Cambridge Looking To Ban Gas-Powered Leaf Blowers — But Landscapers Say They’ll Feel The Pain

Printed from:

Cambridge officials are moving toward banning gas-powered leaf blowers, which they hope will help persuade Massachusetts state legislators to do the same thing statewide.

“We often hear, especially when it comes to climate action, that we as a city need to follow state action so we don’t preempt their work or risk harming local businesses. And I’m sure state actors hear that about the federal level as well. In truth, we know it works both ways,” Cambridge city councilor Patricia Nolan said earlier this week. “We follow state action and we also spur state action as leaders in climate justice and worker health implications. We have a responsibility to not only follow state action quickly and effectively, but also put pressure on the state to take action, and that’s I believe part of what we’ll be doing here.”

Nolan made the comments Wednesday, September 13, while chairing a meeting of the Health and Environment Committee, a subcommittee of the Cambridge City Council.

The subcommittee voted 3-0 (with two absences) on Wednesday to direct the city manager to bring to the city council by the end of October a draft ordinance that would ban gas-powered leaf blowers in the city. The subcommittee also voted 3-0 to ask for a draft ordinance to provide cash incentives for switching from gas-powered blowers to electric-powered blowers.

The city council voted 9-0 on April 24 to pursue a policy of banning gas-powered leaf blowers in Cambridge, while leaving it to the subcommittee and city government staff to work out the details.

City officials would eventually like to ban all gas-powered lawn equipment, including lawnmowers and trimmers.

Supporters have framed the move as helping the environment and also protecting the health of workers, whose hearing and breathing might be affected by loud and fume-emitting gas-powered blowers.


Problems With Electric Equipment

But electric-battery-powered equipment has certain drawbacks, said John Nardone, deputy commissioner of the Cambridge Department of Public Works.

Nardone told the subcommittee Wednesday that the city’s public works department has been experimenting with various types of electricity-driven leaf blowers for about 10 years.

On the plus side, he said, they don’t emit carbon, they don’t carry fuel, and they’re not as noisy.

On the negative side:  Electric leaf blowers cost more, they aren’t as powerful as gas blowers, they don’t last as long on a single charge, and they’re heavier because of the batteries.

The city relies on private contractors to help maintain public parks – about 65 to 70 percent of them, Nardone said. The contractors can’t do the whole job without gas-powered blowers, he said.

“We put in their contract that they could only use battery-operated leaf blowers. We do have some exceptions in the heavy leaf months where they can do walk behind four-stroke leaf blowers, but for the most part, they’ve done well in complying with that. So we’ll see how this fall goes,” Nardone said.

Big properties would need exemptions from a gas-powered leaf blower ban, Nardone said.

“If we were to go to an all-electric, we certainly would need some exemptions in place. It really — we don’t feel that it would allow our contractors, some of our larger property owners, such as colleges or bigger companies to clean things effectively during really heavy leaf seasons and spring and fall cleanups,” Nardone said.

Manpower costs would also go up, he said.

“Just like we are finding on the municipal end, I think we’re seeing it on the commercial end as well. Trying to get people to work in the landscape business is difficult and we have been having trouble just filling our own things. So if we have to go to a more labor-intense leaf cleanup and get away from the gas-powered leaf blowers, it could have associated costs to go with it,” Nardone said.

What about just leaving leaves and other debris where they are?

That would clog street drains, leading to more phosphorous getting into rivers and ponds, which causes algae blooms, he said. It would also kill grass on playing fields, he said.

“A buildup of leaf debris, if we were to leave it in place, you know, obviously there’s some effect on drainage and there’s certainly some effect on playability if they stay on fields,” Nardone said. “… We could diminish some of the aesthetic qualities of parks and fields, and I know that that doesn’t mean a lot to some, but it does mean a lot to us. We’ve worked pretty hard to get these places in a good place, and we’d like to keep them that way.”


Cost and Weight

Electric-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers are getting better over time, Nardone said. But the current limitations are substantial.

One example is the cheapest model the city owns, a hand-held Green Works. At $500, it costs about the same as comparable gas-powered blower.

“It is fairly powerful if you’re running it on its turbo mode. And the battery charge time is pretty quick,” Nardone said. “I guess the downsides is, if we are using it on that turbo mode, it only lasts for about 13 minutes. And that means buying a lot of additional batteries that can be expensive. The unit also weighs in at about 11 pounds, which a hand-held gas blower is about eight or nine pounds. So it’s slightly heavier, but it does weigh down after a while.”

A Husqvarna backpack leaf blower the city owns costs $1,830.

“It does have better run time, but it’s not as powerful. It weighs a significant amount. It’s 26 pounds; almost all of that is the battery. Batteries are expensive, as you can see. They’re almost the cost of the unit themselves,” Nardone said.

A Stihl backpack mower the city owns costs $1,780. In that model, the worker carries the power pack on his back, and then uses a blower attached to a cord.

“It gets a little funky. It’s a little heavier. So it’s very uncomfortable to use,” Nardone said.

Stihl has come out with a new backpack model that is all one unit, he said.

“It’s expensive. It’s about $2,500 just to buy the machine itself. And then the batteries are expensive as well. And then also it weighs in at over 30 pounds. So it starts to become pretty heavy,” Nardone said. “But we’re hoping that it could be successful and something that we can use.”


Ban ‘Em All

Several Cambridge residents addressed the subcommittee.

One, Ed Abrams, said he often tips off city officials about leaf blowers.

“First, I’d like to really thank the License Commission. They’ve been terrific in their responsiveness to my numerous leaf blower complaints,” Abrams said, adding that “it’s amazing how quickly” one of the investigators responds.

He called for banning all gas-powered leaf blowers, with no exceptions.

“I do support a phase-out of gas-powered lawn equipment, but not just for residential. It needs to be for commercial, and for the city. There’s exemptions in place that the city has currently for leaf blowers. I think it sets a bad example. And other cities and towns are moving in this direction,” Abrams said. “In fact, I think we’re — Cambridge seems to be a bit behind the curve on this issue.”

Another Cambridge resident, Virginia Coleman, said she has been fighting leaf blowers for years.

She applauded city public works officials for seeming more open to banning gas-powered leaf blowers than they used to be.

She doubted whether such blowers are necessary.

“I have a local landscaper who does not use blowers at all. Period. And I think they do fine,” Coleman said.


Making Life Harder For People Who Work With Their Hands?

James Kelly, a contractor, said gas-powered blowers are necessary during heavy clean-up in the spring and the fall because they last longer and are more powerful.

He says his business uses electric mowers, blowers, and weed-whackers.

“I embrace that. But I’m a realist,” Kelly said.

He also said the cost of switching to electric is “a huge expense.”

“It’s a huge investment to switch from gas to electric. The city and the state, if they’re going to push people to do this, are going to have to help businesses do it — probably even universities, non-profits, whoever. They’re going to have to help your DPW do it. You’re going to have to increase budgets. It’s not realistic to tell someone, ‘Well, you know, that $33,000 lawn mower is what you need, but you could run a gas one for $16,000,’ ” Kelly said. “Because that’s about the difference. All right? It’s double.”

Maintenance is also a problem, he said.

“There’s also infrastructure costs involved in this. We did two trailers, totally electric. It cost us over $10,000 to upgrade the electric in our building just to plug those two trailers in as units when they came in so everything could be plugged in and be recharged for the next day,” Kelly said. “There’s an expense to this, just like there is an environmental expense to run the gas stuff. It goes both ways.”

Peg McAdam described running a gardening business in Cambridge that employs about three or four people. Forcing the business to switch to all-electric would hurt, McAdam said.

“The equipment that is out there now for electric does not last more than two hours. I don’t have a place I can go to recharge the battery. I don’t have a thousand dollars to have a spare battery. I don’t have a place in my truck to store extra batteries. You know, even with the rebates now, it’s too expensive for me. It’s really hard,” McAdam said.

She said she’d like to be able to switch.

“The gas — you know, I’d love to be able to go electric,” McAdam said. “I can’t — you know, it’s hard to carry them. They’re heavy. They don’t run long. The gas-powered things run longer. I’d love to be able to be more, you know, electric, and more carbon-neutral.  But I really can’t physically do it. I really can’t. That’s all there is to it. Basic, bottom line.”

She said it’s hard to get people to do the tough physical work of her business, and that forcing them to use suboptimal equipment would make their life more difficult.

“I can’t get people. When the people come, it’s hard work. And you’re making them work harder – if, you know, if the equipment runs out in an hour and a half. So you put a ban in, you’re going to make them work harder all day, and all week,” McAdam said.


Cambridge Not Alone

Several other communities in eastern Massachusetts are also moving against gas-powered leaf blowers.

Arlington, for instance, through a 2022 Town Meeting vote began a summer-season ban on gas-powered blowers in March 2023. Starting March 15, 2025, commercial users will no longer be allowed to use them in town. And on March 15, 2025, Arlington residents won’t be allowed to use them in town, either.

Next-door Lexington has approved a similar ban, with the same effective dates as Arlington.

Belmont has also banned gas-powered leaf blowers, starting January 1, 2026, but the bylaw allows the towns’ public works director to temporarily waive the ban “in order to aid in emergency operations or clean-up associated with storms.”

Marblehead earlier this year enacted a summer ban on gas-powered blowers.


California, Here We Come

In December 2021, California state regulators banned the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers in the state starting January 1, 2024. Some California cities have already done so.

Nolan said some Massachusetts state legislators are working on bringing a statewide ban to the legislature.

She said local bans are key to making it happen statewide.

“We wouldn’t have seen the state level action in California without the dozen or more cities that took early action on gas-powered lawn equipment. That pressured the state into taking broader action,” Nolan said during the subcommittee meeting Wednesday. “So we need to balance the state-level action and local-level action. The more we can show the state we’re pushing for this, the more they will find motivation.”


New to NewBostonPost? Conservative media is hard to find in Massachusetts. But you’ve found it. Now dip your toe in the water for two bucks — $2 for two months. And join the real revolution.