The D.C. City Council Takes a Very Big Step

On Tuesday afternoon, December 4, 2018, the Washington D.C. City Council unanimously approved the “second reading” of Bill 22-234, which mandates a phase-out of gas-powered leaf blowers in the District over the next three years.

 Headline from story by Rachel Kurzius  in DCist .

Headline from story by Rachel Kurzius in DCist.

This is not quite the end of the story—yet. The Mayor of the District of Columbia, Muriel Bowser, could in principle veto the bill. But she has given no indication that she differs from the wishes of the elected Council. Even if she did, a mayor’s veto can be over-ridden by a two-thirds vote of the Council—and so far, all Council actions on the measure have been unanimously in favor of it. (Legislation for the District must first be considered and voted on by a committee of the City Council, and then go through two “readings,” or votes, by the full Council. This bill got through all these stages—committee approval, then first and second readings—on unanimous voice votes.)

Another theoretical peril: in principle the U.S. Congress has 30 days to overturn local DC legislation—as it has notoriously done (and tried to do) with some measures over the years. But it seems hard to imagine either the outgoing lame-duck 115th Congress, so many of whose members are retiring or were defeated, or the brand-new incoming 116th Congress putting this on its to-do agenda in the next few weeks.

So until this is 100% done, it remains technically in the “almost” rather than “completely” enacted category. But at this point, full conversion of this bill into a law seems just a matter of time. A frequent phrase on this site has been “accelerating the inevitable”—hastening the inevitable move away from technologically obsolete, grossly polluting, damagingly loud gas-powered lawn equipment, and to the quickly emerging battery-powered alternatives. “The inevitable,” as applies to this aspect of public life in the nation’s capital, now appears to be at hand.

Leading up to this “inevitability,” as chronicled over the years on this site, have been: hundreds of hours of neighborhood meetings across the District; scores of presentations to civic, environmental, and local-government groups; dozens of discussions with public-health officials, industry and labor representatives, and government staffers; numerous videos; original acoustic research; ongoing consultation with groups around the country; and other efforts.

Council member Mary Cheh introduced and stood behind this bill; Council chair Phil Mendelson brought it up for a full hearing and for timely action through the Council; and other Council members heard the arguments and took their stands.

This is not the end of the story, but it’s a significant turning point.

New Castle NY Considers a Shift to Battery-Powered Equipment

The town of New Castle, in Westchester County north of New York City, is considering a mandated shift from gas-powered to battery-powered leaf blowers. (FYI, one of the hamlets included in New Castle is Chappaqua, known among other things as home of the Clintons.)

Martin Wilbur, of the local publication The Examiner, has a story describing the deliberations. The whole story is worth reading, but some samples:

At the opening of the hearing on Oct. 23, nearly all speakers advocated for the banning of all gas-powered leaf blowers by 2021 with only electric and battery-operated equipment allowed in the fall. The use of all leaf blowers would have been prohibited from May 15 to Sept. 30 starting next year.

However, there was strong pushback from landscapers and representatives from the industry when the hearing resumed on Nov. 13 who were alarmed at the sweeping changes.….

The leaf blower legislation was proposed by the SAB [Sustainability Advisory Board] as an initiative to reduce carbon emissions and to cut down on noise and particle pollution, which can negatively affect the health of both the equipment operators and residents.

Good luck to the citizens and city government of New Castle. As argued repeatedly on this site, the shift away from grossly polluting, antiquated, dangerously noisy gas-powered equipment to new battery models is a question of when, not if. We hope that for New Castle it is sooner rather than later.

The Topsoil Question

 One of Dorothea Lange’s famed pictures of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. This is absence of topsoil, at its extreme. (Library of Congress)

One of Dorothea Lange’s famed pictures of Dust Bowl Oklahoma. This is absence of topsoil, at its extreme. (Library of Congress)

Like the preceding item, this one is a response to this recent video by James Fallows, on The Atlantic’s site. The writer, a PhD chemist in California, emphasizes another reason to be concerned about today’s mechanized lawn care industry:

There is another problem which you didn’t mention which is common to both the gas-powered and battery-powered versions – they remove the topsoil from the targeted area.

As you pointed out, they are usually operated by less-educated, often limited-English workers. Convincing them that removing the topsoil from my planted areas is a bad thing has, in my case, proven impossible; they just don’t get it. After creating flower beds at my office that cannot soak up water because the groud has become completely hardened, I’ve had to complain repeatedly, with no luck. My only option will be to switch gardeners, but I’m told that they all do the same thing.

Keep them away from living things!

Additional points the same reader sent in a follow-up message:

1) The only place I’ve thought that the use of leaf blowers might be reasonable is in large parking lots. But even there, the noise and dust argue strongly against that application. And a more-efficient solution is already available for large lots – sweepers….

2) From your demo clip, the sound of the gas-powered leafblower is noticeably louder. I think that the confusion might result from the fact that these machines are rated in terms of loudness, in db, whereas we also perceive sound power (i.e. pressure), which can be thought of as the sum of the loudness levels at each frequency. Because they span a much larger frequency range, gas-powered blowers produce much more sound power even though no individual frequency might be louder that the corresponding loudest frequency of the electric model. I believe that’s why rock bands started erecting ‘walls’ of speakers in outdoor venues – they get massive sound power without a significant increase in the db loudness….

3) There are potentially at least three separate sources of noise from all leaf blowers – the motor, the blower, and the moving air. I don’t believe that much effort has gone into minimizing the blower or air noise because gas-powered motors are so loud by themselves that the blower and air noise is moot. But as electric blowers gain acceptance, and the noise levels drop sharply, I suspect that the role of the blower and moving air will begin to be addressed, making them even quieter. This actually happened some twenty years ago – dishwashers intended for home use got a lot quieter over the course of just a couple of years as the internal plumbing was redesigned to eliminate noise. Thus, I expect that eventually the electric blowers will get even quieter, whereas that is unlikely for gas-powered blowers, so your sound demo probably represents electric blowers in their worst incarnation….

4) Regarding the alleged lower power of the electric models – the market will respond, just as it has in every other case of electric devices. There are now on the market super-powered electric blenders, fans, and even can openers. There’s no reason that manufacturers can’t make more-powerful electric blowers, and with battery technology (finally!) starting to improve, the amount of energy someone can carry on their back will increase correspondingly. And to my earlier point – if electrics take over the market, the attenuation of the electric motor and blower noise can proceed apace, further driving down the overall noise levels of these machines.

The obvious solution is simply to ban the gas-powered blowers. They aren’t wanted, they aren’t needed, and they’re too dangerous.

Thanks to this reader, and others.

Local Engagement as a Solution: a Reader’s Report

 Crew members from A.I.R. in Washington D.C. using modern, no-emissions, much quieter battery-powered lawn equipment. (QCDC photo.)

Crew members from A.I.R. in Washington D.C. using modern, no-emissions, much quieter battery-powered lawn equipment. (QCDC photo.)

Lots of mail has arrived, in response to this recent video by James Fallows, on The Atlantic’s site. Here is an extended and eloquent sample, from a Naval Academy graduate and former naval aviator, now an airline pilot, who lives in a beautiful smallish town in the coastal south.

The main emphasis on this site has concerned the rapidly mounting public health data documenting the dangers of primitive, noisy two-stroke gas engines — and the rapidly arriving alternatives, in the form of clean, much quieter battery-powered models.

This reader stresses an additional theme: the local-action ways to address the problem, during the (inevitable) transition to more modern machinery. As he says near the end of his message:

What I’ve learned from this is leaf blowing machines have become a test for some communities because they test whether we know how to be neighborly to each other.

The reader writes:

Excessive leaf blowing has become a bane of my existence at our historic home in this lovely town.Last Saturday, landscapers used 2 gas-powered leaf blowers and other landscaping equipment across the street from 7:45 am until 12:30 pm – nearly 5 hours of weekend cacophony – from 4 workers who cleaned flower beds with blowers, cut the lawn very low for winter, and then blew and vacuumed too. This was no “mow and blow”. When done, the lawn and flower beds were pristine. For a short while, there wasn’t a leaf or acorn visible in the yard even though the city’s live oaks are shedding. Afterward, the homeowner returned from chores.

There’s more. Another home two lots away had a worker blow at 5:15 pm for about an hour as is routine there on Saturday afternoons by a young man who pulls a gas-powered leaf blower from the trunk of his car.

There’s more. Another home two lots away had a gas-powered leaf blower operated by a landscaper apparently from Jamaica who regularly maintains his yard for about an hour.

And there’s more. On Sunday morning, the leaf blowing commenced, as is routine, at 8:15 am. In every instance cited above, the homeowners were gone or soon departed while landscapers created excessive noise and blew particulate matter into the air where my children play. Peace and quiet is now a rarity at our corner of the neighborhood.

The homeowner across the street owns a landscaping company. About 3 months ago we talked about excessive noise from many leaf blowers working many hours in his yard. The conversation didn’t go well, and he was defensive. I understand, because it’s his profession, he’s a self-confessed perfectionist, and he’s very talented. There were sometimes over a dozen landscapers, half a dozen trucks, and gas-powered leaf blowers literally marching up and down our streets in tandem, and that’s just too much.

But – and this is important – he changed. And when he changed the noise abated significantly. Our family was grateful for the reduction in noise, and we expressed our gratitude.

Then last Saturday the noise at his property returned in full force. And when it did, another neighbor sent my wife a text telling us she had to relocate to a corner of her home because of the noise. At that point, we realized we must act.

I am the son of a New Jersey State Trooper and was raised to work hard to reach my goals, and never give up. I was pointed in the direction of the Naval Academy in large part because of cost, and the summer before my plebe year I worked for a professional landscaper in New Jersey. We didn’t have leaf blowers, but used rakes and brooms. After serving more than 10 years as a Navy pilot, and residing all over the country, my wife and I settled about three blocks from the Pacific Ocean where we restored a 70-year old beach cottage. But we now have children and returned to [our current home] to raise them. We are “reverse migrants”.

We love this city because of its beautiful beaches, stunning neighborhoods, and hospitality. We love our home, and its 300-year old oak tree. I lived in the area as a student naval aviator, and again as a flight instructor. I met my wife here. Our return is a good story, but for damned leaf blowers.

The excessive use of leaf blowers in our neighborhood hurts our quality of life. People have blown particulate matter at our children while they ride their scooters and play “sidewalk chalk” in front of our home. These incidents were accidental I’m sure, but they were also borne out of a lack of knowledge and a lack of consideration. The landscapers failed to “check six” before wielding their 200 miles per hour wind generating machines. The excessive use of leaf blowers often interrupts naps on weekends, and sometimes makes it difficult for me to rest after a week of difficult flying at night. But there’s more.

Another home next door hires a worker to blow on Sunday mornings, and the worker then asks the homeowner behind us to blow there too. He calls it “precision landscaping”, but it’s anything but in practice.

I spoke with both neighbors about the noise and particulate matter and suggested (1) leaf blowers are inappropriate on Sundays because of the noise and other concerns, and (2) commercial leaf blowers are inappropriate on weekends and weeknights because it leads to excessive noise throughout our neighborhood as a norm. They both became defensive, and responded they’re helping the worker pay for food in his mouth, so he can survive.

Last Sunday morning, my next door neighbor called to tell me the worker was about to blow. I thanked her for the notice, but I also disagreed with leaf blowing on Sundays. She said I’m being unreasonable. And ten minutes later the leaf blowing commenced. But there’s more.

After the cacophony last Saturday morning, another gas-powered leaf blower was operated at another home two houses away at 5:15 pm by a young man who regularly shows up Saturday afternoons with old landscaping equipment packed into the trunk of his car. The leaf blowing lasted about an hour. Also, that afternoon, another gas-powered leaf blower was operated two houses away. We’ve had a conversation with that neighbor about loud leaf blowing at inappropriate times because his landscaping crew was cutting trees with powered saws and blowing at 7:30 pm on a weeknight while we were trying to read bedtime stories to our children. He told the workers to continue nonetheless, saying the workers are from Jamaica and they’re earning money to build a home for their family there.

What I’ve learned from this is leaf blowing machines have become a test for some communities because they test whether we know how to be neighborly to each other. Locally, I’ve learned people rarely talk when somebody else does something that bothers them. Perhaps some view my willingness to talk as brash, but I think it’s important we talk to each other and it’s healthy when we talk respectfully and honestly.

The Boston Globe Weighs In

 Editorial column from the   Boston Globe , November 19, 2018 .

Editorial column from the Boston Globe, November 19, 2018.

A strong column by Renée Loth in the Boston Globe. Sample:

They average over 90 decibels, beyond the threshold for risk of hearing loss established by the Centers for Disease Control. But it is their unique combination of high-frequency and low-frequency sound waves that makes them so intolerable. The low-frequency waves travel farthest and produce the worst health effects, but the high-frequency waves (think dentist drill) add a certain piquancy.

Worth reading it full, including for the column’s exploration of the “raking alternative.”

It is impressive to see how the message — specifically, that this is an antiquated and needless technology, that does a surprising amount of damage — is spreading. Congrats and thanks to the Globe and Ms. Loth.

A Big and Intriguing Move from the Power-Equipment Lobby

 The power-equipment lobby, announcing that it has hired a battery-equipment specialist.

The power-equipment lobby, announcing that it has hired a battery-equipment specialist.

Over the years, the analyses and arguments on the site have contended that shifting away from outdated gas-powered lawn equipment amounts to “accelerating the inevitable.”

That is, two-stroke gas-powered equipment is already many decades past its technological prime. Cleaner, quieter alternatives, in the form of battery-powered equipment, are improving rapidly in price and performance. And the evidence about the public-health and environmental toll of these outdated machines continues to mount.

Thus the significance of a move this month from the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, which is the DC-area lobby for lawn-equipment manufacturers.

At the hearing before the Washington D.C. City Council’s Committee of the Whole this past July, OEPI’s representative barely even pretended to deal with testimony about the uniquely penetrating acoustic qualities of gas-powered lawn equipment. Nor did he address the resulting health damage to lawn-crew workers and the community as a whole.

Instead he met all complaints by saying that “more considerate” use of the machinery was the answer. This has been the lobby’s position for decades, with a (non) effect that can be judged by anyone who has seen urban lawn crews in action.

After the hearing came not an attempt to shore up the evidence or testimony, but instead an intriguingly different move. OEPI, for decades the center of support for old-style gas-powered machines, has hired a new specialist in battery-powered equipment! According to a story in a trade journal, Irrigation and Green Industry:

“We’re excited to have Brandon [Martin] join the staff here at OPEI,” says Kris Kiser, OPEI President and CEO. “His experience in product development, channel support, and marketing will make him a key part of our team as we continue to expand our staff expertise in the battery and electric product space.”

We’re excited too. Congratulations.

The Wall Street Journal on What's Wrong with Leaf Blowers


In the Wall Street Journal this past week, the writer and teacher Adrienne Bernhard makes a scientific, environmental, cultural, and public health argument against today’s antiquated use of hyper-polluting two-stroke gas-powered leafblowers.


“Children playing outdoors and people who work from home frequently contend with this menace, but landscapers suffer the most. Since many don’t wear masks, they breathe in fumes, dust and spores while enduring hours of high-volume engine noise—another health risk….

“Leaf blowers also pose a severe threat to the living leaves still attached to trees and bushes—collateral damage from blowers aimed at the ground. Air blasts of up to 200 miles an hour can demolish the habitats of bees and other insects and small creatures, which are essential to their ecosystems…. I might ask my students to consider the irony here: A tool meant to beautify our city parks, backyard gardens and highway meridians is actually destroying them.”

Worth reading in full. Congrats to Ms. Bernhard — and to the Journal’s opinion-page editors, in recognizing that this issue should viewed outside a tedious “regulation bad, market good” framework, and on its technological and public-health merits. This essay is one more bit of evidence of the accelerating, accumulating movement in public, press, and local-government sentiment in favor of a shift to dramatically cleaner, quieter battery-powered equipment. (See the “News” section of the QCDC site, and the D.C. City Council testimony archived here.)

Redondo Beach Bans All Leaf Blowers

The Southern California city of Redondo Beach has applied a complete ban on all leaf blowers, whether gas- or battery-powered. (As a reminder: the legislation now under consideration by the Washington D.C. City Council would apply only to the hyper-polluting gas-powered models.) 

 "Leaf blower bans have been spreading across the country." From   The Beach Reporter  .

"Leaf blower bans have been spreading across the country." From The Beach Reporter.

According to an article in The Beach Reporter, by David Rosenfeld, the Redondo Beach ban covers all types of blowers, and is being received successfully:

Soon after the ban on motorized leaf blowers took effect on Aug. 11, [a local family] the Siekers made up fliers notifying their neighbors about the prohibition and went around the neighborhood passing them out and speaking with people.

“We only had one or two people who didn’t agree with the leaf blower ban and said they would violate the rule,” Douglas Sieker said. "It was a matter of not wanting government to tell them what to do.”

Redondo Beach is actually late to the leaf blower ban game. The city of Los Angeles instituted its ban in the 1990s and similar bans exist in neighboring beach cities including Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach. For the past 20 years, leaf blower bans have been spreading across the country.

For the Siekers, leaf blowers started to become more of a nuisance in recent years. When things really started getting bad, Elaine began keeping a notebook. That’s when the couple calculated there were 26 leaf blowers going every six-day period.... 

“My wife would have to shut all the westerly facing windows when the gardeners came one or two doors down from us,” Sieker said. “If we left the windows open we would find our blinds and drapes full of dust.”

The Siekers were told by an arborist that leaf blowers could have been destroying their 20-year-old geranium plants. The arborist told them leaf blowers can push aphids and other insects from grass and leaf clippings into plants, Siekar said.

Read the full story here.

Elkhart County, Indiana, Begins to Address Noise as a Public Health Challenge

 From the  Elkhart  Truth   this month.

From the Elkhart Truth this month.

Elkhart County, in northern Indiana, has begun a broad effort to address noise issues of all sorts. According to a new story by Jordan Fouts of the Elkhart Truth, public-health concerns about hearing loss are a principal force behind this change:

“There are health effects from noise, there’s no question about that,” said Lydia Mertz, Elkhart County health officer. 

In addition to more obvious forms of harm, like hearing loss or tinnitus, she said continuous noise above 65 decibels can have a range of other effects, including increased stress and anxiety levels, higher blood pressure and sleep disturbances. 

“It’s true that loud noises will lead to hearing loss, and anything over 70 dB will lead to a problem,” she said. “In big cities, you often reach decibels of 75. It’s really not good for your ears.”... 

It’s not something you just build up a tolerance to, either, she said. Any damage that happens is permanent.

“We do have a lot more hearing loss than we used to, and I think we will have a lot more of that,” Mertz said. “When cells (in the ear) are damaged, once they’re permanently damaged, they are not going to come back.”

Read more from the whole story. Congratulations to the leaders and people of Elkhart County, for realizing that ambient-noise issues are a serious public health concern, and one not confined to the biggest cities or the wealthiest suburbs.  (And by the way, support your local publications -- from the Elkhart Truth, to the Redlands (Ca.) Daily Facts.) 


Another City Moves Away From Gas-Powered Equipment: Ojai's Story


As the item above, from KCLU in California, explains, the city of Ojai, in Southern California, has permanently moved away from (noisy, outdated, incredibly polluting) gas-powered leaf blowers and other lawn equipment . 

As the story points out:

Ojai Mayor Johnny Johnston says like many communities, the city has wrangled with the leaf blower issue for years. They are important tools, but the noise and pollution are objectionable for many residents. The city has had a ban in place on their use in residential areas, but trying to enforcing it was an issue. Johnson says this new effort by the city to go green with the equipment sets an example for the community....

One of the biggest boosters of this new effort is an Ojai City Councilman who was once a staunch gas leaf blower defender. Randy Haney is a landscape contractor, and he says advances in technology during the last few years convinced them electric equipment is now the way to go. He says the reduction in noise pollution of 40 to 70% is a huge extra incentive.

The maintenance team has only been using the new tools for a short time, but the early reviews from the people who actually use them is good.

You can read the whole report here. Congratulations to the people and leaders of Ojai. 

Lawn & Landscape Magazine on the Coming of the Battery-Power Era

 From   Lawn and Landscape  , a crew from Sun Power Lawn Care in Florida runs a successful business with battery-powered equipment.

From Lawn and Landscape, a crew from Sun Power Lawn Care in Florida runs a successful business with battery-powered equipment.

"What’s so quiet the neighbors might not know you’re servicing a lawn – and so clean that you’ll never have to worry about an engine flooding or a mucky carburetor? Electric equipment use is on the rise as more commercial-grade hand-held and mower options enter the market. Some landscape companies are even committing fully to electric-powered fleets. Two firms shared how and why they made the switch, and what they learned during the process."

In the recent hearing before the D.C. City Council, two operators of lawn service companies that had switched from gas- to battery-powered equipment told about their successful and profitable operations with these new machines. You can read the comments of one of them, Nancy Sainburg, here, and of the other, Zack Kline, here

Now a leading trade magazine, Lawn and Landscape, has a big feature on the increasing importance of clean, battery-powered equipment across the industry. It's the source of the quote above. You can read the whole thing here. Congrats and thanks to Lawn and Landscape.