Noise, damned noise and leaf-blowers


A few centuries ago, someone invented a brilliant device: a long pole with bristles attached to one end. They called it a broom. It has been refined over the years, but it serves the same purpose for which it was designed. It sweeps up fallen leaves into nice neat piles so they can be collected and dumped elsewhere. Leaf-blowers cannot do that.

The clue is in the name. They blow leaves. They redistribute them. They shift them from one place to another. In fact, they are extremely good at that. If you are a little leaf just lying there quietly you stand no chance. You and all your companions will be swept up into the air with great force and deposited somewhere else.

What they cannot do is blow the leaves into nice neat piles so that the what they cannot do is blow the leaves into nice neat piles so that they can be taken away. For that you need a broom or, if we’re talking grass and borders, that other ingenious invention: a rake. John Humphries writing in The Daily Mail

Let’s find the guy who invented the leaf blower. Let’s follow that guy to a peaceful spot he loves and then let’s blow some fucking leaves. Bill Weir, ABC newsreader in a tweet.


Last week’s No Such Thing as a Fish podcast featured this fascinating fact about leaf-blowers:

Running a leaf-blower for 30 minutes creates more emissions than driving a Ford F-150 pickup truck 3800 miles. According to the Fish panellists, enough to get from Covent Garden, where the show is recorded, to Jerusalem. I didn’t know whether to call this a fact or factoid. It does seem to be barely credible. I ought to send it off to the BBC’s More or Less podcast to be fact-checked, as is the fashion these days.

The Fish fact came from James Fallows, national correspondent for the prestigious magazine, The Atlantic Monthly.  Fallows, has led an ongoing campaign against what he calls “the Leaf-blower Menace.” Leaf-blowers certainly provoke strong reactions. BBC journalist John Humphries is not alone in his opprobrium of these devices. Brian May, the Queen guitarist protested about “leaf madness” after being woken and disturbed by blowers in his Kensington and Chelsea borough. Rock stars never used to complain about blowers in the sixties, but I suppose May is 69 now.

The anti-blower community is extremely active on social media. Facebook has groups such as Ban All Leaf-blowers, Death to Leaf-blowers and Million People Against Leaf-blowers. What strikes me about all this is how impassioned the language is. One critic invoked Satre: “Hell is other people, with leaf blowers”, whereas another went for the Freudian angle: “Give a guy a leaf blower and he wields it like an oversized penis.”

Being a bit lazy myself, I can see the attraction of leaf-blowers; I think convenience is a good thing. However, I am sceptical about their value, but I can’t say that they make my blood boil. I live in a flat in Madrid, so my neighbours don’t tend to use leaf-blowers. What we do have are the municipal workers who do visit our street of a morning. How can we explain the rise of this machine?

Wikipedia defines a leaf blower as “a gardening tool that propels air out of a nozzle to move debris such as leaves and grass cuttings.” It is basically a reverse vacuum cleaner, blowing instead of sucking. They have traditionally been powered by two-stroke gasoline engines. It must be said that leaf blowers aren’t the only garden tools that use a two-stroke engines; many lawn mowers also rely on this technology.  Although you now have what is known as a blower vac, which can suck in leaves and small twigs via a vacuum, and shred them into a bag.

The first recorded example of people using air pressure to remove leaves is said to come from Japan in the 19th century. Gardeners employed bellows to clean up the mossy ground of their landscape gardens. But, for the modern machine there is some uncertainty about who invented it. According to Wikipedia, the leaf blower was invented by Dom Quinto in the late 1950s. It had originally been introduced to the United States as part of an agricultural chemical sprayer. But the manufacturers soon discovered that many consumers were removing the chemical dispensing parts from the device, leaving only the blower. The manufacturers realised it had a lot of potential as a common lawn and garden maintenance tool. The Wikipedia entry does say “citation needed”, so we need to be cautious. Indeed, The New Yorker claims leaf-blowers originated in Japan, in the 1960s as a tool for dispersing pesticides onto fields and fruit trees. I side with the online encyclopaedia in this dispute, but I thought I would put it out there. Curiously, when they first started becoming popular in the 1970s, leaf-blowers were seen as an environmental godsend in California, as drought conditions there meant that the use of water for many garden clean-up tasks was banned.

It is true that they are faster than using a rake. But, there are far more downsides. First is the noise. They are incredibly loud and the noise has spikes, which makes it more irritating. Then you have the pollution. The use of fossil fuels is, as we saw above, profligate. Fallows claims that around one-third of the petrol that goes into this sort of engine is spewed out, unburned, in an aerosol that has been mixed with oil in the exhaust.  This leaves a horrible stench of petrol in the air. They are needlessly blowing dust, allergens, toxins, pollutants and pathogens into the air we all breathe, especially harmful for small children or those with allergies.

I’m no technophobe, but I can’t really defend leaf-blowers. Maybe in the future they will be quieter and more eco-friendly. For professional gardeners and landscapers there is the Mean Green Blast Battery Powered Backpack Leaf Blower. With the blower and the battery the backpack weighs over eleven kilos. They lithium battery, which takes three hours to charge, gives it an autonomy of 65 minutes. They claim it is super quiet, which is 56 db. It creates zero emissions and requires no gas and little maintenance. What’s not to like?


The price – it comes in at $1,695.95. Maybe we should indeed go bake to the rake and broom for the moment.

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