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Lowering the vroom on leaf blowers

In Lower Merion, a crusading group that thinks the decibel point is in the wrong place wants to take the racket down.

A not-so-silent spring arrives in Gladwyne. In Lower Merion, a group is raking in support for efforts to curb the right to bear leaf blowers.
A not-so-silent spring arrives in Gladwyne. In Lower Merion, a group is raking in support for efforts to curb the right to bear leaf blowers.Read more

Suburbia's spring anthem is filling the air with its chorus of chirps, a low rumble of skateboards, the mellifluous call of Mister Softee, and - obliterating it all with half the decibels of a jet engine - the ear-piercing shriek of the leaf blower.

Since its invention some 30 years ago in Japan, the leaf blower has conquered the American lawnscape as the top tool for tidying up. Nearly three million are sold annually, from nine-pound plug-ins to 21-pound gas-powered hogs that can blast grass clippings into outer space at 205 m.p.h.

But on the Main Line these days, there's another loud noise, one that threatens to drown out even the mighty blower: a collective shout of "SHUT UP!"

The source is a group whose name is a virtual declaration of war. The 30 members of the Lower Merion Citizens for Action Against Leaf Blowers are crusading for a township prohibition the likes of which the region - indeed, most of the country this side of California - has never seen.

They're pressing the Lower Merion commissioners for an ordinance setting a maximum level of 65 decibels for leaf blowers used commercially in the township. (The average is about 75 decibels, which is actually 10 times louder.)

And - the doozy of the demands - they want to restrict contractors' use of even the muzzled models to 21/2 months a year, from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15.

The rest of the time, yard cleanup "should be performed silently, with a rake," said Bradford Whitman of Wynnewood, a 62-year-old environmental lawyer and the group's founder.

That's heresy in Lower Merion, the Canaan of the local lawn-care trade. Still, an ordinance to knock at least some of the wind out of commercial leaf blowers "probably" will be adopted this summer, said Bruce D. Reed, president of the commissioners.

"I am quite comfortable with regulating noise," said Reed, 51, a corporate lawyer who rakes his Cynwyd lawn and cuts it with an electric mower. "It certainly is true that [leaf blowers] are intrusive. Why not have reasonable regulations?"

Of course, "reasonable" is in the ear of the behearer. As far as Tom Ward is concerned, a nine-month-a-year ban doesn't fit the definition.

Ward is a third-generation Lower Merion landscaper, with almost two dozen properties to tend each day. The competition in the 24-square-mile township is the most intense he has seen in a quarter-century in the business. Survival means more lawns faster. That means leaf blowers, almost year-round.

"I get calls throughout the week just from customers [saying], 'We're having a party tonight. Can you send some guys over to blow off everything?' " he said.

Ward's crews use the big-bomber Redmax EB7001, 4.2 horses and 73 decibels. He wonders whether he needs all that power, whether a quieter model can do "a decent job."

"We'll have to see," he said.

That could happen sooner rather than later. The township is beginning to circulate a draft ordinance among civic associations and landscapers, to test which way the winds of public opinion are blowing.

While exempting residents, it would establish a noise cap for contractors using two or more gas-powered leaf blowers simultaneously: 65 decibels each when measured 50 feet from the motor. But they could be used throughout the year. And there would be no penalty for flouting the rules once they kicked in - on Jan. 1, 2011.

"Completely worthless" is how Whitman described the township's draft. Then again, it's a work in progress, and so his year-old group - environmentalists, doctors, lawyers, stay-at-home moms, teachers - isn't about to stand down, he said.

His mission was born after Whitman left a downtown law practice to work from home as an arbitrator. "Leaf blowers," he said, "shattered my peace."

He insists he's not an intolerant crank: A woodworker in his spare time, he uses a chain saw on fallen branches he turns into art. But even during the heaviest leaf dumps, he and his wife, Elaine, rake the droppings from their maple, beech and coffee trees. A perfect lawn, he says, is not one without clumps of clippings and scatterings of twigs: "To have some amount of nature's product is all part of life."

The township joined Whitman this month in applying for a $200,942 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a leaf-blower trade-in program. For about $250 apiece, landscapers could swap their blowers for low-noise, low-emission models, which are made by only a few manufacturers and usually cost upwards of $450. Whitman estimated the grant could fund 450 exchanges.

The program would be based on one sponsored last year in and around Los Angeles by the regional air-pollution control agency. In the nation's second-most-populous urban area and one of the smoggiest, leaf blowers make more than noise. They spew hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxide and stir up allergens.

Lawn-care professionals there paid $200 to exchange their machines for the $459 Stihl BR500, which the maker says gets no louder than 65 decibels and runs four times cleaner than the state emission standard. In all, 1,500 new blowers were snapped up, with another 1,500 to be offered this summer. Other trade-ins are being planned in Arizona and Nevada.

What seems like a radical proposition in Lower Merion is yesterday's news in California. For instance, it has been two years since the City of Palo Alto banned gas-powered leaf blowers in residential areas, no matter whether contractors or residents were wielding them.

About 100 citations have been issued, with the typical offender fined $100.

"It doesn't make any money at all," Police Chief Lynne Johnson said. Nor has it eliminated noisy lawn cleanup. Users of the legal electric models have been plugging them into gas generators, which "make more noise than the leaf blowers," she said, adding that "there is no prohibition against it."

Despite the ban's foibles, Palo Alto's citizenry protested when Johnson tried to cut the job of the officer who handles blower complaints. The city must look for other ways to trim $3 million from its budget.

In Lower Merion, the township government already is moving to turn down the volume on its own arsenal of leaf blowers, staging a recent demonstration of a low-decibel model in a municipal parking lot.

But there is no way just yet to gauge the enthusiasm among Lower Merion's 60,000 residents for a crackdown that would hit home.

Some of Whitman's own neighbors have snubbed his campaign. Reed, the commissioner, reports some "befuddled looks" at civic association meetings.

The leaf blower may get a lot of trash talk. But in the end, landscaper Ward contends, most people would "rather have the noise to make their properties look good."

How Loud Was That?

The intensity of sound is calculated in decibels (dB). It is a logarithmic measurement, so as the decibels increase by 10, the impact of the sound is 10 times greater.

For instance, 20 dB is 10 times greater than 10 dB, and 30 dB is 100 times as intense as 10 dB.

Sound louder than 80 dB is considered potentially dangerous, depending on the precise level and the length of exposure.

What assaults your ears?

Whisper: 30 dB.

Normal talk, sewing machine, dishwasher: 60 dB.

Lawn mower, truck traffic: 90 dB.

Chain saw, pneumatic drill: 100 dB.

Rock concert, sandblasting: 115 dB.

Jet engine, gun muzzle blast: 140 dB.

SOURCES: America Hearing Research Foundation; American Speech-Language-Hearing Association; American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.