In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of residents in the affluent New York City suburb of Westfield, N.J., discovered that being home all day had an unexpected drawback: the constant roar of leaf blowers.
“It became much more apparent to people who were attempting to work from home, or attend school from home, that there was this irritation in the environment constantly,” Westfield resident Lois Kraus told Yahoo News.
By November 2020, when fall leaf season had peaked, some of them had had enough. Kraus joined forces with a resident of Montclair, another leafy New Jersey town, to co-found Advocates for Transforming Landscaping in New Jersey, with the mission of getting state residents to adopt more sustainable landscaping practices.
They are part of a decentralized nationwide movement that has seen more than 100 local governments — including four towns in New Jersey and Washington, D.C. — enact at least partial bans on gas-powered leaf blower use in recent years. (Some bans are seasonal, allowing use at peak-leaf times of year.) In October 2021, California passed a law requiring that all small off-road engines used in the state be zero-emissions by 2024. In practice, that means only electric lawn tools will be allowed.
As spring gardening season starts, other state legislatures, including those in New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, are currently considering similar proposals, as are local governments from Dallas to South Portland, Maine.
“I’m focused on how do we take as much of those harmful particulates out of our atmosphere as we can,” Dallas City Council member Paula Blackmon told Yahoo News. Blackmon, who has a son with asthma, has been working on a proposal to reduce use of gas-powered lawn equipment to mitigate Dallas’s air pollution, which she hopes will be discussed in the council by August. Blackmon also mentioned noise — and its increased noticeability since the rise of remote work — as an impetus.
But her efforts, like those of Kraus’s group, are geared toward replacing gas-powered lawn equipment such as mowers, leaf blowers, chain saws, edge trimmers and weed whackers with electric models, which are quieter but not noise-free, rather than banning leaf blowers altogether. Gas blowers run from 80 to 90 decibels, versus 59 to 70 decibels for electric blowers, according to the website LeafScore.
The environmental benefits of going electric are substantial. Since gas-powered lawn tools lack catalytic converters, which lower emissions and are used in cars and trucks, using a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour creates as much climate pollution as driving 300 miles in an average car, according to the California Air Resources Board. And because leaf blowers typically use especially fuel-hungry two-stroke engines, running a gas leaf blower for an hour is equal to an 1,100-mile drive.
According to the Smart Energy Design Assistance Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, gas mowers emit 16 times as much planet-warming carbon dioxide per acre as electric mowers. Even in places where the electricity grid is mostly powered by fossil fuels, the discrepancy is huge because gas-powered mowers use an estimated 13.7 times as much energy as electric models. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, gas-burning lawn tools account for 4% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. They are also a major source of conventional air pollutants that increase risk of respiratory illnesses, including 17% of all volatile organic compound emissions and 12% of nitrogen oxide emissions.
“The co-pollutants, on top of the climate pollutants, are really a health hazard both for the people who work on them and the people who live near where they’re being used,” New York state Sen. Pete Harckham, a Democrat from New York City’s northern suburbs, told Yahoo News. He has proposed a law that would ban gas-powered lawn equipment sales one year after passage and ban their use after four years.
The most vocal opposition comes from companies that provide lawn maintenance, which say electric lawn equipment is expensive, weaker and requires constant charging that will slow down their jobs. Some also raise questions about the environmental, labor and human rights implications of mining for minerals used in batteries such as cobalt.
“It seems like we’re rushing it,” Todd Bradbury, the owner of Bradbury Landscape in Closter, N.J., told Yahoo News. “It’s not that hard to see [switching to electric] in weed whackers, edge trimmers and possibly chain saws. You can use it in a chain saw for trimming, but if you’re cutting up large logs, you’re not going to get as far with battery-powered equipment with where we’re at right now. And the same goes with leaf blowers.”
In Rhode Island, a bill to phase out gas-powered lawn mowers and blowers by 2028 “drew forceful pushback and even threats to leave the state” at a hearing in March, according to the Providence Journal. In Maryland last year, opposition from trade associations defeated a bill to phase out gas-powered leaf blowers. And this year in Georgia, both houses of the state Legislature have passed bills that would prevent local governments from banning gas-powered lawn tools. The bills were sponsored by Republicans, who argued that such bans would lead to job losses in the landscaping industry and would limit economic freedom.
“Your landscape provider, if he can do a better job with a gas leaf blower than he can with an electric, let him do his job,” said Rep. John LaHood, a supporter of the Georgia House bill, in a floor debate late last month.
“Most electric equipment is comparable to gas in terms of power — but when it comes to leaf blowers, electric has not caught up to gas when it comes to the force of the blower as well as the run time,” Gail Woolcott, executive director of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, told Yahoo News.
The average electric lawn mower lasts for just an hour before needing to be recharged. That may be plenty of time for the typical homeowner tending to their own lawn but not for a company that mows constantly throughout an eight-hour workday. One can purchase extra batteries and swap them in throughout the day, but landscapers say that’s a costly requirement.
“A contractor would have to purchase a battery charger and nine batteries to get through peak leaf season,” Woolcott said. Lawn mower batteries typically cost between $100 and $300 and last three to five years.
Woolcott said her group supports a bill in the state Assembly that would provide rebates for the purchase of electric lawn tools, but it opposes another bill that would ban the use of gas-powered tools in three years.
Other states are also looking at supporting electric lawn care through incentives. In Colorado, an ambitious bill aimed at combating climate change would, among other measures, create a 30% tax credit for purchases of electric lawn equipment and snowblowers, for an estimated cost of $11 million per year. It was passed by one committee in the state House of Representatives in February.
Some environmental experts counter that the savings on gasoline will more than even out the cost of switching to electric. The Smart Energy Design Assistance Center calculates that in 600 hours of use and with gasoline at $4.50 per gallon, a gas mower will use $3,200 worth of gasoline, whereas using an electric mower for 600 hours at 12 cents per kilowatt hour will cost $108.
Some sources, like the website Gadget Review, say electric and gas mowers cost the same to buy, while others, such as a paper from Princeton University, say electric mowers are more expensive and that it takes 10 years for the total cost to even out from forgoing gas. Regardless, many landscaping companies contend that the cost of buying new equipment is prohibitive.
“At some point, it would be made up for by the gas savings, but not upfront,” Woolcott said.
Kenny Roberts, who manages a landscaping company in Maine, told the Portland Press Herald last month that commercial electric mowers with the same power as his gas models could cost twice as much. “I’d have to stop mowing in South Portland,” he said. “It’s going to hurt everybody, and the price of having your lawn mowed is going to go up.”
Woolcott said her landscapers' organization supports the long-term switch to electric equipment. It’s just a question of phasing it in more gradually, she said, so owners of gas equipment can wait until the end of its natural lifespan to buy electric replacements. She also wants to see some of the environmental concerns around batteries addressed — the risk of fire from overheating, and the fact that New Jersey has no program for recycling batteries — before a mandate kicks in.
In New York, Harckham said he is currently working on revisions to his bill that he hopes will address professional landscapers’ concerns about cost and allow the bill to move forward this year.
“What we’re doing now is trying to find the sweet spot of what is appropriate for reducing emissions and our climate goals and what is realistic for the landscaping industry,” he said. “If you look at the private home market for landscaping equipment — totally electric: blowers, trimmers, even ride-on tractors. But if you look at the equipment that landscapers need for the 4-, 5- and 6-acre properties, the transition has been slower.”
Harckham is considering revising his bill so the requirements would take effect for personal equipment sooner than for professional equipment.
Meanwhile, Blackmon in Dallas said that some in her district have pushed back along the lines of “don’t tell me what to do with my lawn equipment.” But Harckham said that his constituents are overwhelmingly supportive and that the landscapers are the only major source of opposition.
“We understand this is the direction we’re going, we’re in favor of this because we all want to help the planet, of course, but we want to see it done in a way that doesn’t financially hurt anybody involved,” Woolcott said.