Noisy and polluting leaf blowers are finally going electric

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In much of the Northern Hemisphere, the time of year is near for both brilliant fall foliage and its inescapable corollary: the persistent hum of high-powered leaf blowers. This year, however, may be just a little calmer.

Leaf blowers aren’t just fall’s noisiest piece of equipment, they’re also hurricanes of pollution. Blowing leaves with a gas-powered machine for just one hour produces about as much smog-forming chemicals as driving 1,100 miles in a Toyota Camry, according to the California Air Resources Board. After years of pressure, these chemical (and audible) impacts are now pushing U.S. municipalities to ban gas-powered tools and present an opportunity for a new class of electric options. As these alternatives become more powerful and affordable than ever, America’s lawn is finally starting to go green.

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

A small cohort of noise- and climate-conscious homeowners began switching to electric blowers and mowers years ago, but the biggest change will come from companies like Kocaj: commercial landscaping crews dominating purchases of lawn equipment and keep their machines in constant use. The average commercial lawnmower, for example, runs 406 hours a year, or 17 consecutive days, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

By some metrics, the emissions from these machines are accumulating even faster than those obscuring America’s freeways and highways. In 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, gas-powered lawn equipment accounted for 43% of the country’s volatile organic compound emissions and 12% of its carbon monoxide.

The sound level of a leaf blower is generally correlated to its cost. Much of the industry to date has been 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 refined engines. Insulation drives up the price, so the unit itself often acts as an amplifier for the humming machinery and tiny combustions that occur inside.

But the blower part of the hardware is just a large concentrated fan, which makes it relatively easy to run on a battery, or at least easier than a 7,000-pound SUV. Stihl’s most popular commercial model is about as loud as an electric toothbrush, even though it pumps air at up to 154 mph – literally tornado speed.

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

Stihl sells four different battery platforms and a line of chargers, including a mobile charging cabinet it rolled out last year. Electric machines account for just under half of the company’s overall sales and some products, like Stihl’s hedge trimmers, can even run longer on a battery than on a tank of gas.

Basically, the potential for quieter, cleaner lawn care is a huge business opportunity and an excuse for companies and weekend warriors to upgrade their equipment. Companies making lawn equipment shipped some 38 million tools last year, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group of manufacturers. Just over half of those sales were for power tools, but the bulk of battery-powered purchases were made by individual owners. This means that manufacturers can still expect many benefits as the commercial sector embraces new technologies.

Kicking the backyard gas habit may not be voluntary forever. Realizing the noise and chemical pollution associated with gas-powered blowers, policymakers across the United States are now taking steps to eliminate them. California was the first to vote in December to ban the sale of most small gas-powered tools by the end of next year.

A series of smaller governments have since followed suit, including Washington, DC; Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Oregon; and Palm Beach, Florida. Seattle City Council approved a similar measure last month.

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