Noisy and polluted leaf blowers are finally running on electricity

Noisy and polluted leaf blowers are finally running on electricity

The carbon footprint of yard and garden maintenance is bigger than you think. This is where electrical tools come in.

In much of the Northern Hemisphere, the time of year approaches gorgeous fall foliage and the inevitable corollary: the drone of high-powered leaf blowers. However, this year may be quieter.

Leaf blowers aren’t just loud devices in the fall—they’re also pollution cyclones. Blowing tree leaves for just one hour with a gas-powered machine produces nearly as many smog-causing chemicals as driving 1,100 miles in a Toyota Camry, according to the California Air Resources Board. After years of lobbying, those chemical (and audible) effects are now prompting US municipalities to ban gas-powered tools, and provide an opportunity for a new class of electrical options. As these alternatives become more powerful and affordable than ever before, American lawn is finally starting to turn green.

“It’s a better way to do business — better for the environment, better for men, better for customers,” says Jared Kokaj, owner of Outdoor Digs, a small New Jersey landscaping company.

A small group of noise- and climate-conscious homeowners began switching to electric blowers and mowers years ago, but the most significant shift will come from companies like Kocaj: commercial landscapers that dominate lawn-equipment purchases and keep their devices in constant use. The average commercial lawnmower, for example, works 406 hours a year, or 17 days in a row, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

By some measures, emissions from those machines accumulate faster than those polluting highways and highways in the United States. In 2011, the most recent year of available data, gas-powered lawn equipment accounted for 43% of the nation’s VOC emissions and 12% of carbon monoxide, not to mention a mix of other nasty substances such as nitrogen oxides, benzene, butadiene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde.

Over the past two years, Kocaj has joined a wave of entrepreneurs starting to take on this challenge, paying $65,000 for electric Outdoor Digs. He bought two huge mowers from Mean Green Mowers that would handle a full day’s work on a single charge, as well as a truck full of smaller mowers, blowers, trimmers and chainsaws from Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. and Stihl Inc. , each with batteries a crew of 45 people alternate two or three times per shift.

If a new machine lasts three years – the average life of Kocaj gas-powered tools – the investment in electricity will offset. And if the tools last a little longer, a battery-powered gear would actually be a cheaper option.

“It made sense,” Kojaj says, noting that higher gas prices make the economy more favourable. (In a busy month, his crew was burning 1,200 gallons.)

How lawn equipment became electric

The noise level of a leaf blower is generally related to its cost. Until now, much of the industry was driven by two-stroke engines, which have few moving parts and are therefore relatively cheap and easy to maintain. They are also much louder than more precise engines. Insulation adds to the price, so the unit itself often acts as an amplifier for the buzzing machine and the little combustion going on indoors.

But the blowing part of the machine is just a big, focused fan, which makes it relatively easy to run on a battery, or at least easier than a 7,000-pound SUV. A few years ago, even Elon Musk vowed to make a quiet leaf blower, before the internet told him such a thing actually existed. Stihl’s most popular commercial model is as loud as an electric toothbrush, even when it’s pumping air at up to 154 miles per hour — literally the speed of a hurricane.

“We now have battery tools that rival the power of gas,” says Murray Bishop, vice president of sales and marketing at Stihl. “On the professional side, gas is still king, but the battery is growing fast.”

Stihl now sells four different battery stands and a range of chargers, including a mobile charging locker that was introduced last year. Electric machines currently account for just under half of the company’s total sales, and some products, like Stihl’s hedge breakers, can run longer on battery than on a gas tank.

The potential for a quieter, cleaner lawn is clearly a huge business opportunity, and an excuse for businesses and weekend warriors alike to upgrade their gear. Companies that make lawn equipment shipped about 38 million tools last year, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group of manufacturers. A little more than half of those sales were from electric gadgets, but the bulk of battery-powered purchases were made by individual homeowners. This means that manufacturers can still expect a lot of upside in the future as the commercial sector adopts the new technology.

For example, Toro works with Home Depot to stock some stores exclusively with electric gadgets. “Just buy a gas powered mower from us, that might be it [a consumer’s] CEO Rick Olson told analysts last March. “But when they buy a battery electrical product from us, there are 50 other attachments we will market to them as great solutions — whether it’s pole saws, breakers, string breakers, blowers… so they provide an extra boost.”

Similarly, Stanley Black & Decker CEO Don Alan described the trend toward battery-powered machines as a “growth catalyst” for the company. “I really think when we look at this space five, six, seven years from now, we’ll see that a fundamental shift has taken place,” Alan said at a conference in June.

For companies like Kocaj, battery-powered devices can also be useful for reaching commercial customers, including office parks, schools, and distribution centers that often stretch to achieve internal ESG goals or obtain LEED certifications (and the valuable tax credits that come with them).

Getting rid of the backyard gas habit may not be voluntary forever. Recognizing the noise and chemical pollution associated with gas-fired blowers, policymakers across the United States are now taking measures to eliminate them. California was the first to vote in December to ban the sale of most small gas-powered appliances by the end of next year. The state owns nearly as many lawn tools as cars and trucks—and only about 6% of the equipment used by professionals is electrically powered, according to an estimate by the California Air Resources Board.

A series of smaller governments have followed suit since then, including Washington, DC. Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Oregon, and Palm Beach, Florida. The Seattle City Council approved a similar measure last month, and in New Jersey’s outdoor backyard, the blowout ban is spreading. “There’s Montclair, Summit, Short Hills,” Kokaj says. “We saw it coming and we got over it.”

Kocaj is now hoping to push his company’s electron advantage even further, planning a solar farm on its 11-acre headquarters — and solar panels on its trucks — so Outdoor Digs can be electrically self-sufficient. “Right now, we have to plug in the building every night, and I feel like that’s cheating,” he says.

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