The Blow by Blow on Leaf Blower Abuse

By January 26, 2012Sustainable Landscaping

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 millionNitrogen Oxides (NOx)Parts per millionCarbon Monoxide (CO)By percentage
2011 Ford Raptor Pick-Up Truck0.0050.0050.276
2012 Fiat 5000.0160.0100.192
4-Stroke Leaf Blower0.1820.0313.714
2- Stroke 50 cc Leaf Blower1.4950.0106.445

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.

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.

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

 

27 Comments

  • Greetings from Orange County. Thanks for your addressing leaf blower noise issues. Leaf blower noise has been a problem where I live for a few years now. Excessively loud machines are used virtually everywhere in my area, Monday through Saturday, even as late as 7:30pm. I have double-paned windows, but the excessively loud noise easily slips through the windows into my living space. The only way I’ve been able to deal with things, is to wear strong, tight-fitting ear plugs. I just got word from a Sergeant on my city’s police force that he will meet with me and another officer soon. I’ve been thinking of ways to minimize the noise at the source. That would require having the landscapers to use quiet machines. It’s disappointing to realize that even if I were to offer to buy — with my own money — a quiet machine for every single landscaper in my area, I doubt that any of them would bite on the offer. They’d probably sell my free machines for money and get louder ones in return.

    Things just didn’t use to be like this fifteen years ago. But at some point, they invaded. Excessively loud machines. Why? Because the residential community has enabled them.

    At The Daily Decibel, I’ve addressed noise issues in many posts. Not all situations are the same, so I’m not sure if a ban would work in my area. I’m confident that nobody would obey it. The landscapers obviously don’t mind using such high-decibel machines, and obviously the property owners don’t mind it either. And if there were a tight ban, would it be enforced? If not, then what? I’ve recently read that Santa Monica’s ban has had little enforcement and so the problem apparently has continued for residents of Santa Monica. And I’ve also recently read that Houston’s ban hasn’t been enforced. CleanHouston dot org claims that it’s rarely, if ever, been enforced.

    As I mentioned, each situation is not exactly the same. Maybe it’s possible for a ban to work. But I doubt it. (Sorry for the pessimism there.) For now, my solution has been to wear tight-fitting earplugs. I stuff those puppies waaaaay in, tightly into the ear canal. It’s the only way, for now.

  • Ken says:

    Hmm… have not considered these facts before. Thank you for the post… definitely a good topic to mull over. Personally, I don’t fins leaf blowers very helpful. At times they even require more work to use. Kind of ironic, no?

  • nikki says:

    Blowers have become the bane of society. I have personally encountered them in USA, UK and Mexico in recent years. Gardening was formerly an activity that enhanced the natural surrounding, induced bird life and gave a respite to the grind of work life and urban impact. Somehow, ‘landscaping and landscape maintenance’ has become an economic activity, divorced from the peace of gardening and influenced by the so called pragmatism and economics of profit and convenience. It has little to do with the connection to nature and more to do with cosmetics and neatness, much like food becoming cosmetic rather than ethically or environmentally, soundly produced.
    In recent years I have been in situations where leaf blowers are being used 2 at a time in the most rural of settings, where they have never been used before. This has become the enticement about time-saving vs respect for all surrounding life.
    I totally support a ban on leaf blowers. It is outrageous that as a society we blithely accept this obscene intrusion. I cannot go for a walk on a weekday in Aptos without going 10 – 15 minutes without hearing a leaf blower. I recently swam at a club where 2 leaf blowers were going around the pool!!
    There must be a huge gap in the market for wonderful garden brooms. Perhaps the campaign
    can be for a brand of brooms and rakes that have an anti-leaf blower name to them: like THE ZEN BROOM——-THE SILENT BROOM——–THE NO-NOISE RAKE—— THE BIRD FRIENDLY RAKE——THE NEIGHBORHOOD PEACE BROOM.
    Quality of life is way superior to expediency especially when it comes to nature.

  • Leaf blowers are annoying really, i think they should change their job to stop blowing dust in to our windows

  • Stop leaf blowing during landscaping projects now! And BTW, Talk is cheap!

  • howard says:

    In the hands of a qualified operator, the blower is an aid to sustainablity. Leaves can be put on the soil or on the lawn for cycling. In the hands of a straight pipe, high noise volume moron, it can make make a difference in the affordablity of sustainable concept.

  • yonat michaelov says:

    is there a way to get Santa Cruz city to consider banning leaf blowing? did you explore it? i’m so sick and tired of that noisy polluting machines, with an aggressive operators .

  • […] you to show concern for your community. For more information, you can visit the Terra Nova Blog (http://www.terranovalandscaping.com/2012/01/26/the-blow-by-blow-on-leaf-blowers/) and read the article: “The Blow by Blow on Leaf Blower […]

  • Ken, an exceptional piece you’ve written here! Our new website for Quiet orinda will launch soon, and we’ll feature your blog and firm in our News Section. I’ll also meniton you at the San Joaquin Valley Air Quality Districts Conference on lawn care in March. Keep up the great work, and we look forward to working with you. Peter K.,Quiet Orinda

  • Thanks for sharing these facts. I never thought about how rakes and brooms. “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.” – Really appreciate this thought. Thanks and more power!

  • Leaves should always be cleaned up in any landscaping project!

  • ken says:

    Actually Best Management Practice’s indicate that the opposite is true. That’s why they call them leaves, because you’re supposed to leave them.

  • johnny gardener says:

    Your figures for cleaning with a rake and broom compared to leaf blower are
    completely meaningless. It depends on many factors such as
    leaf/twig/debris size, shape and texture, the surface area, surface type,
    terrain, moisture, etc.. Try doing landscape maintenance full time at
    sites with 50-year old, fully grown trees and shrubs. Blowers save much
    effort and labor. Landscape workers perform other tasks beside besides only the clean-up.
    There is an implication in anti-blower rhetoric that gardeners are lazy.

    Anti-leaf blower groups are not objective sources on emission information. A 2010 query for California was done at the
    C.A.R.B Estimated Annual Emissions webpage. All commercial leaf blowers
    emitted 8.98 tons per day of Total Organic gases (hydrocarbons), 19 tons
    of carbon monoxide (CO), and .16 tons of nitrogen oxide(NOX). All on-road
    motor vehicles emitted 608 tons of TOG, 5290 tons of carbon monoxide, and
    1,407 tons of NOX. For comparison, all recreational boats emitted 137 tons
    of TOG, 729 tons of CO, and 37 tons of NOX. The “Grand” total for the state
    was 5,679 tons of TOG, 10,542 tons of CO, and 2981 tons of NOX. By the way,
    all commercial chain saws emitted nearly twice the TOG of leaf blowers and
    50% more CO.

    Small engines generate much less
    carbon dioxide compared to big engines such as cars or trucks because they
    burn much less fuel. It is around 19.4 pounds CO2 per gallon.
    Unlike other activities, the emissions from tools gardeners use are being offset by the trees, shrubs, and lawns we maintain and the increased property values and enjoyment well-maintained landscapes bring.

    Leaf blowers are not used correctly and run way too loud by a high
    percentage of operators but it is not fair to ban or severely restrict them
    for everyone. I use my equipment properly and take
    care to avoid dust and noise. I ve been at landscape maintenance for 30
    years and have never gotten a complaint about blower noise.
    I am sick of the anti’s lies and exaggerations. Ive heard everything from
    leaf blowers caused someone’s cat to get cancer to leaf blowers cause
    asthma. Fine. I want some proof (scientific bona fide research and studies) before you take away or restrict my tools.

  • nikki says:

    Comparisons are erroneous. Pollution is be addressed one issue at a time, and the issue here is the leaf blower. Noise is possibly one of the biggest and people have been forebearant and polite about the ridiculous noise that is yet another bane in our society. Often times the public put up and shut up and do not know how to lobby for change. It can often have to get really bad before people finally rise up and protest something they simply cannot tolerate any longer.There is no implication about laziness for not using tools other than leaf blowers..Landscape maintenance of all persuasions is hard work. And nor should we vilify the past or past methods as ineffective or antiquated. Not everything done in modern society is appropriate to be doing —-and call it opinion…but leaf blowing is simply another one. This holy equation of expedience and efficiency for wages has been the equation for massive impact on all environmental levels. The argument has to shift from money or the environment. It is a riddle that is past its’ due date.

  • johnny gardener says:

    I knew the response ahead of time: change the subject to
    its really all about the noise. Of course, you don t spend long using that tactic-only long enough to dodge the question of accurately assessing the environmental impact of leaf blowers – before slithering back into assuming leaf blowers have “massive impact” (why? anything that makes that much noise must have massive environmental impact, of course)

    You presume to speak for all “people” and “the public.” Menlo park had an election on the issue of leaf blowers, and the “people” voted to overturn a leaf blower ban.

    “The argument has to shift from money or the environment.”: Right, and lets start with gardeners(i.e. SOMEBODY ELSE), a conveniently weak political and economic force (and even if its really just about the noise).
    Why don’t you tell us what YOU are going to do about improving the environment? Are you going to quit eating animal products? Quit driving a car? Quit flying on airplanes? Don t tell me about expediency.

  • Absolutely hearttouching!!

  • Allison says:

    I hate the noise, and have focused primarily on that. You make many other good points that I hadn’t considered — for example, the deleterious effects on the soil.

    The other side of the coin is for people who are not able to do the physical work the leaf blower does for them. Many folks just can’t afford to hire someone to do it by hand, and can’t do it with own steam.

    As usual, we’ve created not just a machine, but complexity.

  • Rakes and brooms are much better for the environment – and our eardrums!

  • This is a sensible subject and you seem to have started a strong debate…in the end, we know we can’t satisfy everyone, so we need to decide what’s more important…

  • Ted says:

    Leaf blowers-blow leaves
    Leaf blowers-blow snow
    Leaf blowers- used as a broom…
    Leaf blowers- car dryer..?

    While blowing the leaves in the fall is bad, its the spring, summer and winter time that gets me. People who feel the need to use it for a broom or even the snow. I even read one forum comment about a guy asking which would be good to dry his car…

    Thankfully people are starting to complain a lot more and more n more places are banning them in the off seasons. I

  • […] a grandma with a rake against a pro with a leafblower.   A landscaping company conducted its own test, which led it to choose rakes over leafblowers. Posted by Garden Rant on March 21, 2013 at 6:55 am, in the category Gardening on the Planet, Guest […]

  • […] a grandma with a rake against a pro with a leafblower. A landscaping company conducted its own test, which led it to choose rakes over leafblowers. Posts related to Heres to No-Blow GardensA Gardening Boomers Equipment Wish-ListGuest Rant by […]

  • if i have just signed up but I really would adore to see a specific letter (Lorelei Lee’s) is there some place i can possibly look at it or obtain a copy somehow?

  • Pianist says:

    Leaf blower abuse? Is this seriously a thing?

  • I have been using a gas leaf blower for a long time and the problem I got that is the noise. I no doubt the benefits of leaf blower but If the manufacture have solved of the noise then it is the best garden tool that garden owners should use to make cleaning easy. Beside an electric leaf blower is noiseless, but sometimes it makes inconvenient by so short cord. A backpack blower is the best choice for large garden. It comes with expensive price.

  • Garry says:

    Some very valid points about these machines. I hadn’t considered that until now. The broom is also much better exercise for you!

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