File image of man blowing leaves in the fall
To blow or not to blow, that is the question.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

WALLACE BAINE: To insure domestic tranquility, it’s time to ban those &#$%@! leaf blowers

The bane of Baine’s existence, as it turns out, is leaf blowers. In his latest column, he urges the various government bodies of Santa Cruz County — who seem to be unable to agree about anything — to go for an easy win and ban, at least, the gasoline-powered version.

We all learned growing up that the devil carries a pitchfork. But that image is way outdated. If you were to drop in on ol’ Beelzebub these days, you’d see him outfitted with a significant upgrade in his choice of tools of evil — namely, a deluxe, variable-speed, backpack-style, ergonomically designed, red-and-black (to match the costume), two-stroke, gas-powered leaf blower.

If it’s autumn — and, by my calculations, it is — whether you live in an urban, suburban, or rural setting, chances are there’s a leaf blower going off somewhere at this moment. With more folks working from home post-pandemic, and more property owners opting for professional landscaping, annoyance levels aimed at leaf blowers might now be at an all-time high.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to pick up our pitchforks and demand that something be done about these infernal machines. Maybe it’s time to ban the leaf blower.

Maybe it’s time for the rest of us to pick up our pitchforks and demand that something be done about these infernal machines. Maybe it’s time to ban the leaf blower.

To “insure domestic tranquility” is written right there in the preamble as one of the core aims of the U.S. Constitution. So, ask yourself, what does a leaf blower do to your domestic tranquility?

If you convened a roomful of engineers to create a device for maximum irritation to anyone relaxing or working or just existing in their own personal space, I’m not sure you could do better than the contemporary gas-powered leaf blower.

The case against the leaf-blower is built on three points: (1) it’s an egregious polluter, (2) it’s horribly noisy, and (3) it kicks up all kinds of unhealthy particulate matter into the air that should stay on the ground. I might add a fourth element, that it represents a kind of grotesque overkill in the name of efficiency and effort avoidance, like using a jackhammer to open a jar of pickles. We’re talking about leaves, people.

As they might say over at the Get Off My Lawn happy hour, the rake and the broom got us to this point in civilization.

As they might say over at the Get Off My Lawn happy hour, the rake and the broom got us to this point in civilization.

A leaf-blower ban is not some radical, nanny-state overreach, defund-the-police idea. Cities up and down California are already doing it. Earlier this year, the city of Pacific Grove enacted a ban of all gas-powered blowers within its city limits, on a nail-biting 7-0 council vote. Carmel banned blowers in 1975!!

Palo Alto, Santa Barbara, Sonoma, Los Gatos, Monterey, Ojai — it’s a big party that cities in Santa Cruz County are somehow reluctant to join. The state of California is even providing these communities cover with a ban on the sale of gas-powered blowers and other equipment to take effect in 2024. The wave is cresting. Why aren’t we riding it?

There is a core group of community activists who’ve been (warning: ironic pun ahead) making noise about leaf blowers for several years now. They call themselves Santa Cruz CHASE (that’s Coalition for a Healthy and Safe Environment), and their goal is to get the city of Santa Cruz to enact a similar blower ban. They even have yard signs.

Sign by Santa Cruz C.H.A.S.E.
Santa Cruz C.H.A.S.E. is working to reclaim our city from what they term “the ridiculous noise and pollution of gas-powered leaf blowers.”
(Art by Carolyn Ramos
)

Of course, there is a rift in the blower-ban community, as there is in just about any activist group, on the question of whether to settle for half a loaf. The issue has to do with power source, to be specific, gasoline vs. electric. Of the 30-plus municipal blower bans in California, only a few ban all leaf blowers. Most are aimed only at the gas-powered ones, and there are rational reasons for that. Of the three downsides to leaf blowers we mentioned earlier, electric or battery-powered blowers mitigate two of them.

Air pollution is the biggie. Leaf blowers commonly are powered by a two-stroke engine, which generates more power density, but man, are they a mess when it comes to emissions. Compared to the engine in a car or truck, which has had to evolve technologically to meet changing emission standards, the two-stroke engine is relatively primitive.

In one 2011 test study, often cited by blower haters, the emissions generated by a half-hour session of a gas-powered leaf blower were equivalent to that created by a Ford pickup truck driven from Texas to Alaska (or from Santa Cruz to Costa Rica, if you’d rather).

In one 2011 test study, often cited by blower haters, the emissions generated by a half-hour session of a gas-powered leaf blower was equivalent to that created by a Ford pick-up truck driven from Texas to Alaska (or from Santa Cruz to Costa Rica, if you’d rather).

Noise is the other factor in which electric/batteries score better than gas, though not by much. (Noise generally is overlooked in its contributions to the free-floating anxiety that is crippling so many people’s mental health, but that’s another soap-box.) The worst two-stroke gas blowers can generate more than 80 decibels, the noise of a garbage disposal at 50 feet, and 100 decibels, a jackhammer, for the operator.

Leaf blowers don’t blow only leaves, but all kinds of dust, dirt, even fecal matter into the air, often onto a neighbor’s property, their porches or garages, or even into the open windows of their house. And here, electrics are no better than gas-powereds, unless you consider that gas blowers are more powerful and thus can propel these things into air higher and farther.

Are there bigger fish to fry in this world (and this county)? Sure. Can you dismiss the blower-aggrieved’s complaints as “first-world problems”? Easy to do. Will it cause hardships and hassles to people who just don’t want leaves on their driveway? Inevitably. Will banning leaf blowers transform the world into a green paradise? Not even close.

Presented by Sempervirens Fund

Sempervirens Fund has been working to ensure that everyone can “opt outside” since they began protecting redwoods in...

But here’s the deal: With the climate crisis bearing down on everyone, the blower-philic and the blower-phobic alike, we need a win, if for no other reason than to convince ourselves we can do something — anything — to make even a small difference in this world. Domestic tranquility is worth preserving even if, or especially if, a climate-changed future is poised to destroy it. Is it worth sacrificing because someone wants to move a leaf from point A to point B?

This is an easy win. The city councils in Santa Cruz County should act on this now, even while frying those bigger fish.

Surely, there are libertarians and conservatives who’ll howl about overreach and cancel culture on this issue. Leaf blowers are a prime candidate for a culture-war skirmish. But will those howls be any louder than a leaf blower outside your window on a Saturday morning? Not by a long shot.

Let’s get this done.