Ah, the quiet…Argh, the noise!

By Nick Grabbe

I was sitting on my patio listening to the sweet sound of trees swaying in the breeze and children playing outside Wildwood School, when suddenly my ears were assaulted by a piercing noise. It sounded almost as loud as a helicopter landing nearby, or maybe a pneumatic drill digging up the street in front of my house.

But I knew what it really was. In November, it had to be a leaf-blower, disturbing the peace of yet another neighborhood. An employee of a landscaping company was using this gas-powered noise-maker to herd leaves into a pile at a neighbor’s house.

credit DIYallday.com

The new Town Council could combat climate change and support quiet neighborhoods by banning or restricting the use of these “monsters,” as New York Times columnist Margaret Renkl calls them. She also calls gas-powered leaf-blowers “mechanical locusts,” but adds that this may be unfair to locusts. (To see a petition to the Town Council on leaf-blowers and other loud gadgets, click on Comments below.)

Amherst would join 100 other towns that have taken action. Gas-powered leaf-blowers will become illegal in Washington, D.C. in January and in all of California in 2024. They are already banned in Santa Monica.

Landscaping companies would complain, and their workers would be inconvenienced, but it is the operators of these machines who are most affected by their noise and gas fumes. And there are now products, available locally, that can blow leaves into piles without generating pollution and with significantly less racket.

The pandemic forced many people to stay home during the day, and they became more aware of these ultra-loud gadgets. Most backpack gas-powered leaf-blowers make noise at between 95 and 115 decibels for the operator, dispersing to 64 to 78 decibels fifty feet away. Anything over 55 decibels is harmful, according to the World Health Organization, and can cause hearing loss and high blood pressure.

Because decibel calculation is logarithmic, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60. And gas-powered leaf blowers emit low-frequency noise that can penetrate through walls and hearing protection. Some new electric leaf-blowers can be just as powerful and come in at 59 to 65 decibels. (Rakes produce neither noise nor pollution, are significantly cheaper, and provide a mild workout.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers are terrible for the environment. Using one for an hour creates as much pollution as driving a Camry 1,100 miles, according to the California Air Resources Board. Running one for a half-hour is the equivalent of driving a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 truck for 3,900 miles, according to the Edmunds car-rating company. (Cars themselves are becoming increasingly electric.)

Gas-powered leaf-blowers use a technology called “two-stroke engines” that is outmoded and has been phased out in other industries. A third of the fuel used is spewed into the air, Renkl writes. All gas-powered lawn care products used an estimated 3 billion gallons of fossil fuel in 2018, according to the Department of Transportation.

In addition to noise and gas fumes, leaf-blowers kick up dust that can contain pollen, animal feces, heavy metals and chemicals from pesticides, Renkl writes. This can be hazardous to people with asthma or other respiratory problems. Some landscapers even use blowers not to move leaves but to clear away dust from pavement.

Sales of electric leaf-blowers increased by 75 percent from 2015 to 2020, and the Makita company has announced it will stop making ones powered by gasoline. The number of landscaping companies using electric blowers is increasing.

Electric leaf-blowers weigh less than gas-powered ones. They don’t require as much maintenance, with no need for replacing filters, changing spark plugs or storing gasoline. Electric blowers, both corded and cordless, are available at Boyden & Perron in Amherst and Home Depot in Hadley. Cordless leaf-blowers can be as powerful as gas-powered ones, though they need to be frequently recharged, according to Consumer Reports. Corded leaf-blowers have limited range.

Home maintenance expert Bob Vila recommends a cordless model made by Makita that costs $199 and generates 166 miles per hour of blowing. He also recommends a Greenworks backpack model costing $349.

Amherst DPW’s division of trees and grounds uses 11 gas-powered leaf-blowers on the 80 acres of parks and facilities it maintains, says director Alan Snow. “I’ve been watching electric equipment and it has come a long way the last couple years,” he says. “Until they come down in price or funding becomes available, for now we are stuck with gas.” He’s all-electric at his home and says, “I believe it is the way to go when one can afford it.”

Cambridge (the only place in Massachusetts that gave a smaller percentage of its 2016 vote to Trump than Amherst) has banned leaf-blowers generating more than 65 decibels of noise. They cannot deposit dust or leaves on adjacent property, and cannot be used on Sundays or in the evening. Only one can be used at a time, and they can only operate between March 15 and June 15 and between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31.

Newton, Arlington and Brookline have similar regulations. In Newton, commercial operators using leaf-blowers have to register with the city, and in Arlington they can’t be used for more than 30 minutes and can’t send leaves or dust outside property lines.

Burlington, Vt., which like Amherst is host to a state university, has enacted similar restrictions. Cities and towns in Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey and New York have acted to restrict use of gas-powered leaf blowers. Twenty cities in California have taken action in advance of the statewide ban.

So, how about it, Amherst Town Council? What’s the point of requiring zero-energy public buildings and fining nuisance houses while tolerating the pollution and noise of gas-powered leaf-blowers?

9 thoughts on “Ah, the quiet…Argh, the noise!”

  1. So the consensus here seems to be that a new by-law would be great. Finally….something we can all agree on. As we know from recent episodes involving congressional subpoenas, there are, practically speaking, no laws without enforcement mechanisms. But wait…we don’t have to be limited to national analogies. We have an anti-idling by-law in Amherst that was passed by Town Meeting years ago. I believe that I voted for it. If you’re like me, you’ve seen violations of it several times since then. I remember mentioning it to a video store customer who was warming his dog left out front in his parked car with his motor running. I was told to F off. It was a short interaction. It does seem to be worth it to ask just what the enforcement scenarios would be if any of the commenters here wanted to invoke a new by-law on leaf blowers. Would we all call……..the Amherst Police Department? And then what would happen?

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    1. What an appropriate task for our new community responders. Idling is a bad idea but not immediately apparent or annoying to most people in the vicinity. The sound of a leaf blower, in contrast, stops conversations and gets people motivated to ask for the law to be upheld. I think we’d have a deterrence factor. Contractors might not want to deal with the hassle and they’d buy electric blowers.

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  2. Nick, thanks for writing about this issue. As you know, I walk my dog around town every day. One of the biggest nuisances are gas powered leaf blowers. The noise is bad enough, but the sand, dirt, and debris that are made airborne are equally unhealthy. The biggest abusers are landscaping companies that service student rentals. We have three student rentals across the street from my house, and because of the decrepit states of their lawns, when mowed in mid-summer an enormous dust cloud is generated. Once finished creating the cloud, the driver, on a stand up mower, barrels down the driveway like on a chariot, but instead of swinging a sword he swings a leaf blower. It’s kind of comical if it was not for the noise and the airborne dirt that he sends our way.

    And as for DPW’s division of trees and grounds department not having the funding to purchase battery powered leaf blowers, that is just plain infuriating. I know that their budget is always tight, but the town should step up and meet their needs. They should also throw in a few battery powered string trimmers as well.

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  3. How do we get the town council to do something? I sent a note to my councilor but didn’t hear back. I will do just about anything to stop leaf blowers. I was thinking of talking with my neighbors around me to ask them to use the new machines. I am a writer and the sound feels like an assault. It is worse than living in a city – and I have lived in NYC and San Francisco. I HATE LEAF BLOWERS. Tell me how to make this happen.

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    1. I just learned that some North Prospect Street residents petitioned the Town Council just 10 days ago. Here is what they wrote:
      To All Members of the Amherst Town Council:
      My wife and I are long-term residents of Amherst who have long ago grown tired and frustrated with the air pollution, noise, and destruction of wildlife habitat that is associated with the use in residential neighborhoods of leaf blowers, hedge trimmers, power sweepers, lawn edgers and other equipment driven by 2-cycle (gasoline-oil mix) engines.
      We believe that it is time for the Town to ban the use of this equipment. We would like to propose the language used in the Washington D.C. leaf blower ordinance, which comes into effect on January 1, 2022. Additionally, nearly 20 cities in California; Brookline MA; the Township of Montclair NJ; more than 10 cities in New York State; and Portland OR have all banned the use of these disruptive and damaging machines. We are asking the Town Council to show leadership in this area by banning leaf blowers and other such equipment throughout Amherst.
      There are alternatives to leaf blowers that are far healthier for people and the environment. Bob Vila, of the TV show This Old House fame, offers these sensible alternatives:
       Shred leaves with an electric leaf mulcher, which emits noise of around 60 decibels. (Leaf blowers can expose users and people in the immediate vicinity to noise levels up to 112 dB. A commercial jet on takeoff emits around 105 dB.)
       Rake leaves the old-fashioned way, which can be a fun, healthy activity for kids and for adults.
       Use shredded leaves to mulch flower beds, provide protective coatings for plants and roots over the winter, and even help with weed control.
       Compost leaves to create a healthy compost mixture in a compost bin.
       Use shredded leaves to improve soil, especially soil that tends to be sandy, dry, or contain too much clay.
       Make leaf mold by letting leaves decompose into leaf mold, which is rich in calcium and magnesium that’s helpful for plants.
       Keep a layer of leaves as nutrients for a lawn. While a thick layer can suffocate grass, a thin layer can actually be beneficial for grass.
      (Source: https://www.bobvila.com/articles/the-war-on-leaf-blowers/)
      Landscaping professionals (and probably Boyden & Perron as well) will push back hard on any bylaw that bans what they see as essential tools of their trade. Their insistence that leaf blowing is necessary and demanded by homeowners and property managers, however, is unconvincing: the world got along fine without leaf blowers for a long time. And if they absolutely insist on removing leaves, battery-powered equipment that emits far less noise and no direct air pollution can be used instead. (Unfortunately, even a battery-powered leaf blower causes enormous damage to the habitats of insects, birds, and small mammals. And the dust that is kicked up by any blower will harm people who have respiratory conditions such as allergies or asthma.)
      Here is the wording of the Washington D.C. leaf blower ordinance:
      2808 LEAF BLOWERS
      Except as provided under § 2808.2, no person shall sell, offer for sale, or use, at any time, a leaf blower in the District of Columbia that has an average sound level exceeding seventy (70) dB(A) at a distance of fifty feet (50 ft.) from the leaf blower as measured in accordance with § 2808.5 of this section. A leaf blower shall not be used at nighttime, between the hours of 8:30 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. in the District of Columbia.
      Except as provided under § 2808.2, effective January 1, 2022, no person shall sell, offer for sale, or use a gasoline-powered leaf blower in the District of Columbia.
      Here is a recent New York Times article about leaf blowers: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/25/opinion/leaf-blowers-california-emissions.html
      And an essay by James Fallows from The Atlantic on leaf blowers: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/04/james-fallows-leaf-blower-ban/583210/
      We hope that one or more members of the Town Council will draft and sponsor a bylaw banning leaf blowers and other 2-stroke engine equipment (with the exception of chain saws) from our town. Please let us know what we can do to move the process forward.
      Kind regards,
      Alex Kent
      Felicia Sevene

      Hetty Startup
      Linda Slakey
      Suzannah Muspratt
      Bob and Hwei-Ling Greeney
      Paige Wilder
      Rani Parker
      Patrick Meagher
      Anne Massey

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  4. I was so inspired by the Margaret Renkl article, I went out to Lowe’s and bought a battery- powered Ego leaf blower and string trimmer combination for $300. Both are every bit as powerful as the gas-powered equivalents and ever so much quieter. Now to figure out how to responsibly retire my gas leaf blower and string trimmer. How will Alan Snow solve that problem for the Town’s inventory of leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and string trimmers?

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  5. It’s like you read my mind. Neighbors on both sides of our house were competing with each other this past weekend for who could keep at the leaf-blowing the longest. It was hard to tell who won. I don’t think we should enact a policy that would penalize leaf-blowers, though. Many folks just don’t know any better and don’t mean harm. An education campaign would go a long way to help people understand how harmful leaf-blowers can be to their health, the environment, and their neighbors. Then they can try other options, like mulching with their lawnmowers or doing what Meg advocates above — just leafing it alone. 🙂

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  6. Nick, Right on! I couldn’t agree more!! The noise is horrendous, to say nothing of smell, the cost and the missed opportunity to get some exercise by raking! Very helpful detail and research! Thank you!!! One additional point that we make to anyone asking why we don’t rake our leaves at all, except under trees if they pile up, is that if you leave them on the ground, they mostly decompose over the winter — effortless composting. And then they are further pulverized and composted in the spring with the first mowing. Mother Nature’s lawn fertilizer!

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