Leaf Blowers Go Green

To say leaf blowers have been controversial is an understatement. But like any good argument, the one over leaf blowers contains some fascinating ironies. For one, they were introduced, in 1976, to address an environmental problem: drought in California. The City of Los Angeles--still an epicenter of leaf blower debate--mandated their use to prevent gardeners from using water to clean walks and driveways. But in a neat and hard-fought reversal in February of this year, Los Angeles made a U-turn. Technically, anyone there using a gas-powered backpack leaf blower within 500 feet of a neighboring residence is subject to a $270 fine.

But the leaf blower debate encompasses another, compelling irony. Namely, these machines are frustratingly cost-effective. City maintenance crews, professional gardeners, and home owners have all defended blowers to protect their pocketbooks.

We'd be the first to acknowledge the many sins of leaf blowers, especially when they are inconsiderately used. On the other hand, manufacturers are addressing the key problems of noise and pollution, which suggests these machines might soon be "civilized." Such newer, more respectible machines are the subject of this article.

These are hand-held "blower-vacs," or blowers that work in reverse and suck leaves and debris into a bag that you carry to the compost pile. Further, these machines are quieter, especially the ones powered by electric motors.

Hand-held blower-vacs are useful for a variety of tasks. Gathering and shredding leaves is one of the most obvious. Gardeners love the vacuum function for making mulch and compost out of grass and leaves. Used this way, blower-vacs can reduce 16 bags of loosely packed leaves to one mulched blower bag.

Blower-vacs are particularly useful for clearing out leaves and debris when space is restricted, such as inside basement window wells and around tightly packed plantings. With a special extension attachment, they are also handy for "sweeping" out gutters, garages, and carports, not to mention cleaning driveways or decks before sealing them. They're also used to sweep pool decks and even dry off cars and their engines after a wash.

The Big Problems: Noise and Pollution

Measuring noise is problematical because sound-measuring devices can't account for the total effect of a sound on our nerves. The small two-stroke engines that power blower-vacs usually take most of the blame for the irritating racket they make. But it turns out that the blowers-- distinctively shrill whine is largely due to the fan's sucking air through a small tube.

Sound levels are reported using the method established by the American National Standards Institute and known as ANSI B175.2. It measures sound in decibels at 50 feet. But for a real-world test, ask your dealer to start up two or three competitive models with similar noise ratings. You may notice a distinct difference among otherwise similar blowers.

Two-stroke engines are powerful for their weight and inexpensive to manufacture, but these advantages are also disadvantages: They are inherently dirtier and noisier. Manufacturers such as Echo utilize unique sound attenuation technology for the PB-46LN. Others have designed larger mufflers, rubber-isolated engine mounts, and spring-mounted handles. Some, like Husqvarna with its E-Tech engine, have developed low-smoke oil and redesigned the combustion chamber and muffler in order to reduce emissions. Both Honda and Ryobi have designed smaller, quieter, and less polluting four-stroke engines that will soon serve to power blower-vacs.

Measure the oil-gas mixture for two-stroke engines accurately. Too much oil produces excess smoke and reduces engine life. (Most manufacturers offer handy, pre-measured bottles of oil that can be mixed into 1- or 2-gallon containers of gasoline.)

Electric blower-vacs. In response to the backlash against gas-powered blower-vacs, corded electric models are now more powerful than ever, some of them even surpassing their gas-powered brethren, and with less weight. The biggest drawback to these units is that you're limited to 100 feet from any outlet, or the motor can be damaged. A few cordless battery-powered blower-only models are also available, but they tend to be heavy and have limited run times.

Blower Etiquette and Safety

Whether they're gas or electric, use blower-vacs considerately and responsibly. Naturally, it is important to comply with any local ordinances or regulations that affect blowers or power equipment. If blower-vac use is not regulated in your area, consider following the typical guidelines of operating them only between 9 A.M. and 5 P.M. weekdays and Saturday. Also remember to minimize the high-pitched whine by using lower throttle speeds. For safety's sake always wear eye protection and ear protection. Never point a blower-vac toward a pet or another person, and don't operate them at all until bystanders and especially children are clear.

Buyer's Guide

All hand-held blowers consist of a small gasoline-powered engine (usually two-stroke) or electric motor connected to a plastic fan that pulls in outside air and forces it through a small-diameter tube at high velocities. This velocity is measured two ways: in cubic feet per minute (cfm) and miles per hour (mph). Cfms can be measured at different points resulting in different numbers. (In the listing of various blower-vacs below, the cfms are measured conservatively in the "pipe," "tube," or "blow-mode.")

Some fans are side-mounted, but on most newer models they are bottom-mounted, a design feature that makes for an easier-handling machine because there's no twisting action caused by the spinning fan.

Manufacturers of blower-vacs are highly competitive and tend to make inflated claims about power and reduction ratio. For most tasks, a 150-mph air velocity will serve your needs. Except for comparison purposes, this measure is meaningless by itself. A blower's nozzle opening could be reduced to the size of a straw and conceivably blow at 275 mph--good for cleaning out a computer keyboard, but because of the high pressure, it would perform poorly for blowing leaves.

What is more significant is how much air the unit is moving, in cubic feet per minute. A blower capable of 250 cfm or more (in the "pipe" or blow mode) is a powerful blower.

A reduction ratio of leaves to mulch of at least 10:1 is respectable, but you'll probably need to use the unit in the vacuum mode and see for yourself if the amount of reduction suits your needs. Remember, most of these units are designed to mulch only leaves and grass, not small twigs and branches.

Quieter, cleaner blower-vacs

*Electric Blower-Vacs

Black & Decker: The Super Vac 'N Mulch is available in two models, the BV1000 ($70), which includes a collection bag, and the BV2000 ($80), which collects leaves in the container of your choice. Both feature a 10:1 reduction ratio and five-bladed fan designed to reduce clogging. Both produce 68 dBA, and both are rated cfm/mph: 480/190. For information: (800) 544-6986, or www.blackanddecker.com.

Ryobi: The RESV1300 Mulchinator Vac includes the unique ability to easily switch between blower and vacuum modes by simply moving a control lever. Vacuum and blower tubes are permanently attached. Sound level not available. Rated cfm/mph: 350/150. Price: $90. For more information: (800) 345-8746, or www.ryobi.com.

Toro: The QuieTech Superblower Vac is powerful for an electric blower model yet boasts a 10:1 reduction ratio and a noise level of 63 dBA. The leaf bag conveniently empties from the bottom instead of the side. Rated cfm/mph: 270/195. Price: $70. For information: (800) 237-2654, or www.toro.com.

Weed Eater: All Weed Eater blower-vacs capable of 16:1 reduction ratio carry the name "Barracuda." Both electric and gas models are available (see below). The two electric Barracudas are models 2595 ($50) and 2570 ($40). They differ only in that the former includes the vacuum accessories; none are dBA rated. Rated cfm/mph: 405/195. For information: (800) 554-6723, or www.weedeater.com.

Gas-Powered Blower-Vacs

Echo: Perhaps the quietest gas blower, the Echo PB-46LN Quiet 1 produces only 65 dBA in the blower mode. Rated cfm/mph: 370/180. Price: $480, including vacuum attachment. Also see Shred --N-- Vac models ES-2100 and ES-2400. Both feature a four-bladed metal shredding blade, a 12:1 reduction ratio, and a 2-bushel bag. The 2100 is rated 300 cfm and 135 mph; the 2400 is 315 and 140. Both produce 70 dBA. Prices are $200 and $250 respectively. For information: (800) 432-3246, or www.imeinc.com/clients/default.htm.

Homelite: The Vac Attack features an anti-vibration handle and is rated at 70 dBA. It weighs only 10.9 pounds in the vacuum mode and has a 12:1 reduction ratio. A gutter-cleaning attachment is available. Rated cfm/mph: 360/160. Price: $137. For information: (800) 242-4672.

Husqvarna: Model 225HBV is designed for heavy-duty use and uses an automotive-type catalytic muffler to reduce emissions and noise. Sound level is 74.8 dBA. It also features an anti-vibration system that uses springs to isolate the engine from the handles. The optional vacuum kit uses steel blades in the fan and has a 16:1 reduction ratio. Rated cfm/mph: 392/128. Price: $255, including vacuum kit. For information: (800) 487-5962, or www.husqvarna.com.

John deere: The lightweight BH30 features a translucent fuel tank to allow easier and safer refueling, and a six-position throttle lever. Sound level is 69 dBA. Rated cfm/mph: 450/180. Price: $216, including vacuum attachment. For information: (888) 669-7767, or www.deere.com.

Mantis: Model BSV boasts a 12:1 reduction ratio, thanks in part to its four-bladed metal shredding blade. Two-bushel-capacity bag is standard. Sound level is 69 dBA in the blower mode. Rated cfm/mph: 350/130. Price: $250. For information: (800) 366-6268, or www.mantisgardentools.com.

Weed Eater: The quietest (dBA not available) and cleanest gas blower-vac from Weed Eater is the BV2000, which also carries the Barracuda name and is capable of the same 16:1 volume reduction as electric models. Gutter-cleaning attachments are available. Rated cfm/mph: 400/200. Price: $120. For information: (800) 554-6723, or www.weedeater.com.

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