Springtime in and around Washington, D.C., is very pleasant, especially when the famous cherry blossoms are in bloom around the Tidal Basin and along streets and in yards all across the city and its environs. Then come the flowering dogwoods, magnolias, and several species of crepe myrtle, followed by the bright green leaves of maples, oaks, and elms. Soon, however, as the grass gets a little too long and wild, thousands of lawn mowers, trimmers, and—worst of all—leaf blowers emerge on the scene and drown out the tranquility with a blaring roar and smelly oil and gas fumes.
Indeed, nothing breaks through a songbird chorus on an early summer day like a leaf blower. Not only is a typical gas-powered leaf blower very loud and (at least a little) obnoxious, it also turns out to be a source of considerable air pollution. The engines are smaller and simpler compared to what we are used to in cars, and therefore inexpensive, and the lack of emission-control and efficiency features means that the combustion needed to generate a blast of air to push leaves around is actually quite inefficient and dirty.
In 2011, a study released by Edmunds’s InsideLine.com found that an ordinary leaf blower emitted “more pollutants than a 6,200-pound 2011 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor.” When a common two-stroke model was tested, it generated 23 times the carbon monoxide and almost 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons than the full-size pickup. That same year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, there were about 11 million gas-powered leaf blowers in use.
Since then, many mayors and local leaders have taken steps to help rid their communities of these small but potent polluters. According to Lesley Riddle, Director of the Department of Public Works, the city of Hyattsville, Maryland, took action in 2021 to ban gas-powered leaf blowers based on a proposal offered by City Council Vice President Danny Schaible. And city leadership recognized the issue provided an opportunity to lead by example, which led it to update its own stock of leaf blowers to electric when the ban was approved in June 2022.
At the time, nearby Washington, D.C., had already passed a similar ban, and the experience of other local governments helped inform Hyattsville’s decision. “Research for those bans demonstrated the noise and air pollution caused by gas-powered leaf blowers is harmful to human health, particularly to the operators of the blowers,” said Riddle. “They are also harmful to our local environment and wildlife.”
Hyattsville took note of the emerging list of best practices to help ensure its approach would be successful. “Most bans were also paired with rebate programs to incentivize participation and to not be punitive to community members who might struggle with the purchase price of a new electric-powered blower,” explained Riddle. Hyattsville followed suit.
So far, the city has held two trade-in events and accepted gas-powered blowers from 25 residents and landscape contractors. Rebates will decrease from 75% of the cost of an electric blower (up to $150) through August 1, 2023, to 25% (up to $50) when the ban takes effect on August 1, 2024. Professional landscapers are also eligible, but first they have to prove they service at least 10 properties within city limits.
The reality of adopting electric lawn and garden equipment is mostly straightforward. Unlike installing an induction range or buying an electric car, a battery-powered lawnmower, trimmer and leaf blower do not require upgrades to any wiring or electrical panels. A regular outlet is all you need for the battery charger. A trip to the hardware store shows the increasing popularity of electric options: a lot of models are available at different price points and have earned endorsements from influential home improvement experts and popular buying guides.
In Hyattsville, the transition away from gas-powered equipment is well underway and going strong, facilitated by the rebate program. “Public support overall appears to be in favor of the initiative,” said Riddle. “The negative feedback is focused on the requirement for residents and contractors to purchase new equipment if they’ve not already made the transition. Positive comments are in appreciation of the reduction in noise pollution and other environmental and public health benefits.”
This author, a long-time resident of Hyattsville, already had an electric lawnmower, trimmer and leaf blower before the rebates became available. But it is encouraging to see new opportunities like the Hyattsville rebate program help more homeowners discover the convenience and performance benefits of electric lawn and garden equipment. Based on personal experience, two fully-charged lithium-ion batteries supply way more than enough power to mow about a quarter-acre of grass; trim along fences, buildings, and sidewalks; and rid the patio and driveway of debris. Eye and hearing protection are still important, but the lack of fumes and exhaust make yard chores a lot more tolerable on a hot day. Recharging takes about an hour, and there is never a need to plan an extra trip to the gas station, buy special oil for mixing, or store flammable liquids in the garage or shed.
Hyattsville has taken additional steps in recent years to help residents and businesses reduce their carbon footprints. This author can attest to what Riddle termed a “multi-pronged approach” to climate change and sustainability that includes green infrastructure, electrified fleet vehicles, stormwater and flooding mitigation, curbside composting, and habitat restoration. “The gas-powered leaf blower ban and trade-in [program] support our goals of reducing carbon emissions, protecting the health of humans and wildlife, and educating the community on how everyday purchases impact climate change,” explained Riddle.
Neighboring counties and cities are considering efforts similar to what Washington, Hyattsville, and other leading jurisdictions have accomplished. “Our biggest challenge as a small local government is funding and staff capacity, making it difficult to prioritize programs,” said Riddle. “Our recommendation to other local governments is to start somewhere! Every little bit makes a difference; don’t get hung up on waiting for the perfect program. There are federal, state, and local funds available to support climate-related initiatives, and connecting with other local municipal leaders can help point you in the right direction.”
For more information about going electric—for home appliances, commercial equipment, and personal and fleet vehicles—check out EESI’s Beneficial Electrification Toolkit.
Author: Daniel Bresette
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