My suburban neighborhood has been noisier than usual this year. In addition to the ubiquitous roar of gas-powered leaf blowers, there is now the sound of me fighting back.
I’ve been a lonely scold griping to my neighbors about their obnoxious leaf blowers for years. After a beautiful spring day wrecked by hours of nonstop droning earlier this year, I decided complaining wasn’t enough. So I messaged a group of offending neighbors, telling them that every time their leaf blowers rattled my house, I would respond with a like amount of hip-hop or heavy metal blared directly at them from my 70-watt guitar amplifier. The neighbors united against me, deeming the leaf blowers essential and calling my bluff.
To stream music into a guitar amplifier, you need a small Bluetooth receiver designed for the auxiliary jack in a car, plus an adapter to fit the gizmo into the amp’s larger jack. Forty bucks, all in. Then you sync your phone or other music source to the Bluetooth receiver, place the amp in a strategic location and let ‘er rip. You could blast music at your neighbors from any speaker, but the beauty of an amp is it’s really damn loud. Plus, you can add distortion and other effects if you want a screechy or especially grating timbre that fully matches the leaf blowers’ ear-splitting uproar.
The first time I did it, I felt nervous—until I felt elated. About five minutes after my neighbor’s landscaping crew lit up their leaf blowers on a bright Tuesday morning, I put the amp on my deck, aimed it at the problem, set the amp’s volume to 5—leaving room to escalate—and hit play. Blaring hip-hop collided with leaf-blower racket in a terrible cacophony between the two houses. But after the blowers stopped, I treated my neighbors to another 20 minutes or so of carefully cultivated hip-hop thumping like a trailer for Rolling Loud. It might be unwanted noise, but now I was the one making it. Hooya.
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I learned to anticipate when the landscaping crews typically show up at my neighbors’ homes, and be ready, with the Bluetooth receiver fully charged, extension cords prepositioned, Zoom schedule cleared. Another neighbor does his own lawn, like me, except with religious embrace of his beloved leaf blower, which he defends in arguments with me as if it’s a family member or pet. I’m a little cagier with this neighbor, sometimes deploying the guitar amp in direct combat but other times choosing a delayed response, such as playing softer music out the windows right around the family’s bedtime.
Leaf blowers = polluters
The ubiquity of gas-powered leaf blowers in the deafening suburbs suggests mainstream Americans don’t have a clue about climate change, or any interest addressing the problem, even though the planet is roasting and President Biden has prioritized clean energy. A single leaf-blower used for one day can emit more greenhouse-gas pollution than a pickup truck driven for a year. There’s no pollution filter, as with the catalytic converter on a car, and no sound control, as with a muffler. Leaf-blowers can easily exceed 100 decibels of noise, which is about the same decibel level as a rock concert (!). That’s close to the threshold for human pain and enough to cause hearing loss after five minutes of exposure. It’s also enough noise to rattle an entire suburban block and make conversation within 50 feet impossible.
My town bans the use of gas-powered blowers from June 1 to Sept. 30, but they belch and groan all summer long anyway, even though there are no leaves to blow, since they’re still on the trees. Residents don’t want to tell the landscaping crews they hire how to do their jobs, as if the landscapers are in charge, not their clients. When I waved down one landscaper who was blasting away and told him blowers were banned in the summer, he told me, “Everybody does it.” People who do their own lawns seem obsessed with blowing every speck of dust off the sidewalk into the street, even though the wind eventually blows it all right back.
The world is awakening to the scourge. “Let’s kill all the leaf blowers,” Margaret Renkl recently urged in the New York Times. The Wall Street Journal called the pestilent machines “evil incarnate.” California just passed a law to ban sales of the sort of engine used in gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers, starting in 2024. There’s a bill in New York State, where I live, to ban blowers, but the landscaping lobby apparently has enough clout to stall or kill the effort. When lawn-care agencies started calling the shots, I don’t know.
Several hundred towns also ban gas-powered blowers either permanently or during the summer months, with fines for violators that typically start at around $250 for a first-time offense. My town levies fines, too, and sometimes landscapers get nabbed and have to pay them. But even this doesn’t seem to make a difference, as if the fines are a mere cost of doing business. I do wonder if the lawn services pass the cost onto their customers through higher pricing, and if they knew, would those customers—my neighbors—be happy about paying.
I manage my own property with battery-powered tools fully up to the job. Like all my neighbors, my house sits on about one-seventh of an acre. These are not Texas ranches or Greenwich estates requiring tractors and plows. It takes 20 minutes to cut the grass, and my battery-powered blower has more than enough juice to clean up the sidewalk afterward. One neighbor has told me he can’t even hear my machines when I’m doing the lawn.
I’m not a shill for electric lawn equipment, and I won’t even name the brands I use, and like. I will say this: While they cost a little more, battery-powered tools require no messy fuels and no more maintenance than a vacuum cleaner. There’s no winterization and I’ve never taken one anywhere for servicing. For people mowing their own small lawns, battery-powered tools are simply better than gas-powered alternatives. The batteries probably don’t last long enough for a full day’s service with a commercial operation, but they could with more judicious use. You can also keep spare batteries on hand. As with electric vehicles, these batteries are getting cheaper and better as production scales up.
Blasting my music to answer the leaf blowers makes me feel better, because I’m roaring back instead of quietly stewing. There are also a few encouraging signs it may be curtailing the abusive overuse of these noxious machines. One targeted neighbor has switched from a gas-powered blower to electric. The same lawn worker who told me “everybody” violates the blower ban used a battery-powered blower a few times over the summer. I waved and gave him a thumbs-up. The neighborhood din continues—especially as the leaves come down—but there seem to be more breaks in the furor when you can actually hear the birds chirp. Still, I keep my Bluetooth gizmo fully charged.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.