Plenty of Bay Area cities are already acting: At least eight have banned gas-powered blowers, and more restrict their use during times of day or up to a certain noise level. Novato may soon join the list.
“What I think we need to realize is that we have to do something different for climate change in the world,” said Novato Mayor Pro Tem Pat Eklund, who proposed a ban on gas lawn mowers and leaf blowers in December. “If not, we are going to see a different world than we do today. Every little bit is going to help.”
Such restrictions force people to use cleaner, quieter electric machinery instead. But they are not universally popular.
Jose Vaca, who owns Vaca Construction and Landscaping, which has locations in Novato and Petaluma, said he would have to buy up to five batteries — costing an average of $100 to $200 each — to finish jobs on large properties like homeowner associations or shopping centers. Electric leaf blowers would make tasks longer and more expensive, he said.
Vaca said he has already ended contracts in Mill Valley because of the city’s ban on gas-powered leaf blowers. If Novato implements a similar restriction, he’ll do the same.
While cars produce more carbon dioxide, small engines can emit more of other problematic gases. Running a lawn mower for an hour generates as much smog-forming pollution as driving a 2017 Toyota Camry from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, according to the California Air Resources Board, which works to keep the air clean. A leaf blower is worse — all the way to Denver. Daily exposure to the fumes also increases cancer risks, a 2018 air board study found.
“The reason that they’re such high polluters, there’s not anything fundamentally different about engines, they’re not fundamentally dirtier, but we haven’t put effort into cleaning them up like cars,” said Dorothy Fibiger, an engineer with the air board’s Monitoring and Laboratory Division. Because some machines such as leaf blowers are handheld, they can’t take on added weight for equipment — like the catalytic converters carried by cars — that reduces emissions, she explained.
This year, the air board is reducing the emissions allowed for gasoline-powered lawn equipment sold in California. As early as 2022, it wants allowed emissions to drop to zero. (Companies can in the meantime earn credits for selling machines that are below the standard, allowing them to continue selling gasoline-powered devices even after 2022.) The ultimate goal is ending the sale of gas machines, but that will come much later, Fibiger said.
It’s part of a push to tackle less-obvious sources of greenhouse gas emissions, like natural gas used in homes and businesses, which is also facing a growing wave of local bans in the state.
California has the small lawn devices in its sights in part because of looming federal standards for ozone, according to David Wooley, executive director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Environmental Public Policy.
In the North Bay, Belvedere, Mill Valley and the city of Sonoma already bar gasoline-powered leaf blowers. Tiburon allows them only in nonresidential areas and at certain times of day.
Berkeley bans gas leaf blowers. Orinda restricts use to certain hours; the City Council voted down a measure to ban them entirely in 2010.
Palo Alto bans gas leaf blowers in residential zones. Los Gatos banned blowers in all areas, saying they “degrade the quality of life” with noise and pollution. The town replaced approximately 10 blowers — at the cost of $1,370 each for a blower, charger and two batteries — when the ordinance was adopted in 2014. Electric leaf blowers can’t exceed a noise threshold and can operate only at certain times.
Los Altos was one of the first cities to prohibit gas-powered leaf blowers in 1991. Two decades later, the city reconsidered the ban, citing the adverse impact on the parks department, which needed extra battery packs to work on large properties without electric outlets. Ultimately the effort to repeal the ban fell short.
San Jose floated a buyback program this year to make it more affordable to replace gas-powered lawn equipment. Environmental Services Department senior public information representative Carlos Velazquez said the city is not moving forward with any ban but is focusing on reducing emissions from transportation and buildings.
“We don’t want to say never,” Velazquez said of the idea of a ban. “Right now it isn’t a priority.”
Novato’s proposed ban, which would be among the strictest in the region, is due to be discussed by the City Council in the first half of this year, followed by a possible staff report and public hearings.
One resident, speaking at the December City Council meeting, called leaf blowers “the most hated tool of the 21st century.”
Anthony Alioto, who has lived in Novato for 20 years, said he was so bothered by the noise of his old gasoline-powered lawn mower, and his wife by its fumes, that he bought a battery-powered one that weighs less.
Novato officials appreciate the environmental benefits of fewer gas-powered tools, but also are aware of the potential economic impact. “I want to see us doing some outreach to see who is affected,” Councilwoman Susan Wernick said at the December meeting. “I wouldn’t want to see anybody driven out of business.”
Some companies said they’re ready to make the investment. John Markham, manager of Marin Landscape Management, wants to switch to electric equipment to make for a cleaner environment.
“We are considering switching over because we’re aware of not just the laws, but people don’t like those machines,” he said. Non-electric lawn mowers “burn gasoline and have exhaust and are loud. They’re very efficient machines, they get the job done fast and it does a good job, but there are good electric machines out there. They’ve gotten better and better.”
Markham would need to buy up to 10 lawn mowers and leaf blowers over time, reselling his older machines to fund the investment. He supported Novato’s measure but urged the city to phase it in over time.
Mark Bailey, who runs Buck’s Saw and Lawn Equipment in Novato, said sales of cordless electric lawn mowers have risen in the last couple of years. But most people still seek out gasoline-powered equipment.
Electric leaf blowers at the Novato store cost around $130, whereas gas-powered models range from $150 to $600. Battery powered lawn mowers run around $500 while gas versions cost anywhere from the mid $400s to up to $1,000. Bailey said a battery for an electric lawn machine lasts from 20 minutes to an hour, with a life span of up to six years, depending on usage, although he sells a warranty for only two years.
The advantage of electric lawn mowers is saving money in fuel and maintenance, Bailey said, but the downside is less power and performance.
Fibiger at the Air Resources Board said the effectiveness and efficiency of electric lawn machines have improved as technology has advanced, but some landscapers who tried them years ago may not give them a second chance. The air board has a program to loan test equipment to cities, businesses and schools, with a goal of encouraging adoption.
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Besides the cost of buying a new machine, change can be hard, she acknowledged. Landscapers “have been doing the same thing for a really long time, and asking them to change how they do their job, that’s a big ask.”
Mallory Moench is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mallorymoench
Mallory Moench joined The San Francisco Chronicle to report on business in 2019. She previously covered immigration and local news for the Albany Times Union and the Alabama state legislature for the Associated Press. Before that, she freelanced with a focus on Yemen while studying at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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