Man cleaning the sidewalk with a leaf blower
Credit: iStock

From the first growth of grass in late March until the last fallen leaf at Christmas, the calm of my “bucolic” suburban neighborhood is shattered by commercial leaf blowers, weed whackers, and mowers. Some days this racket goes on from sunrise to sunset. I suspect it is much the same in any other similar residential area across the country.

There is little documentation that monitors this activity, but from what I’ve observed over time, fewer people maintain their own lawns than they used to. An aging baby-boomer generation and the rise of dual-income households with little free time are likely causes.

That means the job is increasingly done by commercial services that use heavy backpack blowers, commercial-grade string trimmers, and mowers suitable for golf courses. The blowers and trimmers use two-stroke engines almost exclusively—antiquated technology that is incredibly noisy, smelly, and hyper-polluting (a Ford F-150 pick-up truck driven coast to coast emits less pollution than a leaf blower in one afternoon). The mowers, with massive engines lacking mufflers, generate far greater perceived noise than consumer-grade mowing equipment.

By every reasonable standard, the lawn equipment noise problem meets the common law threshold of a persistent nuisance degrading the quiet enjoyment of one’s property. Every time I have raised the issue with local residents, they agree that the commotion is frequently unbearable, but no one looks for a solution. Perhaps they feel it is one of those ever-present annoyances about which nothing can be done, like the gulag experience of airline travel or self-service checkout at Home Depot.

But several countries have either banned—or have proposed to ban—two-stroke engines because small motorbikes using that technology were turning the urban atmosphere into a choking miasma. Likewise, a number of U.S. jurisdictions, like the Park Service, ban or restrict two-stroke boat engines because their pollution harms aquatic life.

So, then, what’s the replacement technology?

The leaf rake seems to have gone out of fashion, but it has many strong points: it’s cheap, burns no fuel, provides good aerobic exercise, and is quiet. It’s also safer: in addition to its highly polluting exhaust, a backpack blower emitting a 185-mph blast blows lung-irritating dust and dirt into the air and aerosolizes mold spores and other pathogens. More technologically advanced solutions are likely to become available in due time, which will help gadget-obsessed Americans who can’t stand the idea of regressing to Bronze Age technology like the rake.

Why can’t local governments mandate that commercial lawn services, after an appropriate phase-in period, use lithium-ion powered hand equipment and quieter mowers? This would be a sensible way to regulate businesses and protect their residents from noise and air pollutants.

The lithium-ion blowers, weed whackers, and mowers already on the consumer market are arguably not ready for commercial use, mainly because manufacturers have had little incentive to develop more powerful models with longer battery life. Alas, the free market does not solve every problem, as became evident decades ago when cars were pollution-belching death traps. It was ultimately government regulation that incentivized much safer, more fuel-efficient, and less air-polluting automobiles.

Battery-electric lawn equipment will not only be less polluting, it is inherently quieter, and can be made even quieter if noise standards prod manufacturers to develop blower impellers that are better balanced harmonically.

In an ideal world, the federal government would set uniform standards that would be easier for manufacturers to comply with, rather than a nationwide patchwork of local ordinances. But right now, with the EPA controlled by the pollution lobby, that is an unrealistic goal. For the next few years, states and localities will have to forge ahead on their own, as California has done in several areas of environmental protection.

New equipment would also be safer for the operators, who, as James Fallows has pointed out, are mainly low-wage immigrants. Prolonged noise exposure, of course, damages hearing. Perhaps it has never occurred to people who hire cheap lawn maintenance services that they may be costing taxpayers more money down the road: what happens if, in twenty years, there is a wave of SSI claims for occupational hearing loss? What’s more, two-stroke backpack blowers vibrate like a cement mixer loaded with boulders. Spending an entire working life with one of these contraptions strapped to one’s back is likely to cause musculoskeletal damage. An electric motor, however, vibrates considerably less than a two-stroke reciprocating engine.

The issue of noise in society both as an omnipresent annoyance and a cause of health problems seems to be surrounded by a taboo in America. Why are restaurant interiors carefully designed to amplify noise into a clattering hubbub that would wake the dead? Who are the genius town planners and mall designers who think ambient Muzak in public spaces improves upon the silence? One can multiply the examples.

But this is not the way things have to be. In Germany, they take their peace and quiet seriously, banning mowing and other noisy activities on Sunday. The European Union has increasingly imposed stringent regulations against noise pollution. But, as in so many other things, America is exceptional, and apparently getting worse. Did this trend begin with Ronald Reagan’s abolition of the EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control in 1981? Did baby boomers attending too many ear-splitting rock concerts in the 1960s create a high tolerance to noise? I don’t know.

Whatever the cause of our predicament, we can do something about it. Modern technology, combined with sensible quality-of-life noise and pollution regulation, can liberate us from the suburban plague of the leaf blower.