It's late fall, and that means one thing: It's leaf blower season. To the lasting irritation of many (especially The Atlantic's James Fallows), for the next several weeks communities across the country are going to be subjected to the blower's endless wheedling drone and associated plume of carcinogenic haze.
Gas-powered leaf blowers are indeed bad. But the problem runs deeper. In fact, all small gasoline engines — used in things like weed whackers, lawn mowers, tillers, and so forth — are astoundingly filthy and should be phased out as soon as possible. It's time to electrify all lawn equipment.
The problem with small engines is that they generally have a primitive design and little or no emissions control technology. And with people fueling their small tanks with jerry cans, they also tend to lead to lots of spills. While cars and trucks have leaped ahead with catalytic converters, advanced combustion techniques, and computer-controlled fuel injection, small engines are still using technology that was outdated in the 1960s. Worst of all are two-stroke engines, which require oil to be mixed in with the fuel, about a third of which is forced out the exhaust instead of being burned, and so produce immense pollution as a basic function of operating.
Back in 2011, car reviewer Edmunds carried out an experiment comparing the emissions of a big Ford truck (an F-150 Raptor with a 411-horsepower V8 engine) to two different leaf blowers (one four-stroke and one two-stroke). They found that compared to the Ford truck, the four-stroke blower produced 6.8 times as much oxides of nitrogen (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, highly reactive combustion byproducts that help form near-surface ozone, acid rain, and smog), 13.5 times as much carbon monoxide, and over 36 times as much non-methane hydrocarbons (mostly unburned gas, which is poisonous and carcinogenic). The two-stroke was substantially worse, producing only twice the oxides of nitrogen, but 23 times as much carbon monoxide and 299 times the non-methane hydrocarbons. They concluded:
To equal the hydrocarbon emissions of about a half-hour of yard work with this two-stroke leaf blower, you'd have to drive a Raptor for 3,887 miles, or the distance from Northern Texas to Anchorage, Alaska. [Edmunds]
Overall, while estimates are of course hard to make, a 2011 EPA study concluded that gas-powered lawn equipment was responsible for 24-45 percent of non-road gasoline emissions. The California government predicts that within a few years, gas-powered lawn equipment will be the biggest source of ozone pollution in the state.
Then, of course, there is the inescapable fact that burning gas creates carbon dioxide, the major driver of global warming. As much of that activity as possible is going to have to be stamped out, as soon as possible.
But lawn care doesn't have to be abandoned. On the contrary, due to recent innovations, electric blowers, trimmers, and mowers all now perform quite well. And electric battery technology continues to advance by leaps and bounds, making it easily feasible to replace just about every use of small engines for lawn care and landscaping very soon. (We can make an exception for chainsaws or other devices that need to be used far away from power supplies.)
For mowing, there's an older, even healthier option: the reel mower, which uses human force driving its wheels to turn mechanical snips. Indeed, because it cuts the grass with a scissors action, instead of whacking the top off with a blunt blade going around at high speed, the resultant cut is actually far smoother than with a regular mower. That's why golf courses use them (pulled by a tractor, of course) instead of a mower. Joe P. Homeowner can get a smoother lawn and some likely much-needed exercise at the same time!
So what do we do? Impose quickly ratcheting-up new emissions regulations on basic lawn equipment, plus a subsidy for electrical varieties. Over a period of, say, five years, small engines should be forced to bring their standards up to that of cars and trucks. Since that will likely make gas-powered lawn equipment uneconomical, we can provide a modest subsidy to buy electric varieties — plus an additional credit for people who turn in their lawnmower, trimmer, or leaf blower for recycling. After another five years, the subsidy will be phased out, and all basic lawn equipment will have to be electric. This is akin to the formula that the Obama administration followed with light bulbs and the managed transition from incandescent to CFL to LED, with enormous success and vast efficiency gains.
Now, to some degree this just switches the pollution problem to power generation, which will have to transition away from fossil fuels at high speed. But it also ensures that when that does happen, the landscaping sector will be decarbonized at the same time.
Let's get rid of the fumes, the waste, and at least some of the noise, and move to electric lawn equipment, pronto.