Gas vs. electric leaf blowers – which option is more sustainable?

Every autumn, as colorful leaves start to fall and pile up around campus, Facilities Services sees an uptick in inquiries from staff and students who are curious to learn more about leaf removal strategies. Specifically, many people wonder if electric leaf blowers would be a more sustainable and climate-friendly option. There are also concerns about noise pollution – wouldn’t raking be just as effective? Where do all the leaves on campus go after being collected?

As with many questions related to sustainability, the answers aren’t always obvious.

OSU is committed to reducing fossil fuel consumption – why not switch to electric leaf blowers?

On the surface, electric leaf blowers seem like the clear winner and align well with OSU’s climate action goals. They are also quieter to operate – a perk for college campuses where focused study time is a priority.

The Landscape Shop began assessing the viability of electric landscaping tools starting around 2014. Over the next five years, they invited multiple companies to campus to demo the latest electric landscaping equipment. Landscape staff also met with their counterparts at the University of Southern California to learn what their experience was in adopting electric landscaping tools. As of late 2019, USC was the only university in the Pac-12 who had converted to all-electric landscaping tools.

What was learned from USC’s experience

USC had originally transitioned to all electric landscaping equipment in response to noise complaints from their campus community. That decision came with a significant financial investment – some of the tools cost twice as much as their gas-powered equivalents.

Beyond the price tag, USC noticed that the electric leaf blowers did not have enough power to remove wet leaves or grass. In southern California’s dry and sunny climate, this isn’t much of a drawback. But OSU’s staff had serious concerns about using these tools in Oregon’s rainy fall weather. The longer time needed to remove wet leaves would only increase noise issues, labor costs and battery consumption.

There were also concerns raised about the batteries used to power the electric tools. According to USC, each worker used four batteries per day. The batteries needed to be disposed of and replaced every four months and USC staff had to ship dead batteries to Arizona for proper disposal. They attempted to calculate the carbon footprint of each battery, from manufacturing to disposal, and were unable to draw firm conclusions.  

Another issue is that electric leaf blowers tend to be heavier and less ergonomic in design than gas powered blowers. While this would not be an issue for the average residential user, it is a concern for landscaping professionals who may need to use this equipment for an entire eight-hour shift.

OSU’s landscaping staff concluded that the combination of steep financial costs, uncertain environmental impacts and potential risks to worker safety made a full transition to electric leaf blowers unrealistic given the current limitations in the technology and the unique challenges posed by Oregon’s rainy climate.

What OSU’s landscaping team is doing instead

While OSU landscaping staff are sticking with gas-powered leaf blowers for now, they are currently piloting the use of one electric model. So far, they have observed that the electric model weighs about ten pounds more than a gas-powered blower and as expected, it is less effective at removing wet leaves from paved areas.

Meanwhile, they are taking steps to minimize environmental impacts through other actions. Leaves that fall directly into shrub beds are allowed compost in place, which supports healthy soil and plant growth. In some cases, leaves may be intentionally blown into landscaping beds for this purpose. Leaves collected in other areas are composted on campus – they are not sent to landfills.

Other environmentally conscious practices include collecting all pruned wood and grinding it into mulch, utilizing a centrally-controlled irrigation system, integrating drought-tolerant plants into the landscaping, removing sections of lawn and replacing them with shrub beds (to reduce mowing and irrigation) and only using pesticides when needed, with preference given to low-impact products.

What about the noise impacts?

Some have suggested raking as alternative to leaf blowing to minimize noise and other environmental impacts. While raking reduces noise and pollution, it will not effectively remove wet leaves from pavement which is critically important to preventing slip and fall incidents. Raking is also much slower and replacing blowers with raking would add a significant number of labor hours and associated costs.  Slowing the leaf removal process down also presents safety and accessibility issues. Fallen leaves need to be removed as quickly as possible to prevent flooding due to clogged storm drains and maintain safe ADA access across campus.

To address noise impacts, OSU landscaping staff limit leaf blowing to certain times of day, avoid blowing leaves during high traffic times and coordinate leaf blowing around events to minimize disruptions. Sweepers are used to clear leaves in parking lots, which reduces the use of leaf blowers as well.

One observation from their experience with the electric leaf blower is that while it is less noisy than the gas-powered version, it is by no means silent. It could be a partial solution to noise impacts, but not a comprehensive one.

Looking ahead

OSU’s landscaping crew is optimistic that future improvements in technology will make electric landscaping tools a viable option for OSU. Until then, they are committed to transparent and responsive communication with the campus community regarding all issues related to protecting the natural environment and making the Corvallis campus a beautiful place to be.

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