Every spring and fall, complaints roll in to the City of Boulder about the noise from landscaping equipment — especially leaf blowers. These complaints increased when more residents began working from home. Landscapers started bearing the brunt of them.
“There were times we would show up to a job and the client would say, ‘Hey could you come later because I’m about to hop on a call,’” said Jose Burciaga, owner of Flatirons Outdoor Living, a landscaping company based in Longmont.
Burciaga acknowledges how noisy leaf blowers are. He said he considered getting an electric set-up for clients who were particularly noise-sensitive, like those working from home. But such machinery is neither cheap nor as powerful as gas equipment.
Soon, however, Burciaga and other landscaping companies may not have a choice if they want to continue operating in the City of Boulder.
The use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers — under increasing scrutiny across the country — is now the subject of a potential phase-out in the city. At the end of April, the Boulder City Council will hold a study session where staff will present options on how the city should address gas lawn equipment.
Carolyn Elam, a senior sustainability manager for the City of Boulder, said a memo will be released later this week with details of what staff will present. But based on a public questionnaire, considerations range from education and rebates to prohibiting the sale of gas equipment in Boulder and banning its use by enforcing local noise ordinances.
There are health benefits to phasing out gas-powered lawn equipment. Two-stroke engines, used in gas-powered leaf blowers among others, emit high levels of volatile organic compounds and particulate matter, which contribute to the Front Range’s increasingly bad air quality. (According to a city memo, an hour of leaf blowing emits smog-forming pollution comparable to driving a car about 1,100 miles.) Gas-powered motors also emit greenhouse gasses.
But mostly, gas-powered equipment is noisy.
From a purely climate perspective, “certainly this is not the thing I would describe as the most important thing we’re working on,” Elam said. “But it’s a response to the community.”
For many companies who rely on this equipment, there’s concern that an all-electric mandate will add complexity to a job that requires efficiency. When a leaf blower runs out of gas, it can quickly be refilled and put back to work. A depleted battery, meanwhile, takes hours to charge. Nor is a battery as strong.
“Electric equipment is not the same strength as gas,” Burciaga said. “If the city is willing to hand out money to put solar panels on trailers to keep the equipment charged, then I think that would be a good idea. But obviously that would cost a lot of money.”
The cost is ‘not inconsequential’
Landscaping has a lower barrier to entry than other industries, and entrepreneurs and small businesses still dominate. Should the City of Boulder require these small, often minority-owned businesses to buy new equipment, it would add considerable expense where many thought such costs were behind them.
But if the Boulder City Council decides it wants to pursue one of the more aggressive options presented by staff on April 27, like a ban on certain areas through “quiet zones,” it likely wouldn’t be enacted until life rafts are in place.
A separate program, independent of the study session, will be launched later this month to help landscaping companies buy electric equipment as a potential ban is considered.
Geared toward Boulder County businesses that have clients in the City of Boulder and fewer than 25 employees, the program will help these smaller companies buy electric hand-held machinery and walk-behind mowers by offering a 70% buy down, Elam said. (Meaning, the city would provide a voucher up front, rather than reimburse after companies fronted the cost.)
The program has close to $300,000 for funding. The cost of an electric blower with a backpack battery can run over $1,000, more than double its gas-powered counterpart. And due to power differences, some landscapers will require two electric blowers for every gas one.
“[The cost] is not inconsequential,” Elam said. “It’s a pretty substantial premium.”
Health benefits to lawn care workers
Should the city pull off this transition without impacting small businesses, however, it might benefit those currently working with gas.
Martyn Church owns Eco Lawn and Garden, an emissions-free lawn care company in Boulder. Before starting his own company, Church worked for others, toiling for hours in the fumes put off by gas-powered engines.
“I smelled so bad at the end of the day from the fumes I’d been breathing,” he said. “And I was almost deaf even though I was wearing ear protection.”
Church said this is common for those spending days behind gas mowers or gas leaf blowers. “My staff is so much happier that they’re using electric equipment,” he said. “They’re able to have a conversation while working. And if there is an emergency and someone yells out, they can hear it.”
Availability, though, is a concern. While Church supports a transition to electric for the benefit of workers, he worries the companies making the equipment aren’t ready for the increased demand.
To better understand these and other challenges of the transition the City of Boulder hired Daniel Mabe, founder of American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA). AGZA helps municipalities and organizations shift landscaping to electric. And though Mabe is on the side of electrification, he still shares the concerns not only of Church, but of Burciaga.
After shadowing several landscape businesses of varying sizes in the Boulder area, Mabe said AGZA will not recommend an overarching gas ban. In the fall and spring seasons, when power is needed, electric blowers don’t cut it, he said.
“There’s an aesthetic expectation that’s been in place for the greater part of four or five decades,” Mabe said of the hyper-manicured lawns Americans have come to expect. “People really love their properties in order.”
Reflecting this, one option Elam said city staff will present at the April 27 study session is a gas ban that would allow leaf blowers for a few weeks in the spring and fall. Outside of those high-volume clean-up seasons, Mabe said electric technology is robust enough to do the job, “if there’s a program in place to help buy-down the cost.” And unlike leaf blowers, some equipment could be replaced right now for year-round use because the electric versions are already as good, if not better, than their gas-powered counterparts — like weed whackers and hedge trimmers.
On April 13, Boulder County’s Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE) will host a demonstration of electric lawn equipment at Valmont City Park. The demonstration, one of three scheduled for this spring, will serve as a study session of its own for the city to hear from lawn care businesses it hopes to aid in a transition away from gas.
“We very much want to hear from businesses about the challenges they might have with our strategies,” Elam said. “So we’re really hopeful to build a network with those we’re able to draw into these events and get their feedback.”