Vicki Richards is a connoisseur of sound.
The violinist practices, teaches, composes and studies music at her South Miami home. She has performed inside Carnegie Hall and outside at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. She has played jazz with Weather Report and Indian ragas with tabla drum virtuosos. She has been in a 100-piece orchestra playing fortissimo — near the cymbals. She incorporated frogs’ croaks and birds’ melodies into one of her albums. She likes to cook to Bach. And she’s not a sound snob. Her daughter’s punk band, No Peace At All (a reference to war, not noise), used to rehearse in the garage.
But there is one particular sound that Richards cannot tolerate. Maybe it’s the oscillating pitch of the snarl or the persistence of the whine. Maybe it’s the sheer volume that puts her over the edge. Leaf blowers. Can they even be said to produce sound? Or merely an abomination of sound?
The ubiquitous yard tool that usurped the rake is not music to her ears. It’s an assault on her eardrums.
“By the middle of Debussy’s La mer, I’ve been transported to the seaside, and then here come the leaf blowers roaring down my street, like a Tyrannosauras rex attacking my aural space,” she said. “You can’t play over it and you can’t play with it. I used to have house concerts, but nobody wants to hear ‘String Quartet with Leaf Blower.’”
Conceived as a labor-saving machine to ease the yard work burden on mankind, leaf blowers are now despised as polluters of tranquility and air. The high, screaming frequency gets under people’s skin. The dust gets under people’s fingernails. The leaves and grass clippings get blown away temporarily, but then they come back, like taxes and dirty laundry. Part of the hatred of leaf blowers stems from the fact that one’s lawn, like one’s life, always reverts to an unkempt state.
Leaf blowers have caused headaches from Miami Beach to Santa Monica, Calif., from Coral Gables to Rye, N.Y., from South Miami to Washington, D.C., where cities have clashed with landscape contractors and neighbors have fought each other over laws to restrict use. The debates are passionate. The leaf blower is the snake ravaging modern-day Eden.
In South Florida, where leaf-drop season is in full force, Palm Beach recently passed a ban on gas-powered blowers on properties of less than one acre despite opposition from landscaping company owners, who said their livelihood would be adversely affected because they would have to buy new $300-$500 machines, add hours and raise rates, thus risking a loss in customers. Key West is drafting a proposal. South Miami commissioners voted down a plan to regulate the “annoying” racket but are considering a tougher noise ordinance. Former Coral Gables commissioner Ralph Cabrera introduced a ban several years ago, but irate citizens complained about government infringement on their private domains and the possible increase in lawn service fees and the proposal was tabled.
Activists have collected petitions, written blogs on “What the Devil Does in His Spare Time” and created websites such as quietcommunities.org , silencity.com, thequietcoalition.com and noisefree.org dedicated to banishing leaf blowers from the planet. A Facebook page documents neighbors’ spats: “F*** your idiotic and wasteful lawn!” and “We are tormented daily by leaf blower OCD” and “What’s next? Banning lawn mowers in favor of scythes?”
“People get emotionally worked up and make it a cause, like saving the whale,” said Larry Will, the engineer who invented the first quiet leaf blower for Echo. Today, he is retired but still on a mission to educate people on proper, judicious leaf blower use and encourage transition to new low-noise, low-emissions models. “Bans are unenforceable. You’ve got to foster compromise or the arguments will never stop.”
The tidy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in California was the first to ban blowers, back in 1975, followed by Beverly Hills in 1978. Manhattan Beach, California, made leaf-blowing a criminal offense subject to a $1,000 fine and jail time. Hundreds of cities have approved variations, such as prohibiting the noisier gas-fueled models in favor of less powerful and more cumbersome electric or battery-operated models, or limiting the times or months of use. Miami Beach owns 38 gas-powered blowers used by city workers and plans to replace them at a cost of $48,000.
But ending what some call the “plague” or “pestilence” has met resistance. Newton, Mass., and Maplewood, N.J., are anticipating lawsuits from landscape contractors who claim discrimination (what about construction noise?) and want to rescind summertime restrictions.
Latino lawn maintenance workers protested at city hall in Palo Alto, Calif., and the Association of Latin American Gardeners of Los Angeles once held a hunger strike in front of city hall, arguing that it would take them twice as long to complete jobs without blowers. But a grandmother from Pacific Palisades, using a rake and broom, proved them wrong in a test conducted by the city. In another test in Greenwich, Conn., a homeowner who raked clippings on a half acre took only 10 minutes longer than a blower.
“Without this, a two-hour job would take four hours,” said Roberto Poveda, who was wearing his 25-pound Stihl BR 600 backpack as he worked on a yard in Coral Gables. “For someone like me who has a small outfit, I’d have to hire a helper or ask for higher pay, and customers start crying if you raise rates by $5.
“It would be nice if people didn’t worry so much about the leaves and I could just cut the grass and not use this thing, but you have to work hard. That’s life.”
Nate Marshall might as well have been driving a horse and buggy or talking on a pay phone. That’s how old-fashioned he looked when he was observed sweeping a driveway with a broom the other day. Marshall has been a gardener for 35 years and prefers manual implements.
“It adds maybe 15 minutes, but it looks much neater,” said Marshall, who pulled a knife from his pocket and bent down to slice weeds out from between brick pavers, leaving the driveway as spotless as a dining room table at Downton Abbey. “Sweeping is more efficient than blowing those leaves around, and they end up in other people’s yards.”
Besides, the 180-mph, hurricane-force blast damages young plants, obliterates topsoil and carries away mulch.
South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard resorted to calling the police on a ruined Saturday when he asked a lawn service worker to switch to a rake and “he rudely refused,” Stoddard said.
“They cry that they’ll be put out of business, but it’s not true because we’ve studied what’s happened in California. Use the blower in specialized situations. Otherwise, use a rake and broom. It works and takes an extra 20 minutes,” he said. “That noise is like a dentist’s drill. It’s impossible to get out of your head and you go cuckoo.”
The plight of the lawn-care industry, which employs thousands in South Florida, cannot be ignored. The underground economy of unlicensed “Mow, Blow and Go” crews is also vital to a subtropical area where manicuring the jungle is a year-round, labor-intensive endeavor.
“I don’t like the noise of our leaf blowers any more than the next person, but it is time someone spoke up for the honest working bloke who is trying to trim our vast hedges, renovate our huge estates and keep our properties in the pristine condition they deserve. These are the people who help make our privileged lives complete,” Van Stewart wrote to the Palm Beach Daily News during the town’s heated debate. “Might I suggest that if madam wishes not to hear the leaf blowers that on the day of their arrival she plans to work in a soup kitchen across the bridge.”
They are loud, though, and pernicious. During a 45-minute run, I checked my watch and found I could not go more than three minutes without hearing the strains of a leaf blower. At one corner, I was ambushed by the buzz of three different blowers from three different directions and dodged billowing clouds of dust. During a recent visit to Palo Alto, I realized I didn’t hear a single leaf blower. It was so quiet I could hear the cage-free chickens clucking next door.
“Riding my bike along a canal, I heard a manatee surface and inhale, and I never would have heard that if leaf blowers were operating,” said Richards, who recorded waterfalls for an album dedicated to cancer patients. “Birds can’t mate if they can’t hear each other. We’ve gotten to a point where unnatural noise is taking over our communities and blocking out natural sounds.”
Some cities have imposed leaf blower noise limits of 65 decibels from 50 feet away. Most newer blowers emit 65-75 decibels, while older models are in the 80s. By comparison, a library is 40, normal conversation is 60 (for the loud talkers of Miami, make that 65), city traffic or a loud restaurant is 80, listening to “El Chapo” by Skrillex and The Game at max car stereo volume is 95, a chainsaw is 110, an ambulance siren is 120, and a shotgun blast is 170. Keep in mind that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale, meaning that every increase of 10 dBs is equivalent to a 10-fold increase in sound intensity (roughly a doubling in loudness). OSHA requires ear protection for noise over 85; noise at that level for eight hours can cause irreparable hearing damage.
Unlike eyes, ears can’t shut. Studies show that noise heightens stress, impairs concentration, disrupts sleep, leads to hypertension and heart disease, and can have a negative impact on a developing fetus. The CIA has used noise, including the Barney themesong, to torture prisoners.
“Calling noise a nuisance is like calling smog an inconvenience. Noise must be considered a hazard to the health of people everywhere,” said former U.S. Surgeon General William H. Stewart.
The Environmental Protection Agency says noise causes “high levels of frustration and aggression that last even when the noise has ceased.” Thus, you have accounts of fed-up residents confronting yard workers and smashing their equipment. The World Health Organization recommends general daytime noise levels of 55 or less.
It’s not just noise pollution but air pollution that concerns opponents. Leaf blowers stir up dust and particulate matter that can aggravate asthma and other respiratory ailments. Airborne dust that’s inhaled contains mold, pollen, pesticides, animal feces, lead, arsenic, mercury and hydrocarbons.
Poveda, his skin and clothes streaked with dirt and sweat, was wearing safety glasses but not ear protection or a dust mask. He said he is thankful that he has suffered no loss of hearing or ringing in the ears. Research shows that vibration from the backpacks is transmitted up the spinal cord to the skull and to the cochlea in the inner ear.
“I’m giving out earplugs instead of Gatorade now,” said Richards, who has begged workers to cease using leaf blowers for their own sake, as well as hers.
Listen to Larry Will, a man of science, a peacemaker. The 65-decibel Echo Quiet unit he built 20 years ago with a revolutionary muffler, air-intake sound attenuator and special rattle-deadening plastics has since been refined and manufacturers now offer various low-noise models labeled with the decibel output. The decibel level is measured from a distance of 50 feet. The leaf blowers are three times louder near the user’s ears.
On older blowers with two-stroke engines, 30 percent of the gas that did not combust came out as a fume-producing pollutant. But tougher 2005 EPA standards have reduced emissions by 90 percent. And, “as for dog feces in the air, you better abolish the lawn mower. Don’t blame the leaf blower,” Will said.
The trick is convincing people to get rid of antiquated blowers and buy new ones. Gas backpacks ($160-500) are more powerful and expensive than handheld blowers ($90-220). Electric models that require dragging around a cord ($30-110) are less powerful and better for small areas. Cordless battery-powered models ($150-300) have to be recharged after 30-40 minutes.
“Unfortunately, most commercial contractors don’t feel that noise is an issue,” he said. “One of my struggles is to get them to understand that quiet blowers are not automatically less powerful.”
Will believes that leaf blowers, like leaves, are here to stay but do not have to destroy health or harmony. His website, leafblowernoise.com, dispels myths (including the often-cited but inaccurate comparison of a blower’s emissions to that of a Ford F-150 pickup) and provides facts. He has even written a pamphlet, “Leaf Blowers: A Guide to Safe and Courteous Use.” He has given advice to 160 cities that sought his expertise and usually found that bans don’t work because police and code enforcement officers don’t have time to chase, check and issue citations to leaf blower scofflaws.
Will feels your pain. His neatnik neighbor — “his yard is like a park” — runs his blower on Mother’s Day and Christmas. So Will recommends restricting times of use. Don’t use blowers on loose dirt or gravel drives. Throttle down.
Will owns four blowers — an electric one and 2.5- and 3.5-horsepower backpacks and “a really obnoxious old one that I take to demonstrations.”
Will, the industry pioneer, and Richards, the violinist, both envision a truce in a world where it’s OK to clean your yard but also to open your windows or go for a walk without scooping debris from your eyes.
“I love the gentle sound of the wind as much as a bombastic movement by Beethoven,” Richards said. “But nothing compares to the dissonance of two leaf blowers going simultaneously that cuts through you like a serrated knife. That’s how you drive a person insane.”