Technology Can't Solve Every Problem, but It Sure Helps With This One (Leafblower Dept)

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
The Stihl BGA 100 cordless blower quietly but effectively deployed in Washington yesterday (Deborah Fallows)

In this space I’ve been reporting developments in local D.C. citizen-action efforts to phase out the super-polluting, uniquely noisy leaf blowers that use old-tech two-stroke gasoline engines. These are the same kinds of engines that once powered smoky tuk-tuks through streets of Bangkok or Jakarta but have mainly been outlawed there. They’ve also largely disappeared from boating and motorcycle or scooter use in the United States, and survive here mainly in lawn equipment.

For news on the D.C. front since the previous update, please check out this front-page story by Brady Holt two weeks ago in the local Northwest Current (link goes to a PDF), and a followup Current editorial last week (page 8 of this PDF). Both stress the new pollution-related and public-health findings about problems caused by two-stroke engines, mainly for the lawn-crew workers who use them.

There’s one other new aspect of this debate, which should make its discussion different from fractious neighbor-vs-neighbor disputes through the years. It’s a change I knew about, but couldn’t quite believe, until I saw it in person yesterday. This is the emergence of battery-powered leaf blowers like the one you see in action in the photo at the top of this page, which take us much closer toward the Holy Grail of equipment that is both (1) powerful and (2) quiet.

No one will ever accuse me of being a shill for the lawn-equipment industry (and if someone does, pieces like this or this will be my defense). So I’ll come right out and say, I hope every lawn-owner in America will get a Stihl BGA 100 battery-powered blower for Christmas. Better yet, I hope you’ll buy one this weekend. Here is what the company says about its new product:

Believe it or not on the “seen but not heard” front, they are right. By (rarely enforced) Washington D.C. law, noise from leaf blowers cannot be more than 70 decibels, at a distance of 50 feet. Routinely with gas-powered blowers, the noise is five times louder than that, from five times farther away. (How do I know? We’ve measured.)

But yesterday a crew using two new BGA 100 blowers created noise only in the mid-50s decibel range, from a distance of 25 feet. Because the decibel scale, like the Richter scale, works logarithmically, this means that the noise was dramatically lower than conventional gas-powered blowers. (Technically it means that the “sound pressure level” was less than one-tenth as great). Over the years, from a writing office inside our house, I have been aware the instant leaf blowers start up in the surrounding blocks. Today I asked my wife Deb when the crew was going to turn their machines on — only to learn that they had been running in our front yard for the previous 20 minutes. I had not heard them start.

By safety regulations the crew members were required to wear protective glasses and to have their battery packs properly strapped on, which they did — but not required to wear ear protection, because it wasn’t needed. And of course there were no gas-engine fumes or emissions.

A D.C.-area lawn-care firm called A.I.R. had just bought a new set of the Stihl BGA 100 blowers and used them at our house. (It also is putting solar panels on the roof of its equipment truck, to re-charge the batteries.) Could these quiet blowers possibly be up to the job? We had a yardful of heavy, sodden leaves, and they got easily whooshed around like so:

Crew from A.I.R. using Stihl BGA 100 blower; photos by Deborah Fallows, with crew members’ permission.

Thank you, Stihl company! (This is not a sentence I had ever imagined myself writing.) And there’s even more good news from the industry. According to a trade publication, GreenIndustryPros,  Stihl says that the battery-innovation age is upon us. The article reported that the BGA 100 “is the lightest handheld blower, at 5.5 pounds, and is the quietest in the Stihl line at 56 [decibels].” It then quoted a Stihl senior product manager named Kent Hall:

“I think that you’re going to see more and more, industry wide, battery products being introduced into the market. It’s almost, as some people refer to it, a battery frenzy. Manufacturers have suddenly gotten caught up in this battery tsunami focus,” says Hall. “So I think you’re just going to see more and more existing companies expand their battery range, like Stihl has.”

Thank you, battery-technology innovators! Thank you A.I.R.! Yes, once more, thank you Stihl!! The arc of lawn care is long, but it bends away from two-stroke engines.

The BGA 100 taking a deserved rest, after a good day’s work.