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Connolly: When leaf blowers go to charm school

Got leaf blowers in the neighborhood? Probably. Happy about it? Perhaps not.

All over the country, anti-leaf blower citizens' groups, noise ordinances and leaf blower legislation tell this part of the story well enough.

Frustrated landscape professionals tell another part of the story. Without leaf blowers, they say, they can't get their work done fast and effectively.

Both sides have their points but the conflict remains unresolved in many places. It seems important to ask: Can we reduce our ambivalence by sending these unloved appliances (and their operators) to charm school?

According to Larry Will, this is not mission impossible. Will is a professional engineer, who, by his own account, may be the only leaf blower information specialist in the country. He has consulted with more than 130 cities and towns about local conflicts that lead to impending leaf blower limits and bans.

"My goal is to educate people," he says. "If there is any way to find an alternative to a ban, that's the direction we'd like to move them."

How did the leaf blower land in the swamp of low esteem? In the bad old days of the 1970s, says Will, leaf blowers were introduced without any thought for side effects. "At the time, some of them put out 77 decibels of sound at 50 feet per the industry measurement standard," he says.

For a point of comparison, consider a Temple University study that shows 77 decibels is similar to the noise you hear at 50 feet from an active freeway at 10 a.m.

At the same time, according to Will, a third of the fuel was passed through the machine as noxious emissions.

New blowers are no longer this bad. "In the past 10 years, professional-level, gas-powered equipment rated for 65 decibels has come on the market - which represents a 75 percent reduction in noise," he says. By comparison, Will says the noise level in a typical daytime business office is rated around that level. (Leaf blower noise is measured on a logarithmic scale in which a 6 decibel improvement results in 50 percent less noise.)

What about electric blowers? "They are quieter than gas, but their power is insufficient for large properties or professional use," says Will.

"On the emissions front," he adds, "there have been improvements as much as 90 percent. Many leaf blowers now have catalytic converters."

Will personally worked for two years in the early 90s on the first 65 db models while he was vice president of engineering at ECHO, LLC in Lake Zurich, Illinos. He still consults for ECHO.

Older equipment is part of the problem. "These items tend to have a longer average life than most landscaping equipment," Will says. Unless, of course, professional operators are offered the option of buying new, quieter, less polluting equipment rather than face a total ban. "When municipalities specify equipment that runs at 65 db, landscape companies can and do respond favorably. In terms of successful compromises, a noise standard works much better than a total ban," says Will.

The leaf-blowing habits of both homeowners and professionals are partly to blame for the hostilities. Here are eight safety and courtesy tips from Will's web site:

Do not use very early or very late in the day.

Use only one blower at a time.

Maintain the muffler, air intakes and air filter.

Use nozzle attachments; they help reduce sound.

Use the lowest possible throttle speed to do the job.

Use the right blower size for the job.

Never point the nozzle or blow debris toward people, pets, cars, open windows or doors, or houses. Make sure bystanders, including other operators, are at least 50 feet away. Stop blowing if you are approached.

Do not leave the blower running unattended.

Larry Will readily acknowledges the initial doubts that meet his claims. He says a demonstration of modern equipment alongside older equipment is often required. He predicts, too, the industry will eventually achieve even greater noise reductions.

The battle of the leaf blowers is not likely to end overnight. In the meantime, it's November in New England. Get ready to rake, mow - and leaf blow. If you run a leaf blower, think about the lessons offered at the charm school for leaf blowers.

FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT LEAFBLOWERNOISE.COM. DOWNLOAD THE LEAF BLOWER TRAINING GUIDE AUTHORED BY LARRY WILL AT LEAFBLOWERNOISE.COM/LEAFBLOWERTRAINING.PDF. AND IF YOU WANT TO LEARN ABOUT THE ARGUMENTS OF NOISE REDUCTION ADVOCATES, VISIT NOISE POLLUTION CLEARINGHOUSE AT NONOISE.ORG/.

AUTHOR KATHY CONNOLLY RECENTLY RECEIVED A SPECIAL MERIT AWARD FROM THE CONNECTICUT RIVER COASTAL CONSERVATION DISTICT FOR HER WORK AT THE LAKE HAYWARD DEMONSTRATION BUFFER GARDEN IN WEST HADDAM. CONNOLLY IS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER, GARDEN WRITER AND SPEAKER FROM OLD SAYBROOK. EMAIL HER AT KATHY@SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM OR VISIT HER WEBSITE AT SPEAKINGOFLANDSCAPES.COM.

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