OPINION: Different wake-up call | Awake now to issue of leaf blowers

Esbin Cabrera blows leaves down 14th Street near Colony Park in Atlanta, where he and his crew from Russell Landscape Group Inc. were working. (JOHN SPINK / 2002 AJC FILE)
Esbin Cabrera blows leaves down 14th Street near Colony Park in Atlanta, where he and his crew from Russell Landscape Group Inc. were working. (JOHN SPINK / 2002 AJC FILE)

Credit: ajc staff

Credit: ajc staff

The droning seems to be always there. Always, always there. Sometimes its merely a rrrrrrrrrrrr in the background. Other times it’s a louder, aggressive whine undulating with a low-tone roar — RREEEEE! RRAARRRR!! RRRAAARRRRR!!!

I’m talking about leaf blowers, alternatingly a beloved timesaver and a despised community annoyance.

I live in a neighborhood called Leafmore, a 1960s community that lives up to its name. There’s a zillion trees and, come fall, those leaves must be moved. Hence the leaf blowers.

Actually, it’s not just in the fall. It’s year-round as people increasingly aspire to have manicured yards with no blade of grass out of place or any fallen leaf cluttering the view. One day, pre-autumn, off in the near distance, I heard a multi-blower attack. Minutes later, while walking my dog on the next block, I watched a couple of landscapers blowing what probably accumulated to a bushel basket of yard detritus. If that.

The annoyance of leaf blowers is certainly a First World problem and fades in comparison to the pandemic, mass unemployment and political discord. Still …

The pandemic has amplified, so to speak, the irritation as many of us now sit in spare bedrooms and do our jobs. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have weighed in on the subject, as corporate Zoom meetings are serenaded by the background noise of lawns being cleared.

I can hear one now at 12:25 p.m. Friday, just like I did at 8:15 a.m., and probably will again later in the afternoon.

I called DeKalb County Commissioner Jeff Rader, who represents my area, and he said he’s getting more complaints these days, probably because more constituents are cooped up at home.

In fact, he hears complaints from inside his own home. “Every Monday morning at 7:30 they go at my neighbor’s place. It drives my wife crazy,” he said. “It’s such an assault with three guys blowing everywhere.”

And perfectly legal. In DeKalb, landscaping power tools are OK from 7 a.m. (yes, 7 a.m.!) to 9:01 p.m. on weekdays, and from 9 a.m. to 9:01 p.m. on weekends. Atlanta is 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

In Marietta, Georgia, Judy Bell was busily fighting the battle of autumn leaves back in 1997. (ANDY SHARP / AJC FILE)
In Marietta, Georgia, Judy Bell was busily fighting the battle of autumn leaves back in 1997. (ANDY SHARP / AJC FILE)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

The contraptions are marvels of invention, a backward vacuum with a motor running at 6,000 rpm blasting out 200 mph winds.

They can be tremendous timesavers, a time-lapse video online called “Leaf Blower Vs. Broom” shows the battle of 20th century technology versus that of the Middle Ages. (Spoiler alert: The leaf blower wins, clearing a big suburban lot with a 210-foot driveway in under seven minutes, versus 57 with the broom.)

But the noise, and the noxious fumes, override the wonder of the devices for many. In recent years, there’s been a growing effort to ban motorized leaf blowers — those with two-stroke engines, the ones where you mix oil with the gas and then leave a plume behind you. Washington, D.C., did so in 2018, making the use of gas-powered leaf blowers a no-no inside that city’s limits, effective in 2022.

In November, the Athens-Clarke County government decided to look at regulating them. Commissioner Russell Edwards, who called them a “scourge,” said leaf blowers have become “a sleeper issue that resonates.”

“Folks sometimes grow resigned and they’ll hear someone say, ‘I’m tired of this,’ and they’ll say, ‘Hell yes!’”

“I can’t remember what it sounds like not to hear a leaf blower; you cannot tune it out,” said Edwards, who uses a battery-powered blower that is less noisy but also less powerful. “It’s like the chorus of voices have grown to such a level that we’re looking into it.”

“We want to raise awareness of the harm they cause,” said Edwards. No regulation has been proposed.

The harm that he refers to is both auditory, as well as lung-related and environmental.

A metro Atlanta homeowner blows leaves into a pile in 2007. (BOB ANDRES / AJC FILE)
A metro Atlanta homeowner blows leaves into a pile in 2007. (BOB ANDRES / AJC FILE)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

One study published in 2017 in the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies said the sound emitted by leaf blowers carries further than other power tools and can be readily measured at 800 feet, especially the low-frequency waves, which can seep through walls and are effective in invading our homes and ears.

“In addition to the loudness of the sound emitted from these machines, the dominance of low frequency sound is concerning because of the ability of this sound to travel over long distances, penetrate construction walls and negatively impact health, productivity, and/or quality of life,” the study concluded.

(Note, I drew an 800-foot orb around my house and found there are at least 45 homes within leaf blower sonic range, meaning that the odds are good that one will be humming at any given time.)

I called Larry Will, a former engineering executive at ECHO who in the 1990s was tasked with making leaf blowers more quiet and environmentally friendly. He is now retired but advocates on behalf of the industry and runs a website leafblowernoise.com. He contacted the Athens-Clarke government on the issue.

As far as a ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, he told me: “If you make a law like this, there’s going to be a lot of unhappy people because they will have to get rid of perfectly good equipment. There’s a lot going on out there. There’s a movement to get rid of the two-stroke engine. Some people want to save the whales. Others want to save us from leaf blowers.”

He said the environmental concerns are overstated. Advocates argue the devices are many times more dirty than car or truck emissions. However, he noted, a leaf blower might burn 10 to 20 ounces of gas in an outing where a driver burns 20 gallons a week.

John Ramsey Jr. works on a customer's lawn in the Promenade Oaks subdivision in Atlanta.  (JOEY IVANSCO/ 2006 AJC FILE)
John Ramsey Jr. works on a customer's lawn in the Promenade Oaks subdivision in Atlanta. (JOEY IVANSCO/ 2006 AJC FILE)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Will said that bans or strict regulations on leaf blowers will impact contractors who are just trying to earn a living. Those who mow, edge and clean up other people’s lawns — often immigrants — are existing paycheck to paycheck. The equipment makes it quicker and cheaper to give your yard that sought-after groomed look. Hand those workers a rake and your landscaping bill will go up. Or maybe they’ll be out of work.

On the noise issue, Will said the industry was able to lessen leaf blowers’ noise levels from 77 decibels at 50 feet two decades ago to a current 65 decibels. And the industry is always trying to improve, he said. The old ones, he admits, can be noisy and dirty.

Will, who lives in Nicholson, northeast of Atlanta, can understand people’s frustration. He likes to go out in his backyard and have a beer or a glass of whiskey but has a neighbor with a noisy blower who likes to keep his yard spotless. Will appreciates his neighbor’s attention to detail but “it gets a little irritating,” he said.

Now, I must add a confession. I have an old ECHO backpack blower that I use to blow off my driveway and the leaves from under the bushes. I still rake the lawn because, being a procrastinator, I wait until a bunch of leaves are down, and I believe a brisk effort with a wide fan rake can beat a leaf blower.

But I have to say, I love my leaf blower. I just hate other people’s.

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