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'Like acoustic trash': Quiet Clean NOVA group forms to ban gas powered leaf blowers

WJLA – Washington D.C. logo WJLA – Washington D.C. 5/4/2021 Jay Korff
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Critics say they’re obnoxiously loud and dirty. Studies suggest they can damage your hearing and harm the environment. But proponents argue they’re efficient and cost-saving. We’re talking about gas-powered leaf blowers. You may have heard them a bit more this past year while being home more during the pandemic. Now, there’s a growing movement to ban these machines. And a newly formed group is leading a fight that's unfolding on front yards throughout the DMV.

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I was driving around Vienna, Virginia before my first interview with a member of the recently formed group Quiet Clean NOVA when I saw a few people doing yard work. That's when I met 74-year-old Beverly MacDonald. She loves gas-powered leaf blowers. 

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“If you want to get your leaves done up nicely and fast you do need a strong leaf blower and the gas ones seem to be it. I’ve used an electric and all I get is a little puff of air. I’ve tried both and I just prefer the gas because of the power and the efficiency," says MacDonald. 

MacDonald was helping a neighbor with yard work. At one point she put down her leaf blower and tried her neighbor's larger backpack leaf blower.

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“And this is what I would call the Mercedes of blowers. This is for the pros. It is noisier compared to my little putt putt," admits MacDonald. 

The two-stroke gas-powered leaf blower is popular because it's light, affordable and powerful. Some produce wind speeds that top 200 mph. Edin Ramos with Holy Land Landscaping says gas-powered leaf blowers are lighting fast, allowing his team to work more jobs. 

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“First of all, they are efficient. The old ones make more noise than the new ones," Ramos says.

But the louder models are the bane of Avril Garland’s existence.

“It’s just like acoustic trash," says Garland.

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Garland, whose front yard in northern Virginia is a pollinator habitat, prefers a more natural, less manicured environment to live in. She’s part of Quiet Clean NOVA: a new group lobbying Virginia lawmakers to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, calling them noise and air polluters.

“Oh, my God. The emissions are staggering. I really can’t think of anything good about them. It’s a disastrous piece of technology," says Garland.

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According to the California Air Resources Board, your typical gas-powered leaf blower releases exponentially more pollution than your typical gas-powered car. The CDC says 85 decibels of extended exposure can cause hearing loss

In 2011 Edmunds’ InsideLine.com conducted tests comparing an Echo two-stroke leaf blower to the 6,200-pound 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor concluding the leaf blower generated, “...nearly 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC) than the Raptor.”

While newer models are generally below that mark, many older models operate near 90 decibels, some higher.

“It will penetrate walls of a house," Mike Christensen says. "You can hear it in your bedroom.” Christensen, a retired journalist who covered Congress for decades, is among those leading this fight.

“It’s profitable. But you have to look at the health side and you have to look at the environmental side. It’s not good for nature and it’s not good for people. And if you’re doing this day after day particularly without ear protection, it’s dangerous," adds Christensen. 

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Cities across the country are banning or limiting the use of gas-powered leaf blowers. D.C. and Chevy Chase Village are banning them beginning in 2022.  CLICK HERE to see the D.C. ordinance. CLICK HERE to see Chevy Chase's.

Montgomery County leaders tell me they’ll soon push legislation curtailing them as well.

Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer, who serves on the environment committee and is the former chair of the Metropolitan Washington Air Quality Committee, tells 7News On Your Side: "The technology is there now to replace gas-powered blowers. It’s time. Those engines are disproportionately polluting."

State Delegate Kaye Kory of Falls Church says gas-powered leaf blowers are a serious problem. 

“It’s painful when you are close to it," says Delegate Kory. 

Delegate Kory says she’ll push legislation this fall encouraging the use of electric and battery-powered blowers in Virginia, which are considerably quieter. She's clear to say any legislation she proposes will not be anti-business or anti-lawn service. 

"It’s not like anybody who is talking about this is talking about getting rid of leaf blowers. Although, there is such a thing as raking and it’s not bad exercise," concludes Delegate Kory.

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And that’s exactly how Beverly MacDonald finished up her day of yard work. “The hardest part of yard work is the cleanup," adds MacDonald. But MacDonald, as much as she likes her gas-powered leaf blower, says everyone gets to participate in this debate and respects the political process. 

"Well, I’ll be sweeping if it gets totally banned in the neighborhood," MacDonald says.

We reached out to the National Association of Landscape Professionals for comment on this issue. Bob Mann, the Director of State and Local Government Relations at the NALP, responded to our questions. Below are his responses to a number of our questions. 

Quiet Clean NoVa is not opposed to battery/plug-in leaf blowers that don't actively create emissions. Crews I have talked with say, in general, those machines just aren't as efficient or as powerful as gas-powered ones. Is this generally the case?

Equipment performance, run-time, and cost are common concerns for landscapers and technology challenges that must be overcome for widespread use of battery powered landscape equipment. Unlike a homeowner that uses an electric powered leaf blower or mower for less than an hour maybe in a given week, the landscape industry is using this equipment daily, under rigorous conditions and during long durations. Unfortunately, the currently available battery powered equipment is not capable of this sort of use pattern at this time. It’s also important to remember that battery powered equipment is powered by electricity that is generated via methods that create emissions.

Commercial-grade handheld electronic leaf blowers have significant cost concerns for the landscape industry. One popular manufacturer’s electric leaf blower retails for approximately $350 - $400, similar to the same manufacturer’s gas-powered unit. However, to use this electric leaf blower for an entire workday requires the purchase of extra batteries and chargers thus, driving the up-front cost to exceed $1,000. In other instances landscape companies switching to battery powered equipment may need to also purchase portable generators to charge their equipment.

The Portable Generator Manufacturers Association concluded that 2000W zero-emission generators, the size needed to power critical home appliances in the event of a power outage, would provide continuous power for just 35 minutes to 3 hours (depending on the unit), and cost between $1300 and $6000; meanwhile, popular gas-powered 2000W generators can run continuously, and range from $300 to $500.

The infrastructure and technology is not in place within the landscape industry to support fully integrated battery powered equipment at this time. We continue to work closely with our partners that manufacture the equipment used within the industry and when the technology has been achieved for fully integrated battery powered equipment we look forward to moving the landscape industry in that direction.

Leaf blowers are essential for landscape maintenance professionals. This is because they do more than just blow leaves. They are a tool used by landscapers as well as homeowners and other business owners to clean parking lots and sports stadiums, remove snow, clean gutters, and remove flammable debris from around buildings during fire season.

Unfortunately, proposals to ban or restrict gas powered leaf blowers or other gas powered landscape equipment is misguided and is incredibly punitive on small businesses, many of which are minority owned. The landscape industry is committed to continuing these beneficial services to managed green spaces while also reducing our carbon footprint. Moving forward with banning gas powered equipment by landscape professionals would have very negative impacts on landscape companies throughout the state of Virginia, their employees and the various commercial and residential customers they service.

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