Electric lawn equipment was available for locals to try on April 13, 2023. Some tools are already better than their gas counterparts. Others, like leaf blowers, aren't, industry experts say. Credit: Tim Drugan

On April 13, Boulder County’s Partners for a Clean Environment (PACE) put on an event at Valmont City Park to let local lawn care professionals dip their toes in the pool of electric equipment. There were burritos and beverages, electric machinery to test, and packets about financial assistance to help companies buy that machinery. But wariness permeated.

On April 27, city staff will present Boulder City Council with options and recommendations for how to deal with gas-powered lawn care equipment — whether banning gas-powered equipment through noise ordinances, encouraging companies to make the change on their own through incentives, or a measured approach somewhere in between.

These recommendations will take into account numerous conversations with local companies, a community questionnaire, and conversations with business owners at events like PACE’s.

Yet for some in attendance, it was as though the city had already passed an overarching ban.

“We’re very worried,” said one lawn care owner. “We have zero electric capacity in our storage yard [for charging batteries]. If a ban passes, we’ll have to move out to Longmont.”

Read: Boulder weighs phase-out of gas leaf blowers due to noise and environmental concerns

Kara Mertz, a City of Boulder representative at the event, said that she was surprised at the concern since nothing had been decided yet. The coming study session was only a discussion of options. Nothing was set. “The truth of the matter is, we really don’t know where this is going,” she said. “This whole process is gathering info on what would work for folks.”

Brant Bolton was there representing STIHL, a popular brand of machines for local landscaping companies. Bolton fielded frank questions from lawn care professionals who were clearly uneasy about the price and performance of electric machinery when compared to their gas counterparts. 

Bolton said the candid conversations that followed these questions was the only way to plant a seed of curiosity in the minds of those who didn’t have any experience with electric equipment. “Putting the tools in their hands,” he said, “that’s where they can see the value.”

Bolton added the value of electric tools wasn’t just for commercial companies. Unlike small gas engines that require oil and gas mixtures to run properly, small electric landscaping equipment all runs on the same battery. By choosing electric, the average homeowner reduces the chances that they will send an expensive piece of machinery to an early retirement. 

Dan Mabe, founder of AGZA, a City of Boulder hired consultant with expertise in transitioning municipalities and organizations to electric lawn care, acknowledged that the push to electric wasn’t clear cut. He said even AGZA, with its expertise, doesn’t have all the answers. “We’re just going to tell you the truth” about what we do know, he said.

The truth, according to Mabe, is that a lot of small electric machines are already more than sufficient to replace their gas counterparts. Switching now “is a no-brainer” for those, he said, especially with the money offered by PACE. (According to a packet passed out at the event, PACE will cover 70% of the costs for certain machines with a cap of $10,000 per company. Though an admirable amount, it’s probably only a portion of what many companies will spend.)

But he added that leaf blowers and large commercial mowers aren’t there yet. Nor are the expectations of people receiving lawn care through these tools.

“People in high-end homes want their lawns perfect,” Mabe said, adding that the more environmentally friendly practice of leaving mulched leaves on the property is unacceptable to many. “If homeowners were willing to accept a more ecological approach — with more biodiversity [in their lawns] and fewer pesticides — it would be easier on landscaping companies.”

Severino Carranza, owner of ColoradoLawnCare in Boulder, said he already uses an electric trimmer, weed whacker and chainsaw, but the cost of obtaining other equipment is significant. He said while he already has clients telling him they’d prefer he was all electric, when he tells them the cost increase he’d have to pass onto them “they think twice.”

Carranza would also have to outfit his home, where he stores his equipment, with greater electric capacity to allow for overnight charging. But even so, having lived in Boulder for most of his life, Carranza said he understands the push to reduce gas equipment.

“In Boulder, that’s how we are,” he said. “That’s what makes this town unique. And I do agree we have to go electric.

“But it would be great if the government could give us some help to get started. Once we get going, it’ll be easy.”

Tim Drugan is the climate and environment reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering wildfires, water and other related topics. He is also the lead writer of BRL Today, our morning newsletter. Email: tim@boulderreportinglab.org.