Frequently Asked Questions: Noise, Health Effects, and Costs

The complete FAQ can be downloaded here.

Did landscapers have a chance to weigh in before Article 10 was finalized?

Yes. The Noise Advisory Committee conducted extensive outreach to local landscapers last spring. The Town does not register landscapers, so the Committee used numerous sources to compile contact information for nearly 60 local landscapers and invited them to two meetings devoted to their input (in April and May). The Committee also invited landscapers to submit additional input online during a five-month comment period. Article 10 was substantially changed in response to feedback provided by landscapers. Additional hours of operation were added for commercial landscapers, providing five hours per week more for landscaping than the Town allows for construction. The fall and spring cleanup periods were lengthened by 11 weeks, and the phase-out period for GLBs was extended by one year, to 40 months.

Were GLBs legal before Article 10?

No. Commercial GLBs are so loud that even 50 feet away, a single GLB creates four times the added noise allowed by the Town’s existing noise bylaw. However, as a practical matter, this bylaw can’t be enforced for transient noise such as GLBs because it requires taking multiple measures of both ambient and operating noise. Article 10 eliminated this enforcement loophole.

Repealing the new bylaw (a No vote) would allow this illegal noise to continue without any limit.

How loud are GLBs?

Very. A single commercial-grade GLB emits roughly 77 dBA (decibels) at 50 feet and roughly 100 dBA at the ear of the operator. 77 dBA is roughly 13 times a typical ambient noise level.

However, the 50-foot standard used in the industry understates how serious the noise is in Lexington, where many lots are small and the minimum setback is 15 or 20 feet in many areas. At 20 feet, the noise from that single GLB would reach 85 dBA, which is 32 times the ambient noise level.

Moreover, commercial landscapers usually use several GLBs simultaneously. We have seen as many as six GLBs operating simultaneously on a single Lexington property. However, even just three GLBs operating simultaneously increase ambient noise roughly 18 times. At 50 feet, three GLBs produce 6 times the noise allowed under the law before Article 10 was passed, and at 20 feet, they produce 10 times the allowed noise.

A note on interpreting decibels is at the end of this FAQ.

How polluting are GLBs?

Extremely polluting. GLBs use two-stroke engines, an extremely dirty technology that burns oil mixed with gas. They produce large amounts of small-particulate emissions, nitrous oxides, and dangerous volatile organic compounds, including carcinogens such as benzene. Numerous studies show that GLBs are thousands of times more polluting than automobiles.

For example this fact sheet from the California Air Resources Board notes that operating a single GLB for just one hour produces emissions comparable to driving a Toyota Camry 1,100 miles, roughly the distance from Boston to Atlanta. The California Air Resources Board further notes that gas powered leaf blowers and other small two-stroke gas engines will create more ozone pollution than all of the passenger cars in the state.

Are GLBs safe?

No. The noise produced by GLBs is highly disruptive and stressful for residents, even people living some distance from the work site, and it is dangerous for workers. The National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health recommends limiting exposure to 100 dBA (the noise at the ear from a single GLB) to 15 minutes per day to avoid permanent hearing loss, but landscape workers are exposed to this noise for many hours each day.

As noted above, the air pollution produced by GLBs contains numerous toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, that pose a serious risk to the health of workers.

These health risks prompted Lexington’s Board of Health to vote unanimously to endorse Article 10.

Could landscape workers wear masks and hearing protection?

At 100 dBA, the CDC recommends double protection: ear plugs covered by over-the-ear muffs. In addition to being very uncomfortable, this degree of sound isolation is unsafe because it leaves workers unable to hear warnings or the approach of other equipment.

Typical masks, even KN95 or N95 masks, do not protect workers from the toxic gaseous emissions from GLBs. Workers would need to use chemical respirators to protect themselves from these emissions. Respirators are uncomfortable for all-day use, and their straps interfere with ear muffs by breaking the seal.

Neither ear protection nor chemical respirators would protect others nearby.

It is important to note that GLBs also promote environmental injustice through their disproportionate impact on landscape workers, who typically earn under $20/hour in Massachusetts (a salary that is just at the state’s living wage requirement for a single adult without a family). When wealthy homeowners pay for polluting landscaping services, they are exposing workers to the worst impacts from both the noise and pollution.

Are battery powered blowers much less noisy than GLBs?

Far less noisy. A crew using four battery operated blowers creates just half the noise generated by a single GLB. In addition, because GLBs emit substantial low-frequency noise, their noise carries much farther and penetrates walls much more than the noise from electric blowers. Some homeowners who have hired firms using electric equipment report that they are not always aware that their landscapers are working on their property.

Is landscaping with electric blowers practical?

Yes. Many communities have limited the use of GLBs, and a growing number have banned them. A number of landscapers in our area already offer electric service, as do many landscapers in other communities, such as Washington DC, where a ban on the use of GLBs took effect on January 1, 2022. We have identified landscapers who have been using electric blowers for more than a decade already. Moreover, Article 10 allows the continued use of wheeled four-stroke gas-powered blowers on lots larger than 1 acre, allowing landscapers to use the most powerful equipment on large properties.

The Director of Lexington’s Department of Public Works has stated that he considers it practical to meet the requirements of Article 10 for all Town properties.

Why does the Article 10 delay the phase-out of GLBs for more than 3 years?

This is a compromise between the need of neighbors and workers for relief and the need of landscapers to depreciate GLBs they have already purchased and to plan their transition to electric blowers. In addition, this phase-out period allows time for continuing improvements in the available electric equipment.

Do electric leaf blowers cost more?

Initial costs are much higher for battery powered leaf blowers because of the cost of batteries and chargers, but operating costs—both energy costs and maintenance—are far lower for battery-powered blowers than for GLBs. Actual costs depend on many factors, such as how often GLBs are replaced and whether the operator uses synthetic oil. For this reason, we have obtained a range of estimates from the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA), which has done extensive research into the transition to electric landscaping.

AGZA’s data indicate that over a four year period, the annual cost of switching from GLBs to battery-operated blowers ranges from essentially zero to $1,250 for a crew using three blowers.

The costs of electric equipment are likely to decrease over the 3½-year phase-out period. Major suppliers of gas-powered equipment, such as Stihl and Husqvarna, are now actively competing in the electric-equipment market, and battery technology is improving.

How much do electric blowers cost per job?

Based on the AGZA estimates above, we estimated the cost per job of switching a 3-blower crew to electric blowers. To be conservative, we used the highest of AGZA’s estimates of net costs, which is $1,250 per year over four years.

On the advice of a local landscaper, we assumed that crews can average 25 jobs per week; this assumes 5 jobs per day when weather permits and an average of one day per week when weather prevents work entirely. The Spring and Fall cleanup periods together total 26 weeks. This totals 650 jobs per year per crew. These assumptions yield a net equipment cost of $1.92 per job. If we assume only 20 jobs per week, the net cost per job is $2.40.

Will the transition to electric blowers increase prices for removing leaves?

In some cases, yes, but in many cases, little or not at all. Most of the electric-equipment landscapers we have contacted indicate that they are cost-competitive and usually charge either similar or only modestly higher prices. Costs depend on many factors, including lot size, tree cover, and the extent to which landscapers have adapted their work to accommodate the currently lower power of battery-powered blowers. Local competition also influences costs. Currently, few local landscapers provide electric service, and one indicated that he cannot keep up with the demand for his services. As a result of Article 10, competition in the electric landscaping market will increase markedly, which should constrain prices.

It’s essential to recognize that the price landscapers charge today for work with GLBs does not represent the full cost of using this equipment. Much of that cost is borne by others, in the stressful noise imposed on neighbors and the impact on workers’ health and the environment.

Repealing the new bylaw (a No vote) would allow those using GLBs to continue shifting those real costs onto neighbors and workers.

Which other communities have limited or begun to phase out GLBs?

As more scientific evidence comes to light on the negative impacts of GLBs, and as electric equipment has become both better and cheaper, an increasing number of communities have been limiting or eliminating the use of GLBs:

  • At least 170 municipalities have imposed seasonal restrictions, including Newton, Cambridge, Brookline, and Lincoln.

Communities that have passed laws to eliminate GLB use:

How do I interpret the noise ratings?

Seemingly small increases in decibels indicate large increases in noise (sound pressure).

The decibel scale is a logarithmic scale, so any given increase in decibels indicates how much the amount of noise has been multiplied. For example, an increase of 6 dBA indicates a doubling of noise, regardless of the starting level.

For example, start with an ambient noise level of 55 dBA. Increasing this to 61 dBA doubles the noise, and increasing it to 67 dBA results in doubling it again, to four times the ambient noise. Increasing noise to 77 dBA, a typical level for a single commercial GLB 50 feet away, results in 13 times the amount of ambient noise.

Can lithium batteries be recycled and utilized as resources for new batteries?

Yes! One of lithium battery recycling companies is already receiving the majority of lithium-ion batteries collected and recycled in North America, and that amounts to approximately 6GWh of end-of-life lithium batteries, plus scrap, and a 95% average rate of recovery of materials like nickel, cobalt, lithium and copper is claimed by its technologies and processes.