Equipment Options: Backpack and walk-behind blowers

A rather fanatical anti-blower advocate in Portola Valley, Calif., has come up with a new term for power blowers: noise bazookas. This Santa Barbara-area resident was persistent enough in his anti-blower efforts to garner enough local support to ban the use of leaf blowers in his city. He's not alone in his intolerance of blowers. In cities across the country, council members--often with little understanding of decibel levels, industry standards or blower technology--are putting landscape contractors and others who rely on blower use virtually out of business. And despite the fact that manufacturers in the grounds-maintenance industry have been devoting millions of dollars to develop technology to lower blower sound levels and emissions for years, a group in Los Angeles currently is working to come up with a totally new blower technology with a timeline to have a concept model ready for manufacture before next spring.

Problems facing power blowers have become so widespread that the Wall Street Journal reported a story on the topic on its front page last November. Headlined "If you want to hear this catwoman hiss, just blow in her ear," the article described how actress Julie Newmar, best known as "Catwoman" on the 1960s "Batman" television series, organized a group of local residents in the Los Angeles area to support banning blowers. Resorting to sometimes questionable actions, Newmar took the offensive. For example, when one of her neighbors refused to stop his Latino gardener from using a blower, Newmar took a can of black spray paint and promptly scrawled the word "ruido" in large letters in an alley outside of his house. "Ruido" is Spanish for noise, and the neighbor was not amused. He filed a vandalism complaint against Newmar. Nevertheless, her tactics gained enough support that it is now illegal to use a gasoline-powered blower within 500 feet of a residence in Los Angeles.

In response to the blower bans, landscapers and others have come up with some tactics that blower opponents may find are worse than their original complaints. For example, some blower users have converted older, louder and non-CARB (California Air Resources Board)-certified blowers to run on methanol.

Other former blower users have turned to using "environmentally and neighbor-friendly" rakes. However, in so doing, these landscapers have become much less efficient at their jobs, now performing only half the amount of work they previously accomplished with gas-powered blowers. As a result, many landscapers' incomes have either been cut nearly in half or they've been forced to raise their prices, which has caused some customers to cancel service.

Blower nazis In literature he distributed, the anti-blower zealot in Portola Valley claimed that none of the landscapers he confronted could cite specific economic facts supporting financial ruin that would result from banning blowers. Evidently he never spoke with Robert Hurst, president of Golden Eagle Distributing Corp. (Rocklin, Calif.).

Hurst put together an oversized flyer that he distributed among his blower dealers. In that flyer, he cited statistics compiled by the director of parks for Whittier, Calif., showing that a ban on blowers would have drastic budgetary ramifications on his park department. "For one park alone," Hurst writes, "one with an area of 168,989 square feet, the loss of blower use could conceivably cost tax payers an additional $4,000 per cleanup. According to the study, while it takes 2.25 staff-hours at a total cost of $32.07 to complete the park with a backpack blower, it would take 282 staff-hours at a cost of $4,020.19 to do the same job with a broom."

The voice of reason Despite the irrational thinking that often underlies this emotional issue, some cities have calmly listened to the arguments presented against such bans. Blower users in these cities have explained that users and others can reach compromises if they pragmatically discuss the issues. Such compromises include limiting loud noises between certain hours of the day and promoting the "courteous" use of blowers.

Of course, blower manufacturers have been advocating such programs for several years, ever since the first complaints began to filter into the media. Echo Inc. (Lake Zurich, Ill.)--the most-vocal of all blower companies in facing the bans head-on--promotes a "Be smart!" campaign, addressing the appropriate use of power equipment and blowers. Other suggestions have included not using blowers at full throttle, which typically isn't necessary to get the job done.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the bans, however, is the refusal of city councils to consider how today's newer blowers have been designed to be much quieter than older models. Some blower supporters have tried to reason with city council members who are considering bans that, in just a few years' time, most of the older blowers will have worn out and been replaced with newer, quieter versions. And, in public displays of unity, some landscapers have even given up their old blowers and spent unbudgeted dollars to purchase new units to prove how they are trying to work with the cities.

That tactic didn't work in Los Angeles, which--as mentioned--banned blower use. However, after some local landscapers organized a hunger strike to protest the ban, the city evidently decided the problem was more significant than city leaders had realized. As a result, the city began talks to try to work with local landscapers to come up with a solution to meeting their need for the units. But the solution may seem rather absurd to blower manufacturers, who have devoted millions of dollars and man-hours to designing quieter, lower-emission blowers. In L.A., the city's Department of Water and Power has organized a Leaf Blower Technology Task Force to look at designing and manufacturing a new technology of blower.

Scott Neuman, a business analyst with the city's Department of Water and Power, explains. "We were asked by the city council to come up with a new technology," he says. "The task force is really an advisory group. It was put together by those that represent users of leaf blowers as well as those who have been concerned with leaf-blower use. The main purpose is to come up with criteria by which we would judge if a leaf blower is acceptable and, if we can find one that is acceptable, then to find what kind of minimum characteristics would be desirable in that unit."

Attempting a new technology In March, the task force developed equipment-review criteria and performed a preliminary review of several prototype leaf blowers. Besides testing a "baseline" gas unit, task-force members reviewed several units that local people had designed, literally, in their garages. They tested the units--three electric (corded and battery-powered) units, a gasoline-powered blower with a vapor-recovery system and a gasoline-powered unit converted to methanol--and compared them to one another and to a rake/broom combination.

Afterward, Neuman says, "We put together a brief, preliminary report for the city council. We reported that nothing we'd reviewed [other than the gas-powered unit] was acceptable to the gardeners at the present time."

At about the same time, Neuman continues, the task force got in touch with an internationally acclaimed L.A.-based research and development firm, AeroVironment, which offered to do some gratis design and testing of new blower technologies.

"We loaned them some equipment that we used--gas and corded power units," Neuman explains, "and they looked at that. And they shadowed one of the crews that did maintenance work [in the area] and just observed what was being done so they could take some notes and learn what the characteristics [of the blowers] ought to be."

After an initial 6-week period, AeroVironment got back to the task force. "They said they wanted to develop a concept unit, like a prototype. They made a proposal to develop one with energy-efficient, off-the-shelf components and then one that was more cutting-edge, that wouldn't be cost-effectively available yet," Neuman says.

"Our main goal is to put together two prototypes, then test them, modify them and develop a final specification on what we'd be looking at in a final model."

The task force's expectations are extremely high. A timeline published in early May listed goals as: Delivery of preliminary specifications report: May 29 * Development of leaf-blower concept unit No. 1: June 30 * Development of leaf-blower concept unit No. 2: July 31 * Delivery of final specifications report: August 31 * Send RFP to prospective leaf-blower developers: Sept. 18 * Delivery of proposal review report: Oct. 30 * Award commercialization funding contract(s): Nov. 23.

"If it looks like [a concept design] is adequate, we'll award a development incentive for the production and commercialization of these units," Neuman says.

"Then the Water and Power Department will help with the marketing of this and getting it to the gardeners. [But for now,] we're waiting for all the Ts to be crossed and Is to be dotted on developing these concept units."

Neuman admits that the task is a challenge. And he is adamant in maintaining that the group is not trying to point a finger of failure at anyone. "We will take a look at the problem with AeroVironment with a different perspective [from the current blower manufacturers]. The manufacturers haven't done that. They haven't had to design a blower based on the criteria that we've set. Ultimately, we're not looking to go into production on this anyway. We'll be expecting the manufacturers to step up to the plate and take this on. But what we'll have done is set a minimum standard.

"Were not trying to tell the manufacturers that we can do something better than them," Neuman emphasizes. "We're just trying to say that if we look at it from this angle, then maybe we can come up with something different." Only time will tell.

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