Another Community Makes the Switch: Portola Valley

Above, a screenshot from the  story  in the  Almanac  in Portola Valley, California.

Above, a screenshot from the story in the Almanac in Portola Valley, California.

The Almanac, of Portola Valley, in northern California, reports on the City Council’s 4-0 vote to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, after a two-year phase in period.

The story, by Dave Boyce, says:

Before voting to approve the ordinance, council members spoke favorably of the ban as a way to address noise impacts for people who work from home, as a way to slow soil damage since education efforts have not seemed to work, and as a way to address climate change.

"That one is huge," Councilman John Richards said in reference to eliminating the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline-powered blowers. "I think we are absolutely in a crisis."

Councilman Craig Hughes called climate change "the biggest thing that is probably going to impact the most people. ... The more we can pick off low-hanging fruit, especially when there are viable alternatives, we should take every opportunity to do that. Fuel-shifting – transitioning to electric power from fossil fuel – is an easy way to do that."

Congratulations to the residents and city government of Portola Valley.

‘The Washington Monthly’ on the Case Against Leaf Blowers (and other equipment)

Above: From Mike Lofgren’s piece  in  The Washington Monthly  .

Above: From Mike Lofgren’s piece in The Washington Monthly.

The Washington-area writer Mike Lofgren is best known for his books and articles on politics, defense policy, and international relations. He worked for nearly 30 years as a Congressional staffer, mainly for Republicans. In 2012, his prescient book The Party Is Over warned about the developments in Republican-party politics that eventually led to Donald Trump. Another of his well-known books is The Deep State.

Now, in The Washington Monthly, Lofgren argues that it is time to ban hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy lawn equipment. His article is called “The Case for Lawn Care Regulation,” and here is a sample:

“There is little documentation that monitors this activity, but from what I’ve observed over time, fewer people maintain their own lawns than they used to. An aging baby-boomer generation and the rise of dual-income households with little free time are likely causes.

“That means the job is increasingly done by commercial services that use heavy backpack blowers, commercial-grade string trimmers, and mowers suitable for golf courses…. The mowers, with massive engines lacking mufflers, generate far greater perceived noise than consumer-grade mowing equipment.

“By every reasonable standard, the lawn equipment noise problem meets the common law threshold of a persistent nuisance degrading the quiet enjoyment of one’s property. Every time I have raised the issue with local residents, they agree that the commotion is frequently unbearable, but no one looks for a solution. Perhaps they feel it is one of those ever-present annoyances about which nothing can be done, like the gulag experience of airline travel or self-service checkout at Home Depot.”

Lofgren goes on to suggest what a useful response might be. Worth reading in full. Thanks to Lofgren and The Washington Monthly.

The Surprisingly Ramifying Effects of Hearing Damage

This past spring, both the Pew trusts and the federal Centers for Disease Control issued reports about hearing loss, among Americans of all ages, as a rapidly rising public health threat, and about rising levels of ambient noise as a principal cause. Louder and louder urban life—because of sirens, machinery, traffic, even music playing in earbuds or sound in loud public spaces like restaurants—was becoming “the new second-hand smoke,” according to one source quoted in the Pew report:

Noise is “the new secondhand smoke issue,” said Bradley Vite, an anti-noise advocate who pushed for regulations in Elkhart, Indiana, that come with some of the nation’s steepest fines. “It took decades to educate people on the dangers of secondhand smoke. We may need decades to show the impact of secondhand noise.”

Now Jane Brody, veteran personal-health columnist for the New York Times, has an update about the surprisingly ramifying effects of hearing damage. In the popular imagination, hearing problems are often portrayed as inevitable fallibilities of age — “Grandma forgot her hearing aid, so you better talk extra loud.” By contrast, almost everyone recognizes vision-damage as a serious practical and emotional obstacle.

The sub-headline of Brody’s article is, “Poor hearing is not just an annoying inconvenience.” She explains:

Now a growing body of research by [Dr. Frank R. Lin, head of a hearing center at Johns Hopkins] and his colleagues and others is linking untreated hearing loss to several costly ills, and the time has come for hearing protection and treatment of hearing loss to be taken much more seriously….

Two huge new studies have demonstrated a clear association between untreated hearing loss and an increased risk of dementia, depression, falls and even cardiovascular diseases. In a significant number of people, the studies indicate, uncorrected hearing loss itself appears to be the cause of the associated health problem.

The story is worth reading in full, at the NYT’s site.

With the Mayor's Signature, the District's Shift Away from Gas-Powered Equipment Begins

Screen shot of the beginning of the District’s newly enacted Leaf Blower Regulation Act, above.

Screen shot of the beginning of the District’s newly enacted Leaf Blower Regulation Act, above.

On December 26, Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser signed D.C. Act 22-538, which begins the District’s shift away from hyper-polluting, dangerously noisy, technologically obsolete gas-powered lawn equipment.

The process of community engagement and information-sharing that led to this decision began nearly three and a half years ago, in the fall of 2015. During this past year of 2018, the legislative record was:

  • Unanimous approval by the City Council’s “Committee of the Whole”

  • Unanimous approval by the entire Council on its “first reading,” or initial passage

  • Unanimous approval by the entire Council on its “second reading,” or final passage

  • Signature into law by the Mayor

Details will come in this site and elsewhere about sharing information on the hows and whys of speeding adoption of battery-powered equipment, and sharing the District’s experience elsewhere. For now, congratulations and thanks to all involved.

(Screen shot of the signature page, below.}

Signature page from the new Act.

Signature page from the new Act.

Note for the record: under the “Taxation Without Representation” regime that governs activities in the District, in theory the U.S. Congress could, within the next 30 days, vote to overturn this Act, as it can with other decisions of the D.C. City Council.

But in practical terms that would require the new House of Representatives, under Democratic control, and the new Senate, still under Republican control, both to approve such an over-turn measure, and then for Donald Trump to sign it. Anything is possible, but the odds of the 116th Congress getting around to this in the next month, when it is still struggling with such basics as funding the federal government, seem vanishingly remote.


From the D.C. City Council’s  legislative-status site .

From the D.C. City Council’s legislative-status site.

The ongoing saga of this site has been the effort to have the District of Columbia, home of the national government, provide a positive example for the nation in mandating a shift from hyper-polluting, outdated gas-powered outdoor equipment to modern battery-powered replacements.

Today, December 28, 2018, that measure was “enacted,” when Mayor Muriel Bowser “returned” to the city council the legislation to that effect that it had unanimously passed.

Thanks and congratulations to Council Member Mary Cheh, who introduced this bill; to Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who scheduled hearings and Council action; to all the other Council members who supported it; and to the Advisory Neighborhood Commissions across the District that offered their support.

Now, on to implementation!

Audubon Naturalist Society Makes the Switch

From  ConservationBlog , the Audubon Naturalist Society newsletter.

From ConservationBlog, the Audubon Naturalist Society newsletter.

The Audubon Naturalist Society, a long-standing conservationist alliance whose efforts are centered in the Washington D.C. region, has helped in the effort to shift the District away from gas-powered leaf blowers.

Now the ANS newsletter has announced that the organization itself has made the switch. Sample:

Knowing what we do about how important it is to protect wildlife habitat from sensory assault, we at ANS have long been careful to use low outdoor lighting at our Woodend Sanctuary so as not to confuse or harm birds and other animals at night. But, for a long time we have used traditional gas-powered leaf blowers to clear our many driveways, lawns, and pathways, because it’s such a big job that older electric technology wasn’t up to the task. But this fall, in time with our advocacy on the D.C. Council bill, our Property Manager Bjorn Busk made the switch! Check out this video [available at ANS site] of how quiet and effective his new electric battery-powered leaf blower is.

The birds and other animals of the Woodend Sanctuary thank the leadership of ANS, and so do we.

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.