Leaf-Blower Manufacturers Need to Suck It Up

Makers of Much-Maligned Landscaping Tool Should Take Cue From Carmakers

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Credit: Illustration by Oliver Weiss for Ad Age

I would like to spend my allotted time with you on the leaf-blower industry, and how the marketers of this much-maligned and in many ways infuriating mechanism have done a lousy job of defending themselves.

One could argue that the leaf blower is a model of efficiency and even water conservation, but the only argument emanating from leaf-blower makers is that any efforts to tone down their noise and fumes will lead to less powerful products.

The leaf-blowing industry, in other words, has been asleep at the switch. And while they have been making excuses for themselves, the evidence piles up that leaf blowers are a plague on humanity.

The California Air Resources Board, for instance, claims that the types of air pollutants emitted by a gasoline-powered leaf blower for half an hour are equivalent to what's churned out from a car going 30 mph for 440 miles. The World Health Organization recommends noise limits of 55 decibels but a leaf blower generates at least 70 to 75 decibels at 50 feet away and far higher at close range.

A website called Greenwich Citizens Against Leafblower Mania (or CALM), an anti-leaf-blower outlet, produces mostly favorable responses for its cause, but one irate citizen posted this rebuttal: "You assholes are the problem, not the leaf blowers. Just more Nazi rhetoric … Breathe deep and praise the Lord for the leaf blower, you will never get mine!"

The problem for the leaf-blower industry is that its defenders mostly sound like right-wing nutcases, like the example above. But in reality, the leaf blower had a noble beginning as a conserver of water. California was back in the '70s the first state to encourage the widespread use of leaf blowers. Because of a continuing drought, Los Angeles required gardeners to use leaf blowers instead of water to remove debris.

But now the state is leading the charge against leaf blowers. In Palo Alto, for instance, landscapers need a leaf-blower license and need to take a leaf-blower etiquette class.

"There is irony in encouraging the use and then wanting to regulate them out of existence," Bill Harley, the former president and CEO of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, told Ground Maintenance magazine. The magazine also notes: "The noisy racket and smoky haze that leaf blowers produce led to the Great Blower Debate of the 1990s, the effects of which are finally beginning to affect the products on the shelves and, ultimately, the bottom line."

The leaf-blower makers, including Poulan, Kawasaki and Stihl, have put a big dent in broom, hose and rake sales to landscapers. The California Landscape Contractor Association says blowers have practically supplanted rakes and brooms for professional landscapers, according to Ground Maintenance.

Landscapers say that if they had to go back to nonmechanized products, their cost would increase 20% but they could only raise prices by a third of that.

The pro-leaf-blower response, overall, has been tepid. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute doesn't do much on its website to defend leaf blowing. And the industry maintains that if members switch to quieter, nonpolluting electric leaf-blowers, there would be serious trade-offs. "The cost of compliance is high," Mr. Harley told Ground Maintenance. "In order to comply, you may have to sacrifice power." And that, of course, would result in taking more time for each job, and time is money.

That's the tack the car guys took over the years -- that they would never be able to achieve higher gasoline mileage without sacrificing performance. Now they enthusiastically tout any advantage they have (some makers a little too enthusiastically) and they are using aluminum to cut down on weight for even better mileage.

That's the position the leaf blowers should take. Instead of bellyaching about how quieter blowers would curtail power, they should say how hard they're working to come up with quiet but efficient blowers. They should admit that noisy blowers are unacceptable to most people and emphasize how hard the industry is working to solve the problem.

Trust is what it's all about, and the leaf blowers aren't generating much of that. A Poulan commercial talks about how "nobody ever bought and sold trust. It was just something you had to earn, and once you had it you worked harder just to keep it. By taking on the tough jobs, giving the right advice, doing what you said you would do. As long as trust is worth earning, we promised we'll continue to earn yours."

The commercial did not feature the company's leaf blowers.

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