We’ve all heard the expression “Silence is golden.” But in the green industry, silence was never something we aspired to. Silence meant the absence of blowing, mowing and trimming and therefore, an absence of business.
But this is starting to change. As more communities ban or restrict the use of gasoline-powered leaf blowers and other power tools, the demand for quieter machines to do our landscaping work has increased.
Manufacturers such as Stihl, Husqvarna, Ecko, Oregon, Greenworks and others have answered that need by making an array of battery-powered professional landscape equipment. These manufacturers are claiming that the battery-powered pro tools are now the equivalent — with some exceptions — of gas-powered ones.
Yet the acceptance of these new tools by the contractors that do landscape and landscape maintenance work has been slow. There are two main reasons for their hesitancy: the assumption that they don’t have enough power and the claim that the batteries are too expensive.
OBJECTION 1: “They just don’t have enough power.”
That’s the opinion of Anthony Molinaro, owner of Anthony’s Landscaping, Springfield, New Jersey. He does a lot of work in the city of Orange, where they’ve just passed a summer ban on gas-powered leaf blowers.
“The tools just don’t run long enough on those batteries,” he says. “When you’re trying to blow wet grass off a 200-foot driveway with a bunch of seedlings and other debris, you just can’t do a quality job, the sort of job that my high-end customers expect.”
As an alternative to using a blower, he’s resorted to using his big lawn mowers with vacuum attachments on driveways and walkways. But he admits that isn’t a great solution because it runs the risk of damaging his clients’ bluestone driveways and walkways.
Not enough power means it takes longer to get the job done, and anything that slows down production eats into a contractor’s bottom line. As Molinaro says, “I have 150 houses to do a day between three crews. And I can’t lower my prices just because I’m not blowing.”
Are the battery-powered power tools really up to the job? According to the manufacturers, the answer is yes — with qualifications. Roger Phelps, corporate communications manager for Stihl USA Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia, says “The overall work that a unit can do is definitely now comparable to gas-powered equipment.”
The biggest challenge for manufacturers, according to Andreas Rangert, vice president, product management and development for the Husqvarna Group, Stockholm, Sweden, has been powering leaf blowers with a battery, particularly the larger units that move great volumes of air.
“It’s a run time issue and a charging issue in terms of getting enough up time,” he says. “There is still some way to go. I think we are already there with hedge trimmers and string trimmers and to some extent chain saws, except for the larger saws used in forestry applications.”
Smaller, battery-powered blowers are adequate for lighter jobs involving dry leaves. But for clearing the heavy, wet stuff that accumulates on yards and driveways in the Northeast and Midwest, like Molinaro was talking about, not so much.
Run times improved dramatically about five years ago when lithium-ion batteries replaced the old nickel-cadmiums. In addition, most of the major manufacturers have adopted a modular system for their pro equipment where one rechargeable battery pack runs all the tools and can easily be switched between them. Their solution to the run-time problem is to keep multiple batteries on hand, charged up and ready to go so crews can keep working. That leads us to our next objection.
Battery power pros:
+ Allow you to market company as sustainable
+ Zero maintenance
+ Zero emissions
+ No need to buy gas, oil, fuel filters or spark plugs
+ Continue working despite bans or hour limits
Battery power cons:
– Tools are more expensive
– Battery packs are expensive, and you need several
– Generally not as powerful
– Shorter run times
OBJECTION 2: “The batteries are too expensive.”
Angel Roman owns Greenscape in Cathedral City, California. It’s in the Palm Springs area, which has just passed a gas leaf blower ban. Although he owns a professional-grade electric leaf blower, he says, “Within an hour, the battery’s dead. Yes, you can change out the batteries, but those things are very expensive, a few hundred dollars apiece, and you need several. The blower itself costs $1,000, where a regular gas blower is around $400.”
Roman says that for small operations like his, consisting of just him and his brother-in-law, the expense of going electric can be quite burdensome.
Manufacturers, however, contend that contractors need to look at the bigger picture. “That contractor is absolutely right,” says Mike DeLuca, battery product manager at Stihl. “Compared to a gasoline backpack blower, the upfront cost of the batteries and the higher cost of the unit itself come into play. But when you look over the product life cycle, the total cost of ownership is far less than for a traditional gasoline backpack blower. You’re not paying for the fuel or the mix oil that goes into the two-stroke engine. And maintenance cost is virtually zero.” Nor does one pay for the windshield time should crew members lollygag at the gas station.
Batteries, says DeLuca, are the equivalent of a year’s worth of electricity paid in advance, with no maintenance or fuel spills and no emissions of toxic chemicals, volatile organic compounds or particulate matter. He says contractors need to factor in that they’re paying for all their power up front, instead of per fill-up.
Bob Grover is president of Pacific Landscape Management, Portland, Oregon, a company that uses both gas and electric tools. Right now, his predominant use of the battery equipment is on the patios and green roofs of downtown high-rises. “We use them exclusively in those places because we don’t want to be taking a gas-powered piece of equipment and a gas can into an elevator. But we’ve also been testing it to see where and when it could potentially replace our gas equipment entirely.”
Does that mean he thinks it will work out economically for him? “I’m not sure,” he says. “I’d still have to pay for charging, but I believe it’d be similar to the cost of charging an electric car. The equipment costs more at the outset, and the spare batteries are more expensive than filling up a gas can. And having my facility modified so that we’ll have enough power to charge things is another capital expenditure. We’ve not done a cost analysis on that.”
But he’s still pretty pumped that there are battery-powered options available, as it doesn’t look like bans on gas-powered equipment are easing up. “We’re excited about battery technology because we’re seeing regulations increasing. It’s going to be a great resource in the future just because of that.”
Ryan Walsh, owner of Capital City Groundskeeping LLC in Raleigh, North Carolina, owns both gas and electric tools. He foresees a day, maybe 10 years from now, when his operation will be entirely battery powered.
He buys mix oil by the 5-gallon bucket and goes through about 20 gallons a year.
“That’s a significant cost, just for that, and then we also have to buy gas. With battery power, I wouldn’t have that expense, and the crews wouldn’t have to figure out how to start the things every morning. And they’re quiet,” he adds.
He figures that the return on investment would come in one-and-a-half to two years, depending on how many units he buys, but goes back to the cost of those batteries. “A backpack battery pack runs $1,000, and I’d need several, so do the math on that. But I can buy four gas weed-eaters for a $1,000.”
Rangert says, as with all new technology, the price of the batteries will eventually come down. “The lifetime cost of battery power over gas is less and we have calculators on the web for figuring out how long the payoff period is. Yes, the initial cost is higher, but over time it can save a lot of money. It’s a psychological hurdle that contractors must pass.”
The American Green Zone Alliance, Studio City, California, is a nonprofit organization whose mission statement is “to transition the entire grounds maintenance industry from noisy, highly polluting gas-powered machines into quieter, zero-emissions electric equipment and sustainable operations.”
AGZA clearly means business with a statement like that. As part of that mission, it has created a Green Zone education and certification program and recently entered into a collaboration with Stihl to promote the use of battery-powered equipment in pro landscape applications. Its experts are often called in to advise communities that are considering gas-powered leaf blower bans.
Although AGZA has a clear agenda, it recognizes the burden such bans can place on smaller companies like Greenscape. “The challenge we’re seeing for small companies is the implication that they’re going to take perfectly well-working gas equipment, scrap it and then put down $5,000 or $10,000 to replace it,” says Luke Massman-
Johnson, AGZA’s chief financial officer and communications director. “If you can do that, you’re going to save money in the long run and have a marketing advantage, but for a lot of people that’s just not possible. It’s the mow-blow-and-go crews that are stuck behind the eight ball on this issue.”
How loud is too loud?
That loud tool blowing leaves off a driveway may be annoying to bystanders, but the person wielding it may be the one it hurts the most. According to a blog post by Jackie DiFrancesco BA, COHC, Asha Brogan and Bryan Beamer PhD, PE, CSP of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on the NIOSH website, chronic noise exposure can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus, the constant perception of ringing or buzzing in one’s ears. For landscapers or other grounds management professionals who regularly use noisy tools on the job, the tinnitus may become chronic, which ranges from annoying to completely debilitating.
Workplace sound levels are expressed as dBAs, weighted decibels, which take into account the sensitivity of the human ear. A normal conversation is about 60 dBA and a jackhammer is about 130 dBA. Noise is considered hazardous when it is 85 dBA or above. If you must raise your voice when talking to someone about 3 feet away, the noise level is probably at least 85 dBA. You can download a sound measurement app to your smartphone to check noise levels, such as the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App.
Nuisance or health hazard?
Why is it that people sleeping or sitting in their kitchens trying to read the newspaper hundreds of feet away and separated by walls are still bothered by the sound of gas leaf blowers?
Daniel Fink, MD, a board-certified internist, has advised the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization on noise issues. He’s also acting chair of the Health Advisory Council for Quiet Communities Inc., a Lincoln, Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization whose mission is “to transition landscape maintenance to low-noise, zero-emissions practices with positive solutions to protect the health of workers, children, the public and the environment.” Like AGZA, it also advises municipalities on leaf-blower bans.
There’s something unique about the low-frequency sound produced by these tools, says Fink; it travels over long distances and penetrates walls and windows. “It’s this low-frequency component that’s uniquely annoying. That’s why there’s so much focus on leaf blowers and not lawn mowers or other power tools.”
He cites a pilot study co-authored by QC Executive Director Jamie Banks (available online in the Journal of Environmental and Toxicological Studies, Nov. 3, 2017). It found noise from commercial gas leaf blowers was over 100 decibels at the source and persisted as far away as 800 feet.
But Roman doesn’t understand why leaf blowers are singled out when jackhammers and chain saws are much louder. He adds, “We’ve got people driving super noisy Harley Davidsons through the passes but I don’t see them being banned.”
He suggests that the politicians who pass these bans “go out and try to clear debris from a big house with a little battery-powered blower to understand where we’re coming from. They don’t get it because they’re not in our shoes, they’re sitting behind a desk making up these ordinances.”
Measuring the noise
Just how loud are our industry’s tools? A recent study measured the sound levels of several common gas-powered landscaping tools and found that many produced a maximum level higher than 85 dBA.
NIOSH says it’s important for those operating loud tools, and their managers, to be aware of the health risks and potential solutions. Learn more on the NIOSH noise and hearing loss page.
Ready or not, here it comes
Is battery power the future? Rangert says “Yes,” unequivocally.
When you add up all the factors involved — the increasing bans on gas-powered tools, the finite nature of fossil fuels and the fact that battery technology will continue to advance, it certainly looks that way. Also, companies like Husqvarna and Stihl, which make both gas and electric power tools, are focusing significant marketing efforts on the electric side.
I asked Rangert when he thinks gas-powered landscape tools will become obsolete. “For light duty tools like hedge trimmers, five to eight years. For the bigger chainsaws and backpack blowers, it will take a bit longer, but it will happen.”
“As a general statement, eventually the tech will make the decisions for us. It has to be gradually implemented, but battery will take over at some point.” When that happens, will you be ready?
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Batteries power his success
Zack Kline is a big believer in battery power. The owner and founder of A.I.R. Lawn Care (A.I.R. stands for atmosphere improvement and renewal), an all-electric landscape company in Montgomery, Maryland, has been cutting grass since he was in sixth grade. In 2007, the summer he graduated from high school, he began working for a small landscaping company.
While trimming the edge of a 2.5-acre property one sizzling day, Kline became irritated at the excessive noise and emissions the gas-powered string trimmer he was using produced. He started thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.”
In 2010, Kline developed a business plan for an eco-friendly landscaping company that would use electric tools exclusively and entered it in Salisbury University’s Bernstein Business Plan Competition two years in a row, finally winning the $5,000 first place prize. The prize money went toward a down payment on a truck and some electric lawn equipment, and A.I.R. Lawn Care was in business.
A relationship with Stihl Inc. helped as well, and today his successful company offers organic lawn care, robotic mowing, sustainable landscaping services and dog waste pickup.
“Since that time, the battery technology has changed a lot,” says Kline. “It’s really come far in terms of capabilities.”
To landscapers who say they can’t get a full day’s work out of out of an electric leaf blower, he says, “You just have to change your techniques.” Instead of blowing a bunch of leaves a great distance, he has his guys blow them back onto lawns. “The leaves are then chopped up as we mow, returning nutrients to the grass.”
He says his fellow landscapers “need to be a little bit more open minded. A lot of them are being stubborn, which is why these leaf blower bans are being enacted. Communities are trying to send a message that people want this, and the manufacturers are recognizing it.”