"Gardening Accessory" - in reality, the Spawn of Satan.

"...an indispensable tool for more than just moving leaves. Some resourceful individuals even use them to dry off automobiles after washing." - Larry Will

"No one person can be credited with the invention of the leaf blower. No-one would want to be." - Kevin Weedon

"I hate, hate, hate leaf blowers." - Milton Jaffe of Fair Lawn, New Jersey

So there you are in your own personal Paradise on an idyllic Wednesday afternoon, sitting under a tree with a book and the beverage of your choice, and all is at peace. The zephyr in the trees shimmers the leaves, making that special summer rustling sound. Contented birds fuss over their nests, or whistle sweet challenges or gossip, or whatever it is that birds do, and the laughter of children breaks gently into your thoughts from time to time, the perfect sonic backdrop to these halcyon days. Just at that moment when the world is totally at peace with itself, a bloody belling howl shatters the near-silence as the next door neighbour unleashes a monster dragon, belching smoke, foul fumes and the wakening roar of a Beast of Revelation. No wonder that Milton hates the leaf blower.

Here is an invention that never made it into the Encyclopædia Britannica's Great Inventions list¹, in fact no-one ever actually owned up to inventing it in the first place. I wonder why.

The Problem

Despite the number of people who find it useful, it's been quite a controversial beast, quite simply because it's considered such a dreadful machine. The leaf blower is noisy, smelly and blows far more than leaves. It pumps vast quantities of carbon dioxide and petrol fumes into our atmosphere, it hurls dust, dirt and pollen into the air, which is then carefully blown out into piles on the street, along with all the rubbish it's designed to "sweep up".

With an increasing number of the devices in use, and more and more people complaining about them, it's becoming quite a problem. Many cities in the USA have banned leaf blowers on noise pollution grounds, and with machines typically producing between 75 and 95 decibels, and poorly-maintained blowers doing up to 110 dB, it's little surprise. Other cities, like Davis, California (where I live), have limits on the permitted noise, or even how many may be used at one time; "No individual powered blower shall produce a noise level exceeding 70 dBA measured at a distance of fifty (50) feet....No powered blower shall be operated within one hundred (100) feet radius of another powered blower simultaneously." It's a serious business - more so when you also take into account that prolonged exposure to this level of noise can also cause hearing loss.

In this city, there are a good number of apartment blocks and rental houses, and it seems that a majority of them employ gardening services to cut lawns, trim shrubs and clean up leaves. We had such a service at our last house, and guess what the worst thing was about their coming? Yes, it was indeed the bloody blower. Could I perhaps persuade them to not use the leaf blower? Maybe they could just rake the leaves under one of the many shrubs, or into a corner, or maybe (radical thinking this) onto the compost heap. In all those cases, I argued, the leaves would quietly get on with the process of decomposing and actually add to the fertility of the soil. No dice. Rather than stop blowing, they stopped coming.

Some History

Wikipedia says that in the 1970s "a Japanese company" developed an agricultural sprayer, which was modified to become the raiser of sonic hell. I am finally in a position to blow the whistle on the company that developed them. The beasts. Seems that Kioritz Corporation, a Japanese company, made a device that was initially called a "Duster/Mister", a sprayer unit for the agricultural market, designed to spread chemicals (pesticides, predominantly) by blowing clouds of droplets in a fast-moving air flow. It caught on fast, but the distributors, Echo, noticed that they were starting to sell more than expected, especially in Southern California. Echo did some market research and discovered that some gardeners in drought-hit California had chosen to remove the mister unit from the sprayer, and were using the airflow to move leaves and garden debris, rather than the more usual water hoses (or indeed, brooms and brushes).

Very quickly, Echo realised they were onto something, and developed a manufacturing and marketing strategy to take advantage of it. The leaf blower was born - in 1975 the PB-9 Back Pack Blower was developed, followed quickly by the PB-200 Hand-held Power Blower in 1978. Since then, things have gone rapidly downhill, depending on your perspective, obviously. Gardeners love them, because they're so easy to use. Lovers of peace and quiet hate them, for the reasons already given.

Paradise Lost?

For every manufacturer of leaf blowers, there seems to be an organisation dedicated to their overthrow and destruction. Many is the journalist who has raved on in their columns, many the letter-writer ranting on the same topic. Yet for each of these voices, there's another that says "Wait! I use mine and I love it!" Whatever the future holds, it will not mean the demise of the machine altogether. Echo is taking the lead in developing quieter blowers, and currently put out a model that itself puts out only 65 dB, a huge improvement, but still not enough - after all, if two or three people use them at the same time...

It ain't going to go away, this problem (although Palo Alto, California has voted to ban petrol-powered blowers, and woe betide you if you trangress - there's a $200 fine; even in Los Angeles, "errant leaf blower operators can be fined $100"). Despite this, and rising petrol prices, contractors continue to use them, claiming that their costs would increase by 21 percent if they had to perform the same functions with a rake, say. I call "nonsense" on that - after all, I don't expect that every smidgen of dust has to be removed from my garden, and I think it's unreasonable to raise that expectation. I have a different theory as to why so many people use them.

Ever watch a man in a hardware store, in the power tools section? Sooner or later, you'll see him pick up a drill, or electric screwdriver, and "fast-draw" it. Watch him with that hedge timmer for long enough and you'll see him wield it, sword-like whilst making that "PhvvvSszzzHmmmmm" sound of a lightsabre being waved about. Yes, I blame Hollywood², Spaghetti Westerns and Star Wars - now every tool becomes a weapon, with all the attendant sound effects. And with a leaf blower, there's a step further along. Now you can move things without actually touching them, just like Luke Skywalker. Yes, you buy a leaf blower, it makes you a Jedi.

¹ ...unlike Edison's light bulb, John Harington's flush toilet and the Fresnel lens (by Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel, of course).

²kalen says ...if we're tagging Hollywood for men and tools/guns, then surely we must praise Hollywood, which puts a leaf-blower into the hands of every on-screen character that they want to make an asshole out of...."leaf blower guys". And they are always "Mr. Bad Husband who sleeps with the nanny" or "Mr. Bad Serial Killer Neighbour" etc. etc.
I noted that Jonathan Safran Foer played the part of Leaf Blower in the film of Everything is Illuminated. Nothing major there, just saying.

Thanks to Barbara Gora and Larry Will, officials of the Echo company, for their clarifications
Thanks to George and Mary Wrigley, for their contributions