Leaf blowers: Bring on a quiet revolution

After the Arlington Town Meeting voted recently to ban gas-powered leaf blowers, petitioners launched a drive to force a citywide referendum on the issue this summer. As neighbors argue over noise, and as landscape companies express frustration, the dispute is a reminder of the stark lack of innovation in the leaf blower industry.

In 2000, the California Environmental Protection Agency found that a half-hour of leaf-blower usage produced enough carbon monoxide to equal 440 miles of driving at 30 miles per hour. Despite some improvements, leaf blowers remain so inefficient that Edmunds.com this winter found that consumer-grade leaf blowers spew up to 23 times the carbon monoxide of a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck. “It’s one of these low-cost technologies where you can go get them at Home Depot for $99, but they are also low-profit,” explained Kurt Annen, principal engineer at Aerodyne Research in Billerica, which won a small grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce leaf-blower emissions. “And that doesn’t leave a lot of margin or incentive for these companies to invest in a lot of R&D to make them better.” Annen found that such emissions could be reduced at reasonable costs.

If the industry can reduce emissions, surely it can also reduce noise. The solution to what ails leaf blowers won’t be found at the ballot box, but in the lab.