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The end is near for gas-powered landscaping

If you are longing for more passionate emotion in your life, search the internet for “leaf blower hatred” and you’ll tap into a deep well of it.

Hatred of leaf blowers has been around for decades. In 1975, Carmel, California, became the first city to ban them outright, and more than 20 cities have followed suit. Other cities have taken a more nuanced approach.

In Davis, Palo Alto, and Sacramento you can’t use them when the air quality index is over 100. Some cities limit their use to certain hours, or require blowers to be under a certain decibel level.

Deafening noise is certainly the most frequent complaint about leaf blowers. But a recent Portland initiative points to an even larger rationale: the climate crisis. Effective Jan. 1, city of Portland departments are required to transition to electric and/or battery-operated leaf blowers. Noting Portland’s commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, the resolution asserts that “gas-powered leaf blowers emit harmful chemicals including carcinogens, other cancer-causing compounds, smog-forming agents, greenhouse gases, and are known to damage soil health and wildlife ecosystems.”

According to the California Air Resources Board, “operating the best-selling commercial lawn mower for one hour emits as much smog-forming pollution” as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry for about 300 miles. Using a commercial leaf blower for an hour is like driving the Camry for an eye-popping 1100 miles.

While the city of Ashland has not pursued legislation to restrict gas-powered equipment, residents are going electric in droves, according to Ashland Ace Hardware Manager Cathy Trower. The store plans to hold a battery tool demonstration day in late spring.

“Battery technology has improved significantly over the past 5 years,” explains Zack Williams, landscape supervisor for Southern Oregon University. With 175 acres, SOU is probably second only to the city of Ashland in terms of the number of acres it takes care of.

“The market now can fully satisfy the needs of the average homeowner,” says Williams. Within five years, he predicts that it will be “almost impossible” to buy a homeowner-grade gas-powered push lawn mower.

“People really like them,” Williams adds. “They are very lightweight, and with yard work, half the fun is being outside,” he adds. “It’s a lot nicer to do it without all that noise. Two years ago none of this would have been possible.”

Making the switch is harder for large-scale users. “We’re phasing out our gas equipment whenever we can,” says Williams, “but currently there are no battery-powered ride-on mowers that can handle the area that we have at the speed that we need.”

Unfortunately, the same is still true for leaf blowers. SOU has several battery-electric leaf blowers, three of which are the most powerful in their class. “I’m sure that in a couple of years there will be a comparable battery-electric product,” says Williams, “but there’s still nothing that can match the air push of a commercial gas-powered leaf blower. We have our big ideas, and then we have our reality.”

SOU does have some successful switch stories. “Six months ago I bought a new set of battery electric tools so we can have electric tools on every truck. I’ve been pretty impressed with those tools.”

Local landscaping company Ahimsa Gardens also uses battery and electric tools whenever possible. Ahimsa specializes in landscape maintenance and design with an emphasis on natives, edibles, food forests, pollinator plants, and water-wise landscapes.

Ashland Food Co-op was Ahimsa’s first client to require use of electric tools. Since then, “we’ve been building up our stock,” says owner Jenny Kuehnle, including homeowner-grade electric leaf blowers. “For a small company like ours and individuals who landscape and garden, battery tools can definitely do the job.

But like SOU, Ahimsa still uses some gas-powered tools. “When we have a bigger job we throw in the gas blower. The electric ones are almost as powerful, but we can only use them for 45 minutes on low or 20 minutes on high.” And electric weed whackers are no match for blackberries, Kuehnle laments.

“Battery tools are lightweight, quieter, low maintenance, and they have a lower carbon footprint,” says Kuehnle. On the other hand, “they’re more expensive up front, especially if you need multiple batteries. But they pay for themselves in a few years since you have no fuel costs.”

Both Kuehnle and Williams are optimistic about the ultimate phase out of noisy, climate-warming gas-powered tools. “Over the next five years, things are really going to happen,” Williams predicts.

Lorrie Kaplan is Chair of the Ashland Climate Action Project (ACAP) of Southern Oregon Climate Action Now. She can be reached at ACAPSpotlight@socan.eco. For more information on Ashland’s CEAP goals and targets, visit www.ashland.or.us/climate