Saturday, November 17, 2007

In Defense of Leaf Blowers

Several years ago my stepfather bought himself a new leaf blower. There was nothing wrong with his old one, he just always liked to have the best, newest and shiniest toys on the block, so when a new model came out he bought it. I inherited the old one.

I had never owned a leaf blower before. I never thought I needed one. My yard is rather small and it seemed silly to me to spend the money on an appliance that I would probably use one day per year. But after using my new toy one time I was hooked. "I'm never raking leaves again," I thought. This thing not only blows the leaves effortlessly into a large pile, it also then reverses to a mulching vacuum that sucks up the leaves and deposits them into a waiting receptacle, in my case a 30 gallon trash can. You can fit 100 gallons of leaves into the 30 gallon can because of the chopping and compression effect of the vacuum. Then I can carry the can full of half-digested leaves to my compost pile. It made quick and easy work of a boring and laborious job.

So I was telling someone today that I was going to blow my leaves this weekend was completely surprised by her response: "You have a leaf blower?" She asked in an accusing tone of voice.

"Yes", I replied sheepishly, not sure of why she seemed to think this to be a bad thing. So I asked her, "what's wrong with leaf blowers?"

"Why, leaf blowers are bad for the environment!" she said with a note of disdain.

"They are?" I asked. "Why are they bad for the environment?" The only salient point she made in opposition was that it was bad to suck up your leaves, put them into trash bags and then sent them to a landfill.

"But, I put mine in a compost pile!" I protested. She didn't care. The judge had already convicted me.

But being a man of principle and interested in environmental matters, I decided that I would rake my leaves today instead of using the evil leaf blower. After a couple of hours of raking, though, I began to develop a case in defense of the maligned power tool.

Googling "leaf blowers bad for the environment" yields quite a few arguments against leaf blowers. Here are a few. I do not know if these are the ones that my friend was thinking about, but apparently these are pretty common. I'll offer my refutation after each point:

Blowers use fossil fuel needlessly. My leaf blower is electric powered. Sure, it does require some coal-fired produced electricity to operate, but if I turn off my lights and TV while I'm using it, it's probably about a wash.

The American Lung Association says that a leaf blower causes as much smog as 17 cars. As much smog as 17 cars? OK, this is just silly. I'm not even going to respond to this one.

A study of 9535 workers exposed to noise greater than 85dB with modern hearing protection programs indicates that 34% had noise-induced hearing loss. Fourteen percent had severe hearing loss. (The September 2003 CONSUMER REPORTS indicates that very few brands of leaf blowers emit less than 90dB to the person using them.) Granted they are noisy, but I have a dog that lives next door to me who barked the entire time I was raking leaves. His bark is much louder than my leaf blower.

A German study indicates that cardiac patients have a 25% greater chance on hearth attacks in environments that were persistently exposed to noise above 65 decibels. According to the September 2003 CONSUMER REPORTS very few brands of leaf blowers are less than 65 dB at 50 feet. There is a cardiac patient that lives next door to me, but he's further than 50 feet away so I don't think I'm endangering him too much.

A Japanese study of 1000 babies produced evidence of high proportion of low-weight babies in noisy areas. OK, I am pretty sure there are no pregnant Japanese women in my neighborhood.

And then there is that bagged leaf argument already admitted as evidence above, and rendered moot by my composting.

Now it's my turn to go after the rake users:

Blisters - What about all of the oil used in the production of the ointments and antibiotics thatI need for my hands? And the packaging? And the fuel used to produce it and transport it to Rite Aid? Treating my blisters is bad for the environment.

Aching Muscles - I know that tomorrow I am going to be paying the price for my labor. I'll have to break out the Icy Hot. That would mean a whole other list of petrochemicals and resident energy it took to produce and deliver it, but enough is enough. I'll tough it out for the sake of the Northern Water Shrew.

Electricity - Since the raking took me until after dark to complete, I had to turn on the floodlights in the back yard to see what I was doing. I felt guilty using the several hundred watts that it took for the hour or so to finish up, but at least I wasn't using a leaf blower.

Wear and Tear on the Lawn - Who knows how much money, time and chemicals I'm going to have to spend on my lawn next spring to repair the damage that the rake did, tearing out the grass by the roots.

All in all, I think the environmental impact of my leaf blowing would be difficult to measure and prove worse than say, the impact of smoking a cigarette or two a few times a month.

I think I'm keeping my leaf blower, thank you.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Since you have a small lawn, I wont bother you with a tool that works 10 times better than any leaf blower. But for people with medium to large lawns, nothing.. and I mean NOTHING works better than a pressure washer! I've used mine for 11 years now, and I wouldn't trade it for all the leaf blowers in town. (although I DO use a blower for small quick jobs).

Why a pressure washer? Think about it: Under normal "leafy" conditions, the wind is blowing a bit. I've watched people with leaf blowers act like idiots trying to corral leaves that are uncontrollable. Even when the wind ISNT blowing, you still dont have the force.. nor the control that a pressure washer brings. Typical pressure washers for home use are "around" 2200 psi. They use "about" 2 1/2 gallons of water per minute. Most of the FORCE is simply air. The water does the trick however by wetting the leaves just enough that they wont fly all over the place (especially on a day with a little breeze) and that's what you want. There is so much pressure coming out of the hose that it doesn't matter one bit whether the leaves are wet or not. I can blow off my large yard, front-back-sides in 25 minutes. You could double that with a leaf blower and doublequadruple that with a rake. (is that a word?)

Anyway... for those of you that have pressure washers, try them the next time. Most are a little quieter than a leaf blower, and quieter still because you're standing 10 feet away most of the time. Yes, not quite as convenient as just pulling a rope...but you will be done in a fraction of the time, so it doesn't matter.

Lenoxus said...

I know this is a rather old post, but it happens to be a top hit on Google for leafblower defense, and I've got a good run of ire in me since I have to listen to a leafblower as I write this. Here are some counterpoints:

Sure, it does require some coal-fired produced electricity to operate, but if I turn off my lights and TV while I'm using it, it's probably about a wash.

This can excuse almost any use of electricity any time. You don't have your TV on all day, do you? And, of course, raking would still use much less energy, so it's not a wash.

As much smog as 17 cars? Okay, this is just silly.

It's quite possible that that's an exaggeration; plenty of scientific results get exaggerated in the media. But you're doing something equally bad: assuming that your intuition trumps someone else's data! That's just silly. You might as well dismiss, I dunno, human descent from apes. (Perhaps you already do.)

Science works to the same extent that "common sense" doesn't.

There is a cardiac patient that lives next door to me, but he's further than 50 feet away so I don't think I'm endangering him too much.

Did you actually measure the decibel level at his house? I do understand why  you wouldn't, but you can't blithely assume that your leafblower is exactly 65 decibals at 50 feet and drops after that (the estimate you read was a rough minimum, not a maximum, for the models on the market). Nor can you assume that everything's totally okay right up to that threshold, like in a science fiction movie where they have exactly 30 minutes before the radiation level reaches some terrible critical mass, but at 29 minutes 55 seconds they fix the problem and no one had suffered any ill health whatsoever. The larger point here is that you're adding to an environment of noise, not that your leafblower will singlehandedly cause someone's heart attack.

A Japanese study of 1000 babies produced evidence of high proportion of low-weight babies in noisy areas. OK, I am pretty sure there are no pregnant Japanese women in my neighborhood.

What… the hell? That same counter-argument can be used to dismiss absolutely any study of anything, because you can arbitrarily zoom in on the reference class. Yes, they were "Japanese women". They were also "participants in that study" who were "pregnant in 2005" (or whatever year it was). You may as well say you don't think there are any women-with-current-pregnancies-in-2005 around, because it's not that year anymore.

The salient point is that one can indeed extrapolate from a study of one set of people to effects on another set of people (if it was in fact a good, rigorous study, which is a separate question). Apparently, though, you think of Japanese people as so outrageously foreign that they're kind of a joke. There's good evidence for this accusation of mine: namely, you didn't mention whether that cardiac patient who lives next door is German.

Since the raking took me until after dark to complete, I had to turn on the floodlights in the back yard to see what I was doing. I felt guilty using the several hundred watts that it took for the hour or so to finish up, but at least I wasn't using a leaf blower.

If you could afford the time, you may as well have started the job earlier, or finished it early the next day. That's what rakers do.

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