If Gas-Powered Blowers are Banned, Why Are They Still Around?

The California Air Resources Board has finally clamped down on gasoline-powered leaf blowers by banning the sale of new machines starting in 2024. It is about time! This scourge of urban living has gotten a free pass from regulators for far too long. Localities have been banning them for years — Beverly Hills outlawed them in 1978 — yet these portable, point-source pollution emitters remain an everyday nuisance for residents everywhere.

gas-blower man shilouette

This is the value proposition: instead of using rakes we use machines that trigger allergies, exacerbate asthma and, over the longer term, they contribute to chronic lung obstruction and heart disease. The problem is that blowers make soot airborne, recirculate fecal and other organic matter better left on the ground undisturbed, and they aerosolize PM10 particulates that lodge deep in our lungs.

Of the blowers the gasoline-powered models are the worst because they generate noxious pollutants like carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide from the combustion of the oil-gas mixture that fuel them. All blowers are by definition public nuisances. And at about 90 decibels the noise harms the operator’s hearing and it adds stress in the community. Are these machines really necessary?

A Step Toward Regulation

Two decades ago the California legislature asked about the health impacts from gasoline-powered leaf blowers in particular. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) responded in 2000 with report that dug deep into the current research on health impacts. It was titled, Health and Environmental Impacts of Leaf Blowers. However the science was not conclusive.

The report was able to quantify the noise impact (greater than 90 decibels) which CARB termed “uncomfortably loud.”

CARB 2000 table of sound levels in the environment

The federal government first moved to regulate noise in 1970 with the Occupational Health and Safety Act which authorized the monitoring of noise in the workplace. Congress followed soon after with the Noise Control Act of 1972 intended “to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.”

Stihl gas-powered blower
Stihl is among the more common commercial gas-blowers. At 90+ decibels the greatest hazard is to the user’s hearing.

Subsequently congress passed the Quiet Communities Act of 1978 which was crucial because it established a framework for local regulation of excessive noise. That year Beverly Hills outlawed gasoline-powered leaf blowers (ordinance 78-O-1700) on the ground that usage generated excessive noise. (Our city was only the second locality in California to do so.)

In the meantime the federal government under Reagan backed off from regulating noise by defunding the Quiet Communities Act of 1978. Meanwhile in Sacramento the California legislature had not gotten around to legislating a ban on gasoline-powered leaf blowers (and hasn’t since).

More recently, though, state regulators with the California Air Resources Board stepped in with a ban on the sale of new gasoline-powered equipment starting in 2024. This transition to zero-emission ‘small off-road engines’ was first debated more than fifteen years ago (read the CARB report) but finalized last year. The regulation came on the heels of Governor Newsom’s 2020 executive order N–79–20 which required a “transition to 100 percent zero-emission off-road vehicles and equipment by 2035 where feasible.”

That should signal an end to a half-century of gasoline-powered leaf blowing, right? Not so fast! Sounding the death knell for gasoline-powered leaf blowers in California may be premature because the CARB regulation affects only the sale of new equipment. Existing machinery can continue to be repaired and rebuilt and remain in service for the foreseeable future.

Beverly Hills Ban Takes Effect….In 1978!

Beverly Hills outlawed gasoline-powered leaf blowers in 1978 on the ground that they generate excessive noise. From the Noise Regulations chapter of the Public Health, Welfare and Sanitation section of the Municipal Code:

It shall be unlawful for any person within the City to use or operate any portable machine powered with a gasoline engine used to blow leaves, dirt, and other debris off sidewalks, driveways, lawns, or other surfaces. — B.H.M.C. 5–1–209

The city describes the ban on the website and communicated the ban to residents in a blurb in the Community Development Department’s now defunct email newsletter, CDD Connections.

gas blower blurb via CDD Connection fall 2019 The predicate was excessive noise but the text of the subsection — and the blurb in CDD Connections — suggests the broader issue: the health effects of airborne dirt and debris. For as the CARB report (2000) says, “While the intent of a leaf blower operator may not be to move dust, the high wind speed and volume result in small particles being blown into the air.” Indeed!

The CARB report identified those particles as dust, pollen, spores, rubber from brake and tire wear as well as toxic metals like arsenic, chromium, lead, and mercury. It also likened those particulates to toxic “paved road dust” which only reminds us of what we already know: gardeners spend more time blowing concrete and asphalt than they spend blowing leaves from lawns.

Multifamily Residents Should Be Protected by the Blower Ban…

Yountville Leaf-Blower presentation: proximity impactThat goes double for multifamily areas where lawns can be as small as 500 square feet. With so little lawn there is not much reason to resort to mechanized leaf-blowing…unless the objective is so generate a cloud of dust and debris. In fact residents in multifamily neighborhoods are much more affected than other residents.

For one thing, lots are small and apartment buildings are separated by as few as ten feet. The noise from gasoline-powered leaf blowers is relatively louder to apartment dwellers.

And multifamily residents have to contend with this nuisance nearly every day! There is always a blower grinding away at an adjacent property because many more lots are within earshot compared to large-lot areas to the north.

To top it off, the additional noise that affects multifamily residents builds on an already-elevated ambient noise baseline in multifamily neighborhoods. That baseline is higher than ever due to increased deliveries and larger passenger vehicles. Streets near commercial areas are most affected because we suffer additional patron traffic and even impacts from commercial vehicles.

…But Beverly Hills Fails to Effectively Enforce the Ban

If there were ever a time to silence the gasoline-powered leaf blower it is now. But the way that Beverly Hills enforces the ban is deeply ambivalent (even if the text of the ordinance is unequivocal).

Perhaps the most important factor is the lack of political will. City councilmembers mostly live in houses on large parcels with large lawns. They may see the value in leaf-blowing while experiencing none of the acute impacts suffered by multifamily area residents. Until the message comes down from city council, our city’s executive leadership won’t be looking to enforce the ban more effectively.

Also important is that the city puts the responsibility for compliance on the gardener and not the property owner. If an operator is caught with a gas-powered blower it is the gardener that is cited. This is a problem because gardeners rotate and each time they change the battle begins again. If the city were to cite the owner then the activity would cease.

Most significant is that city code enforcement conducts no proactive enforcement; there is no roving officer to catch offenders in the act. Instead the city responds to a complaint and if they do investigate it comes well after the fact. Because offenders can’t be cited for past activity, if the gas-powered leaf-blowing is not witnessed the case will likely be closed.

We have a decade of experience with this issue and have filed over a thousand complaints about gasoline-powered leaf blowing. We learned some lessons which we are happy to share!

  • File the complaint online. A call to code enforcement (310–285–1119) may not be recorded and the caller is not provided with a case number for follow-up anyway. We recommend the Ask Bev system because it will provide a complaint number and record all filed complaints. Use our step-by-step guide to file a complaint online.
  • Provide all the necessary information. That includes at a minimum the street address, the day and exact time of offense, and, if possible, the license number of the gardener’s truck. Pictures will support the complaint (they can be uploaded) but really come in handy later for follow-up. Visual evidence of multiple offenses helps to establish a pattern of activity that begs enforcement.
  • Keep track of offenses offline. Don’t rely only on Ask Bev to track complaints; these offenses recur and must be noted offline. We’ve tried various means: paper, spreadsheet, map and calendar reminders. For citywide offenses we found a spreadsheet [example] sorted by street address most helpful. The objective is to add a note on each recurring violation so establish the pattern. We used a spreadsheet to track citywide complaints but moved to a handmade map when we focused more on neighboring properties.
  • Follow up is key essential. To keep code enforcement attention focused on gas-blower offenses it is essential to document recurring offenses to demonstrate a pattern of violations. offenses we have succeeded in persuading code enforcement division to take an interest in the problem. Today nearly all gardeners on our street and across the alley use battery-powered blowers.
  • Establish a rapport with the assigned officer. When a complaint is filed via Ask Bev the city acknowledges it then asks that subsequent communication about the reported violation continue by email. It’s not a great system but it does potentially open a discussion about violations at the specific property.
  • Focus on the future. The nature of complaint-driven enforcement means that an observed violation of the ban on gas-powered blowers won’t be cited that day. But the activity is likely to occur at nearly exactly the same time next week. It is like clockwork! If a pattern is established, then anticipate the next violation by reminding the officer to visit the property on the same day and time to observe it.

Better Idea: A Total Blower Ban

It may seem like we have our hands full simply to get the city to enforce the ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. Even better is to ban all blowers because they stir into the air dust and debris from sidewalks, streets and alleys. That means looking more broadly beyond noise to general health impacts. The good news is that the recent CARB regulation on gas-blower sales also suggests the need to address particulate impacts.

Beverly Hills was quick to enact the gas-blower ban in 1978. With our help we can finally enforce it properly. Because multifamily residents are disproportionately impacted by leaf blowers (however they are powered) we should encourage the city to look more broadly at banning all blower use. Our reward is the gentle sound of raked leaves — a reward that has come to our street after our ten+ years of effort. And it is worth it!