The Silence of the Leaf Blowers
Joanna Glasner Email 09.23.05 | 2:00 AM
The PB-460LN, made by Echo, generates noise levels of 65 decibels. Earlier models were several times noisier.
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John Fricke says he doesn't mind seeing a few leaves on lawns and sidewalks in the concrete-convered neighborhood where he lives in Emeryville, Calif. The noise from people cleaning up the leaves, however, is another story.
"The other day, I was taking my daughters to school ... and there was one guy outside using a gas-powered leaf blower, and another using a gas-powered weed whipper," said Fricke, who is now leading a local effort to ban the devices and their ear-splitting screams, produced by up to 10 fans spinning at 4800 RPM to 6000 RPM.
Fricke isn't alone. Noise complaints are creating dust-ups across the country between residents in search of peace and quiet and high-tech leaf blower manufacturers who say proposals to ban their products ignore the science. New technologies have led to breakthroughs in blower noise reduction, the companies argue, quelling the whine of the high-velocity fans and bringing many models well within acceptable noise limits.
"That high RPM causes a screaming sound, and that screaming sound is what bothers everyone," said Larry Will, a consultant and former engineering vice president for Echo, a maker of outdoor power equipment that routinely opposes blower bans in communities that propose them. "The ban is blind. It doesn't recognize that there's such a thing as a quiet blower."
With autumn leaves falling, municipalities are gearing up for a fresh season of citizen complaints about leaf blower noise. While a number of cities, including Los Angeles; Aspen, Colorado; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Palo Alto, California, currently have full or partial bans on gas-powered leaf blowers, scores of others are considering such moves.
Fricke and a neighbor recently asked the Emeryville city council to ban blowers. And Fricke, who is currently running for council, plans to make such legislation a priority if elected.
Arrayed against grass-roots organizers are a fleet of quiet blowers that promise to produce four times less noise than older models.
Echo's quietest power model, the PB-460LN Quiet 1, operates at a volume of 65 decibels, which is quieter than typical freeway traffic. Modifications designed to dampen blowers' volume include adding soft materials to absorb sound and putting mufflers on air intakes.
Echo isn't the only one working on a quiet blower. Power equipment maker Husqvarna began selling a new blower this year, the 356BTx, that operates at 64 decibels. Older models were as loud as 78 decibels. (Decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, so a move from 78 to 64 is several orders of magnitude quieter.)
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power also developed and holds a patent on a battery-powered leaf blower that it claims can work as well as gasoline-powered blowers, but with substantially reduced noise and zero emissions.
The trouble with quiet blowers, however, is that they're usually more expensive than noisy ones. Quieter leaf blowers aren't putting the kibosh on new community bans, either. Palo Alto, for example, voted to ban gas-powered blowers this summer. Repeat violators are subject to a $200 fine.
In Los Angeles, errant leaf blower operators can be fined $100.
In a city with plenty of serious crime, however, consultant Will doesn't believe leaf blowers are a top priority.
"If you have a choice of going after a domestic abuse case where a woman may be getting beaten or a leaf blower, who are you going to go after?" he said.
Landscaping contractors are also fighting the bans. The California Landscape Contractors Association estimates that landscapers' costs would increase an average of 21 percent if they had to perform the same functions without leaf blowers.
Fricke argues that such comparisons aren't valid because yards don't need to be perfectly spick-and-span when raked by hand.
"A leaf blower, because it's so effective at pushing every speck of dust on the ground, it creates this determinism of getting every speck so the person is consumed with this goal," he said. "Without the leaf blower, the standard of clean would not be so high."