writing but when it comes to leaf blowers all bets are off, because leaf blowers blow, or that is they suck, if you know what I mean. My favorite descriptive term for these devices is “Polluting-Noise-Bazookas”.  Need I say more?

Here at Terra Nova Ecological Landscaping we support a leaf blower ban and we recognize that we are in the minority within our industry on this subject. We must be an oxymoron. I mean, how can we be a landscape business and not be completely enamored with the omnipresent labor-saving device known as the leaf blower? This is a touchy subject or should I say a noisy one? Everyone has an opinion about gas powered leaf blowers, from the folks like myself who refer to them as Polluting Noise Bazookas, to those who think of them as indispensable and use them as a primary tool in outdoor janitorial work. I thought it would be helpful to lay out the issue blow by blow if you will.

It is good to understand both sides of the story. Believe me, I know, I’ve been there. “My Escape from the Land of the Two-stroke Back-pack Bowers” is an article I wrote a few years ago to tell my story. While I do address electric leaf blowers, what follows primarily discusses the use of gas-powered leaf blowers because they are the main offenders in this story.

My friend Steve Zien is Executive Director of Biological Urban Gardening Services (BUGS), an international membership organization of professional landscapers. He states, “BUGS has opposed the use of leaf blowers for many years for a variety of reasons. There are many hidden costs when utilizing blowers regularly. The leaf blower is perhaps the most over-used and inappropriately used landscape tool. Autumn’s tremendous amount of organic debris that requires collection might be considered appropriate use of this tool. However, the weekly routine of blowing abuses the soil and damages landscape plants while the noise creates ill will from neighbors and clients alike.”

A conservative estimate is that there are four million leaf blowers in California to date. The majority are gas-powered. Everyday these blowers spew over 1.5 million gallons of raw, unburned, two-stroke fuel into California air for a total of over 540 million gallons per year. This dumps over 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide into California air, totaling over 18 million tons per year. This is a significant contributor to climate change.

*A Grand Jury convened on the subject of leaf blowers in San Luis Obispo County, CA, concluding that, “Considering the evidence…the health hazards citizens are exposed to from two-cycle leaf blowers outweigh the possible benefit they provide.” The Grand Jury went on to recommend that all cities within that county initiate a phase out of leaf blowers.

*From Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento

What are the ecological, health and social impacts of gas-powered leaf blowers?

Most professional gas leaf blowers are two-stroke. The two-stroke engine is a major polluter because it burns oil in addition to gas. The exhaust, along with the particulate matter that is blown into the air, lowers air quality, and foists noise pollution upon anyone within a few blocks’ radius.

1. Air Pollution

*According to the California Air Resources Board the types of air pollutants emitted when using a gasoline-powered leaf blower for half an hour are equivalent to those emitted from 440 miles of automobile travel at 30mph average speed. Compared to an average large car, one hour of operation of a leaf blower emits 498 times as many hydrocarbons, 49 times as much particulate matter, and 26 times as much carbon monoxide.

*Data found at Greenwich Citizens Against Leaf Blower Mania

Here are the results of an emissions test by Edmunds Video Productions titled Car vs. Truck vs. Leaf Blower  (December 2, 2011). Note that cars emit pollution over a long stretch of road, dispersing it, while leaf blowers deposit it all in one small area. The tongue in cheek conclusion of this video? It would cause less pollution to use the Ford Raptor Pick-Up to blow leaves than the two-stroke leaf blower.

Non-Methane Hydrocarbons (NMHC)Parts per million Nitrogen Oxides (NOx)Parts per million Carbon Monoxide (CO)By percentage
2011 Ford Raptor Pick-Up Truck 0.005 0.005 0.276
2012 Fiat 500 0.016 0.010 0.192
4-Stroke Leaf Blower 0.182 0.031 3.714
2- Stroke 50 cc Leaf Blower 1.495 0.010 6.445

2. Dust

According to Ask Green America  the high-velocity air jets from leaf blowers suspend dust and pollutants. The particulate matter (PM) swept into the air is composed of dust, fecal matter, pesticides, fungi, chemicals, fertilizers, spores, and street dirt which may contain lead, cadmium and organic and elemental carbon. Roughly five pounds of PM per leaf blower per hour are swept into the air and take hours to settle.

3. Noise

In many places today, the soundscape is sacrificed in the quest for the perfect landscape. Many people and organizations say this is not an equitable exchange.*

  • The World Health Organization recommends noise levels of 55 decibels or less, and 45 decibels to meet sleep criteria. Gas leaf blowers generally measure at least 65-75 decibels at 50 feet away, and much higher at close range.
  • The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that noise levels over 75 decibels can cause hearing loss and are harmful to human health.

*Data is from Citizens for a Quieter Sacramento  and  Greenwich Citizens Against Leaf Blower Mania

Leaf blowers may be one of the most egregious noise offenders but when you add lawn mowers, weed whackers and hedge trimmers it is truly crazy making. It is time to find a way to turn the noise off.

4. Denuding the soil

As its name implies the leaf blower’s primary benefit is gathering leaves for disposal. This is all well and fine from the standpoint of risk management – in particular, reducing the liability of people slipping on leaves on walkways, a concern of homeowners associations and businesses alike. Unfortunately, what goes along with this is the propensity of operators to use blowers to remove leaves from soil areas. When leaves are removed, soil is denuded of this natural mulch. Leaf litter benefits the soil by increasing organic matter, preventing erosion caused by wind and rain, and by keeping the soil cool in the summer months. It also saves water and reduces the need for irrigation. For these reasons, blowing leaves off soil areas is now considered a poor management practice, and should be avoided.

How necessary are leaf blowers really?

According to the California Landscape Contractors Association’s (CLCA) website, leaf blowers are an “extremely efficient and safe tool.” The CLCA further asserts that, “Most landscape industry estimates suggest that it takes at least five times as long to clean a typical landscape site with a broom and rake than it does with a power leaf blower.” CLCA believes many clients can’t afford or are not willing to pay for the additional cost of landscape maintenance without the leaf blower. CLCA does not consider electric leaf blowers to be a viable alternative to gas powered leaf blowers. To sum it up, says CLCA, “…while we recognize public concerns with (gas) leaf blower noise and air emissions, these devices are absolutely essential for the economic well being of our industry.”

Then I say, consider this excerpt from an article by Zero Air Pollution, an L.A.-based organization that ran the headline:

*Grandmother Proves Rake and Broom as Fast as Leaf Blowers (January 8, 1998 press release from Zero Air Pollution, Los Angeles)

In fighting the ban on gas-powered maintenance gardeners have argued that it would take them twice as long to do jobs if they had to use rakes and brooms. But Diane Wolfberg, a Palisadian grandmother in her late 50s, proved them wrong in tests conducted by the Department of Water & Power Leafblower Task Force last Thursday.

In three tests involving gas powered leaf blowers and battery powered leaf blowers, Diane cleaned the areas using rakes or brooms faster than any of the battery powered blowers and almost as fast as the gas powered leaf blowers and she did a better job in cleaning up the areas.

The full article can be found here… Leaf Blowers Slower than Rakes and Brooms 

When CLCA says, “leaf blowers are absolutely essential for the economic well being of our industry’, I reply, the whole calculation of the necessity of the leaf blower should take into account the value of peace and quiet. If the job can be accomplished by other quieter means (like rakes and brooms) then the argument becomes, must we allow leaf blowers solely for the sake of Mow, Blow and Go businesses? That is a different argument altogether because if I don’t like leaf blowers in the first place then why would I give a hoot for businesses that are largely dependent on them? I used to think gas leaf blowers where a necessary evil until I saw their larger impacts.

Electric leaf blower vs. a rake and a broom. A Terra Nova comparison test.

We believe the grandmother story but for the sake of integrity, we conducted our own comparison test between a leaf blower and a rake and broom.

In the interest of full disclosure it should be known that we used an electric leaf blower, which we do employ from time to time in our landscape maintenance service. (Electric blowers are not as loud as gas blowers but they still make noise and cause particulate matter pollution, and we believe they should be used very sparingly.)

We performed our test at a client’s property, cleaning the exact same concrete walkway area with the exact same volume of leaves and dirt spread out (one trash can full). And we got the same results as the grandma from Southnern Cal. The electric blower took 11 minutes and 56 seconds and the rake and broom took 9 minutes and 17 seconds!

This confirmed our commitment to use a rake and broom as the first option.

This test was conducted in an area that is fairly easy to clean and, because there are places that the electric blower is indeed faster than a broom, our leaf blower position is this: We do not use gas leaf blowers ever. We commit to using a rake and broom first and an electric leaf blower as the last option after all impacts are considered.

We support a gas leaf blower ban because we believe we would have a healthier more peaceful world without them.

Can we reduce gas leaf blower impacts?

There are numerous ways that leaf blowers are misused and abused. If leaf blower operators modified their practices it might ease the perception that a ban is the only solution. Indeed, CLCA says, “A leaf blower ban should be a last resort and enacted only after exhausting (ironic word choice) all other alternatives.”

Currently there are twenty California cities that have banned gas (not electric) leaf blowers. The problem is that no one is presenting the alternatives to this pervasive and vexing problem. Whose role is it to educate leaf blower operators? If contractors do not deal with the problem, by default it is left up to citizens who are already fed up. Mow, Blow and Go landscape companies don’t seem to care and in this void a ban starts to seem attractive. To their credit, CLCA has published the following guidelines addressing leaf blower abuse:

“Educational programs should include the following information:

  • Generally speaking, leaf blowers should be run at half throttle most of the time. Low throttle speeds not only significantly reduce sound, but they also provide the operator with maximum control. Full throttle is seldom necessary.
  • Leaf blowers should not be used in residential areas at unreasonable hours — early in the morning or late at night when people are likely to be disturbed.
  • Debris should never be blown onto adjacent property, the street, vehicles, people, or pets.
  • Crews should operate only one leaf blower at a time on small residential sites.
  • Rakes or brooms should be used to loosen heavier debris.
  • The full nozzle extension should be used so the air stream can work close to the ground.
  • The muffler, air intakes, and air filters should be routinely checked to make sure they are working properly.
  • Leaf blowers should not be used to move large debris piles from one spot to another.
  • If conditions are very dry, mister attachments should be used. They suppress dust.”

To this I would add another bullet point:

  • Outdated equipment should be replaced.

Further, landscape professionals and homeowners should be informed about the noise levels of leaf-blower equipment before purchasing. Most buyers, if properly informed, will opt for the quietest equipment, all other factors being equal. Unfortunately, some manufacturers do not disclose this information. To this end manufacturers should comply with the provisions of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) B 175.2 Standard for Hand-Held and Backpack Gasoline-Engine-Powered Blowers.

ANSI recommends that manufacturers do the following:

  • Adhere to the ANSI 175.2 sound-level test procedure.
  • Ensure that all equipment and packaging are clearly and durably marked with the decibel rating.
  • Establish a certification program to identify products that comply with the ANSI 175.2 standard.

Furthermore, we encourage manufacturers to amend the standard to establish maximum sound levels.

*Information found at …Land Care Network

What are the alternatives?

There may not be an alternative to leaf blowers that does not require a different mindset.

My broom runs on orange juice and toast. – *Rakes and brooms are, by far, the safest, easiest to use and most inexpensive of all methods. They are also lightweight, easy to store, emissions-free, very quiet, require little maintenance and are not a target for thieves as a leaf blower is.

I once saw a poster for a landscaper that boasted that they used pollution-free blowers. It turns out their leaf blower was an old hand crank seed spreader with a drainage pipe attached to the end of it. I gave it a whirl and it seemed to be a little less effective than a broom. Oh well, nice try. At Terra Nova we have made a viable business out of offering alternatives to conventional landscaping that do work. This is a service that strikes a cord in people, they see the value in landscaping that respects the soundscape and that leaves a lighter footprint. The message from this experience is that alternatives exist that can restore landscaping to an enjoyable endeavor for all concerned.

* Information found at the Clean Houston website

Stopping leaf blower abuse.

When neighborhoods and the people in them are left in the dust of leaf blower abuse, there is a vacuum. The inaction of the ‘Green industry’ to address these problems is a call to action by the citizenry. The leaf blower bans that have been enacted fill this void. Education is essential and this blow by blow account of the issue is an attempt at that. If it falls on deaf, or rather ‘protected’ ears then I believe a ban may be the last best way to defend the basic human right to peace and quiet. According to a study by Palo Alto, CA. some cities do not regulate leaf blowers at all, and regulatory strategies in other cities “fall into six basic categories:  1) time of day/day of week, 2) noise levels, 3) area specific, 4) bans, 5) educational approach, or 6) a combination of the five.” I vote for number 6. I believe a combination of efforts would be the most effective way to reduce leaf blower abuse.

The Mow, Blow and Go approach makes a mockery of the art of landscape gardening. It is a sad state of affairs when you know the gardeners have arrived by how much noise they make. It is time to take the noise out of the landscape. As a concerned member of my community and as a landscape business owner I am willing to stand up and say: “I am a landscape contractor and I am opposed to leaf blower abuse. I support a ban.” I am available to join in efforts for appropriate action in my area of Santa Cruz, Ca. such as a Leaf Blower Task Force. Citizens everywhere must organize to take back their right to peace and quiet by drafting a plan that meets the needs of the local community. I can be reached at Ken@terranovalandscaping.com. Please join us in finding a solution to leaf blower abuse.

– Ken Foster