Stories - The Hustle

Leaf blowers are a scourge. Why is it hard to get rid of them?

Written by Mark Dent | Nov 4, 2023 1:59:45 AM

In Montclair, New Jersey, the leaves are falling. 

They’re falling off oak trees that tower above Tudor-style mansions. They’re falling from sugar maples that line the city’s cozy streets. 

Most years in the upscale bedroom community outside New York City, the picturesque season also brings with it a distinct, ear-splitting 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 a desire to reduce pollution and noise disturbances, joined more than 150 municipalities that have enacted similar bans.

From small West Coast cities like Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, to East Coast metros like Washington, DC, a consensus has formed: Leaf blowers are dangerously loud and unhealthy, and life is more peaceful without them. 

A work crew blowing leaves in New Jersey. (John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But fall in Montclair, although largely devoid of the gas-powered leaf blower’s piercing hum, hasn’t exactly been quiet. 

More than a dozen landscapers filed a lawsuit against the city, seeking an injunction of the leaf blower ban. (A judge ruled against them.) Similar resistance has unfolded across the US, including a preemptive law passed by the Georgia legislature that basically prohibits cities in the state from banning gas leaf blowers.   

Leaf blowers, despite being an environmental menace, are built into the business model of thousands of landscaping companies and into the expectations of millions of discerning Americans. 

Some 40% of US residents with lawns pay for landscaping, and, as Richard Goldstein, owner of New Jersey’s Green Meadows Landscaping, says, “they don’t want to see leaves.” 

The blessing and bane of suburbia 

After the leaf blower hit the market in the 1960s and 1970s, homeowners and landscapers considered it a saving grace. 

Popular Science described the tool as a “powerful jet on wheels.” The maintenance crew at Williams College in Massachusetts claimed blowers instantly cut leaf pickup time on campus by more than half. Californians noted that leaf blowers, used as an alternative to washing down sidewalks and driveways, saved untold gallons of water. 

By 1990, the Portable Power Equipment Manufacturers Association estimated some 5m leaf blowers were operating in the US, 75% of them by non-landscapers, with ~850k blowers sold in 1989 alone. In 2015, ~11m were in operation, according to the EPA, including the popular backpack leaf blower, featuring a two-cycle engine, and the four-cycle walk-behind leaf blower, a larger model used primarily by landscapers. 

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Despite their popularity, leaf blowers have long inspired controversy. Carmel, California, banned gas-powered blowers in the mid-1970s, and cities like Beverly Hills, Laguna Beach, and Belvedere followed over the next couple decades, until, by 2000, some 20 California cities had enacted bans. 

The arguments against blowers then, as now, are straightforward: 

  • Their exhaust is bad for the environment and worker health: In 2011, the automotive company Edmunds found a gas-powered backpack leaf blower emitted 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 says a gas-powered backpack leaf blower produces the same amount of harmful emissions in an hour as driving a car for 1.1k miles.)    
  • They’re really loud: Blower operators have recorded decibel levels as high as 100 dBA, and 83 dBA for passersby within 50 feet. (Upon landing, noise levels in an airplane cabin are ~75-80 dBA.)

Worse, leaf blower sound is low frequency, which means it penetrates walls.   

“One of the problems is that you can’t really get away from the sound,” says Jamie Banks, president of Quiet Communities and chair of the Noise & Health Committee at the American Health Association. “You go in your home and close your doors and windows, you hear it come right through.”

On top of being annoying, these noises 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 US at $3.9B annually.

There is an alternative to the noise and emissions: the electric leaf blower, powered by battery or plugged directly into an outlet. These blowers are typically higher-pitched and thus seem quieter than their obnoxious, gas-powered cousins. 

A decent electric blower with a battery can cost more than 2x as much as a gas-powered model. (Landscapers must also pay for multiple batteries and charging infrastructure because leaf blowers can deplete a 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 electric-powered lawn equipment accounted for 44% of overall sales, an increase from 32% in 2015. The rise coincided with millions of Americans working from home during the pandemic and pushing for bans that would put an end to the annoying leaf blower sounds that interrupted so many of their Zooms. 

  • Almost every month, another county or municipality bans or phases out gas leaf blowers, sometimes offering rebate programs or discounts for landscapers to buy electric equipment.  
  • In 2021, California banned the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment, effective next year. Seattle plans to phase out gas leaf blower usage by 2025 for contractors and 2027 for residents.  

In Montclair, Ever Ricardo Gutierrez, owner of Ever24Seven Landscaping LLC, was against the ban at first. When he started researching the health dangers for him and his crew, he changed his mind. He’s also found that using electric equipment appeals to prospective new customers.  

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

A high-volume business model

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

But people on both sides suggest it isn’t so simple. 

Banks, despite her work analyzing the dangers of gas-powered leaf blowers for Quiet Communities, does not always support outright bans, noting a systemic issue at hand: Americans typically favor a manicured-lawn aesthetic, and most landscape companies have developed high-volume business models to accommodate their requests. 

“The business model is really how quickly can landscapers go from house to house to house to house, achieve that aesthetic, and move on,” 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 the much more powerful gas blowers. So that’s a problem.”

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

Meanwhile, Daria Paxton, who organized the lawsuit against the ban in Montclair, dislikes the fumes of gas leaf blowers and hates filling up blowers at the gas station. She ordered an electric Ford F-150 Lightning, has spent thousands of dollars on electric lawn maintenance tools, and is fine with restrictions on blowers most of the year. 

But during fall cleanup season the leaf cover is thick and damp. Some Montclair properties, as large as one acre, contain up to 25 trees, says Paxton. She says she needs the powerful walk-behind leaf blower, and no electric blower suffices.   

“[The electric blower is] really great for homeowners or a single property owner,” says Paxton, owner of Gaia Gardens. “But for a company whose job it is to do this for other people… it’s not efficient enough.”

Paxton and other North Jersey landscapers tell The Hustle that cleaning up leaves in the fall with electric blowers and rakes means spending anywhere from 1.5x to 5x longer per property than it would take with a gas-powered blower. The cost goes up, too.

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

Given the more difficult labor involved (and to weed out Montclair clients they won’t have time to service), Barbra Yuhas, a third-generation owner of Holmes Landscape Inc., says some landscapers may charge Montclair customers as much $95 per man-hour for leaf removal, compared to ~$60 per man-hour with gas-powered blowers. 

Paxton says she may increase rates by 10%-15%. Gutierrez says he’s charging ~$800 for some fall cleanup packages that include two visits with four workers. They previously cost ~$600.

In Montclair, most of Gutierrez’s clients have stuck with him despite the higher rates. The city has a large proportion of wealthy, environmentally conscious residents. But around the country, as bigger and more economically diverse municipalities consider bans, landscape industry backers worry about losing clients unwilling to pay higher costs. 

  • Roughly 95% of landscape companies are comprised of five or fewer employees, and many companies feature one to two workers who drum up business and clean yards on their own. 
  • They compete with a small but growing share of large landscape companies that are being eaten up by private equity firms

Workers who, on average, make ~$18 per hour, may also be forced to work harder for longer hours.

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These workers, who are often immigrants and speak English as a second language, have limited influence over bans. In Palm Beach, California, Latino workers claimed the city didn’t seek enough input from them before starting a ban in 2019. 

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

At the time, state senator Richard Polanco noted Los Angeles had placed the burden of compliance squarely on “poor immigrant gardeners.” It would be another 20 years before California exerted pressure on manufacturers to come up with better electric equipment for workers by phasing out the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment. 

The end of the manicured lawn? 

There is a potential solution for the damp, thick leaves covering the yards of Montclair: not picking them up. At least not in the way landscapers have done for decades. 

Years before the ban, Jose German-Gomez started a green landscaping company in Montclair. For fall cleanups, his crews would use an electric mower with a component that caught leaves for the customers to use as compost. They’d rake whatever leaves were left. 

German-Gomez, who pushed for the ban as part of the group Quiet Montclair, says his crews spent ~15 minutes longer per yard than competitors using gas-powered leaf blowers and could still service several yards daily. He says he had ~350 clients before shutting down the company.  

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

A manicured yard in Montclair. (Wikimedia Commons)

Others in the industry don’t think it’s possible to provide that level of service in such a short time without a gas blower. But they acknowledge the ban on gas leaf blowers may present opportunities to use similar techniques as German-Gomez: They could shred most leaves with a mower, leaving them strewn on the lawn as mulch.

Lawn care specialists have claimed for years this strategy leads to better lawns, but it would only work if customers are willing to accept a change to the manicured status quo, a look that real estate agents and landscapers claim boosts home values and that some homeowners associations require in their bylaws. 

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