(Bloomberg) -- In much of the northern hemisphere, the time of year is nigh for both brilliant fall foliage and its inescapable corollary: the persistent drone of high-powered leaf blowers. This year, however, may be just a little quieter.
Leaf blowers aren’t just autumn’s loudest hardware — they’re also hurricanes of pollution. Blowing just one hour’s worth of leaves with a gas-powered machine produces about as many smog-forming chemicals as driving 1,100 miles in a Toyota Camry, according to the California Air Resources Board. After years of pressure, those chemical (and audible) impacts are now pushing US municipalities to ban gas-powered tools, and presenting an opportunity for a new class of electric options. As those alternatives become more powerful and affordable than ever before, the American lawn is finally starting to go green.
“It’s a better way to do business — better for the environment, better for the guys, better for the clients,” says Jared Kocaj, owner of Outdoor Digs, a small landscaping company in New Jersey.
A small cohort of noise- and climate-conscious homeowners started switching to electric blowers and mowers years ago, but the most important shift will come from companies like Kocaj’s: commercial landscaping crews that dominate lawn-gear purchases and keep their machines in constant use. The average commercial lawn mower, for example, runs 406 hours a year, or 17 straight days, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
By some measures, the emissions from those machines are piling up even quicker than those clouding US highways and interstates. In 2011, the most recent year of data available, gas-powered lawn equipment accounted for 43% of the country’s volatile organic compound emissions and 12% of its carbon monoxide, not to mention a cocktail of other nasty stuff like NOx, benzene, butadiene, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde.
Over the past two years, Kocaj joined a wave of entrepreneurs starting to tackle that challenge, shelling out $65,000 to electrify Outdoor Digs. He purchased two massive mowers from Mean Green Mowers that will handle a full day’s work on a single charge, plus a truck full of smaller mowers, blowers, trimmers and saws from Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. and Stihl Inc., each with batteries that his crew of 45 people swaps out two or three times per shift.
If the new machinery lasts three years — the average life of Kocaj’s gas-powered tools — the electric investment will break even. And if the tools last a little longer, the battery-powered gear will actually be a cheaper option.
“It just made sense,” says Kocaj, noting that high gas prices are making the economics even more favorable. (In a busy month, his crews used to burn 1,200 gallons.)
How lawn gear went electric
The noise level of a leaf blower is generally correlated to its cost. To date, much of the industry has been driven by two-stroke engines, which have few moving parts and are thus relatively cheap and easy to maintain. They are also far louder than more refined engines. Insulation adds to the price tag, so the unit itself often acts as an amplifier for the whirring machinery and tiny combustions happening inside.
But the blowing part of the hardware is just a large, concentrated fan, which makes it relatively easy to run on a battery, or at least easier than a 7,000-pound SUV. A few years ago, even Elon Musk pledged to make a quiet leaf blower, before the Internet told him such a thing already existed. The most popular commercial model from Stihl is about as loud as an electric toothbrush, even as it pumps air out at a velocity of up to 154 miles per hour — literally tornado speed.
“We now have battery tools that rival the power of gas,” says Murray Bishop, Stihl’s vice president of sales and marketing. “On the pro side, gas is still king, but battery is growing quickly.”
Stihl now sells four different battery platforms and an array of chargers, including a mobile charging cabinet that it rolled out last year. Electric machines currently account for just under half of the company’s overall sales and certain products, like Stihl’s hedge trimmers, can even run longer on a battery than they do on a tank of gas.
Writ large, the potential of quieter, cleaner lawn care is an enormous business opportunity, and an excuse for companies and weekend warriors alike to upgrade their gear. The companies making lawn equipment shipped some 38 million tools last year, according to the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, a trade group of manufacturers. Just over half of those sales were of electric tools, but the bulk of battery-powered purchases were made by individual homeowners. That means manufacturers can still expect plenty of upside ahead as the commercial sector embraces new technology.
Toro Co., for example, is working with Home Depot on stocking some stores exclusively with electric tools. “Just buying a gas walk-power mower from us, that may be [a consumer’s] only purchase,” CEO Rick Olson told analysts in March. “But when they buy a battery electric product from us, then there are 50 other attachments that we’re going to market to them as great solutions — whether it's pole saws, trimmers, string trimmers, blowers … so it provides an incremental boost.”
Likewise, Stanley Black & Decker Inc. CEO Don Allan has called the trend towards battery-operated machines a “growth catalyst” for the company. “I really believe when we look back at this space five, six, seven years from now, we’re going to see that a radical shift has happened,” Allan said at a conference in June.
For companies like Kocaj’s, battery-powered machines can also be helpful in landing commercial clients, including office parks, schools and distribution centers that often are stretching to hit internal ESG goals or land LEED certifications (and the valuable tax breaks that come with them).
Kicking the backyard gas habit may not be voluntary forever. Realizing the noise and chemical pollution associated with gas-powered blowers, policymakers all over the US are now passing measures to eliminate them. California was first, voting in December to ban the sale of most small gas-powered tools by the end of next year. The state has almost as many lawn tools as cars and trucks — and only about 6% of the gear used by professionals is electric, according to an estimate by the California Air Resources Board.
A string of smaller governments have since followed suit, including Washington, DC; Burlington, Vermont; Portland, Oregon and Palm Beach, Florida. Seattle’s City Council approved a similar measure last month, and in Outdoor Digs’ backyard of New Jersey, blower bans are spreading. “There’s Montclair, Summit, Short Hills,” Kocaj says. “We kind of saw it coming and got ahead of it.”
Kocaj is now hoping to push his company’s electron advantage further, planning a solar farm on its 11-acre headquarters — and solar panels on its trucks — so Outdoor Digs can be electrically self-sustaining. “Right now, we have to plug into the building every night,” he says, “and I feel like that’s cheating.”
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