OVERBLOWN?

When a landscaper heads out on a job in Palo Alto, Calif., there's one thing he'd better not forget. In addition to his equipment, driver's license and gassed-up vehicle, he has to make sure he has his leaf-blower license. Landscapers in this anti-blower city must take a blower etiquette class, pass a written test, carry a license and buy low-noise equipment.

The city's response to blowers may be extreme, but it is par for the course in California. The first state to encourage the widespread use of blowers (during a period of drought in the 1970s, Los Angeles required gardeners to use blowers instead of water to move debris), California has led the charge to limit their use.

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“There is irony in encouraging the use and then wanting to regulate them out of existence,” says Bill Harley, president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), a trade association of U.S. manufacturers of powered lawn and garden maintenance products, components and attachment supplies.

The noisy racket and smoky haze that leaf blowers produce led to the Great Blower Debate of the 1990s, the effects of which are finally beginning to affect the products on the shelves and, ultimately, the landscaper's bottom line.

CRITICAL EQUIPMENT

By generating a powerful stream of air, a leaf blower can move leaves, twigs and yard debris from hard surfaces like lawns, patios, garages and walks. The California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) says blowers have practically supplanted brooms, hoses and rakes in landscape maintenance professionals' toolboxes.

A typical large tree may have 200,000 to 400,000 leaves, according to Iowa State University. Cleaning up all those leaves, particularly in the coming fall months, is no easy chore even with a leaf blower. In fact, the CLCA estimates that it can take five times longer to clean a typical landscape site with a broom and rake than it does with a power blower. That organization's members estimate that their costs would increase about 20 percent if they had to perform the same functions without a leaf blower. They say they could pass along just 31 percent of the increased costs.

Although professional landscapers were originally the primary users of leaf blowers, homeowners have quickly gotten in on the act. About 1.5 million blowers are sold in the United States each year; only one-third is heavy-duty equipment for commercial users while the rest of the market is consumer grade. With dozens of blowers in use on any given block, it didn't take long for the noisy machines to anger neighbors.

REGULATION CHANGES

“What makes the leaf blower different from all other lawn care products is that there are local rules being developed to limit the use of leaf blowers due to the sound they generate. In some cases, they are even banning them,” says Larry Will, retired vice president of engineering for Echo, who consults for the company on blower issues.

Early leaf blowers averaged about 78 decibels, with some machines measuring even louder. The League for the Hard of Hearing reports that noise levels above 85 decibels can harm hearing over time.

“I don't think there is a manufacturer who would say that they don't understand the noise issue,” says Harley. “They have all made significant strides in making the equipment quieter and continue to work for additional engineering solutions.”

Many new blowers are at or below 65 decibels. For every six decibel reduction, sound intensity is actually reduced by 50 percent. That means many of today's units are four times quieter than older blowers. Typically, 67 to 69 decibels, when measured from a distance of 50 feet, is considered an acceptable noise level in most U.S cities and municipalities.

“As blowers have become much more popular with contractors, complaints by some home owners have prompted regulations related to the limitation of sound levels produced by the leaf blower or limitations for the hours or days of use,” says Jay Larsen, Shindaiwa product marketing and communications manager. “These types of regulations are implemented by local municipalities and can vary greatly as to the requirements of the noise ordinance.”

Noise may be the main complaint at a local level, but engine emissions are what brought the feds into the blower debate. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), gas-powered garden equipment, which includes more than just leaf blowers, contributed 5 percent of the country's ozone-harming pollutants by 1990. While manufacturers believe the percentage is actually much lower, they do concede that the emissions were a problem.

“The unburned hydrocarbons were of particular concern, as they are mainly responsible for the formation of ozone in the lower atmosphere and are considered to be the primary pollutant created by these small handheld engines,” says Martin Maass, manager of engineering and quality reliability for Stihl Inc.

Emission from handheld engines, including those in landscaping equipment, were unregulated until 1990, when the California Air Resources Board (CARB) proposed its Tier I regulations limiting the levels of exhaust that a gas-powered, non-road engine may produce. The regulations reduced the combined limit of ozone-depleting hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (Nox) to 180 grams per brake horsepower hour (g/bhp-hr). Until that time, emissions were as high as 230 g/bhp-hr.

Also in 1990, the federal Clean Air Act gave the EPA authority to enforce non-road emission standards. The EPA's Phase 1 called for a reduction similar to CARB's to take effect nationwide by 1997 for most engines.

These were not drastic measures and manufacturers could meet the changes with minor engine modifications.

The new millennium, however, brought much stricter rules. CARB's Tier II standards, which went into effect in 2000, reduced the emission limit to 54 HC and NOx g/bhp-hr. The EPA's Phase 2 standards include a multi-phase timetable for compliance in which the allowable levels of exhaust are decreased each year between 2002 and 2007. In the end, the federal standards will reduce the emissions limit to 37 HC and NOx g/bhp-hr for most small engines. This means that for the first time, the EPA's emission levels are more stringent than California's.

“The outdoor power equipment industry is now facing what the auto industry was challenged with nearly three decades ago,” says Maass.

IT AFFECTS YOU

Manufacturers' challenges related to noise and emissions regulations may seem inconsequential to landscape contractors. The end result of this debate, however, will directly affect how landscape contractors shop, do their jobs and pay their bills.

Blower design must change to meet stringent emissions regulations and to please the noise police. Simple changes are not enough to meet emission requirements. Manufacturers are working on new “clean” machines by improving engine and sound attenuation technology and by creating larger mufflers, rubber-isolated engine mounts, low-smoke oil and more.

Whatever technology manufacturers use to reduce emissions, it is likely to affect the power and price of equipment you will purchase in the coming years. OPEI's Harley says landscape contractors should be aware that the new regulations will inevitably lead to tradeoffs.

“The cost of compliance is high,” Harley says. “In order to comply, you may have to sacrifice something in power.”

Mark Michaels, Husqvarna's business unit manager for handheld products, puts it another way. “There are two major demand features for backpack blowers: more power and less noise. These two features are diametrically opposed when you try to develop a blower. We believe that improvements can be made to both, but optimizing one will place limitations on achieving the other,” Michaels says.

While there will be different types of blowers available than those on the shelves today, there will likely be fewer of them available to choose from in coming years.

“The changing regulatory landscape could somewhat limit the proliferation of models available from manufacturers, so it's only natural to assume that the contractors and superintendents could have a slightly smaller selection of blowers available to them,” says Jeff Shetler, manager of government relations for Kawasaki.

Of course the bottom line of blower regulations is that the changes will eventually affect, well, the bottom line.

“Meeting emissions regulations is not an inexpensive proposition — continuing research and development to produce products that meet regulations without compromising performance or engine size is critical,” says Maass. “While Stihl attempts to minimize the portion of that expense that is passed on to customers, it is impossible for any manufacturer not to pass on at least some of these costs in some manner.”

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Windsor Heights, lowa.

USE IT RIGHT

Train yourself and your crew in the effective, safe and courteous use of leaf blowers. Most manufacturers offer information through their Web sites or customer service representatives on the proper way to use their leaf blowers.

“It is not enough to just own a quiet blower to prevent the banning of leaf blowers,” says Larry Will, retired vice president of engineering for Echo. “The operator must be made aware of the fact that if he or she uses a leaf blower in an inconsiderate way, someone may still want to limit or ban the use of leaf blowers.”

The California Landscape Contractors Association and Outdoor Power Equipment Institute offer these guidelines for blower use:

  • Wear eye and ear protection and avoid loose clothing, scarves or neck chains when using a blower.

  • Check the equipment's muffler, air intakes and air filters before operation to make sure they are working properly.

  • Operate leaf blowers in residential areas only at reasonable hours (check local ordinances for time limit restrictions); never early in the morning, late at night or on Sundays.

  • Limit the number of leaf blowers being used at once on small residential sites. This will keep the sound generated to a minimum.

  • Minimize the high-pitched whine by running the blower at the lowest possible throttle speed to do the job. Lower speeds reduce sound and give the operator maximum control. Full throttle is seldom necessary.

  • Use the full nozzle extension so the air stream is directed close to the ground to minimize dust.

  • Pay close attention to the generation of dust. In dusty conditions, use mister attachments to slightly dampen surfaces. To clean an excessively dusty area, use a shovel to pick up the large debris and do your final cleanup with water.

  • Keep debris away from neighbors' yards, the street, vehicles, people or pets. Don't use leaf blowers to move large debris piles from one spot to another.

  • Clean up after using blowers. Dispose of debris in trash receptacles or haul it away.

  • Don't wait for complaints to change your behaviors.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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