Leaf Blower Power Squadrons

HIGHLAND PARK, Illinois, October 27 -- Around this time of year, Meg and I don't have much need for an alarm clock. That's because the local landscaping crews handle the wakeup chores just fine.

A couple of minutes past the stroke of 7:00 am, we're often jarred awake by the cacophony of two or more screaming leaf blowers, whose operators apparently figure that since they get the day started early, everyone else should, too.

Highland Park's toothless noise ordinance stipulates that gas-powered leaf blowers can't be used between May 15th and October 1 -- which is pretty much a waste of time, because leaves don't start hitting the ground in great numbers until October anyway.  And when the leaves fall, the Leaf Blower Power Squadrons snarl into action.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

The noise ordinance allows our weekday wakeup call to begin at 7:00, while on weekends, the engines can't fire up until 9:00.  It hasn't occurred to the city fathers that not everyone jumps out of bed at the crack of dawn and catches the oh-dark-thirty Metraliner into the city, the better to get a head start on a busy day of commodities trading and money laundering.  Some people, like yours truly, work at home a lot of the time -- and would appreciate having some peace and quiet until we think it's time to get up.  (Back in the good old days, everyone used to mow his own lawn, usually on weekends -- and rake his own leaves.  Nowadays, nobody can be bothered, or so it seems.  Part of it may be that we live in a wealthy town in which nobody can be bothered to do much of anything for himself -- why do it yourself when you can pay someone else to do it?)

The leaf blowers are particularly annoying because of their tiny two-stroke engines.  Lawn mowers may put out almost as many decibels as the typical leaf blower, but most mowers have four-stroke engines.  The lower-frequency thrum of a four-stroke isn't nearly as grating as the whine of a two-stroke, revving at 10,000 RPM or so.

So there's little chance of sleeping in.  The landscapers start at 7:00 sharp and tend to work in teams -- usually, they've got at least two blowers, running slightly out-of-phase, so they sound like a miniature WWII plane making a bombing run over Dresden.  These guys are out there, rain or shine, making sure no leaf goes unblown.

Sound and fury, signifying nothing

Just exactly where the leaves get blown is another matter.  The other day, I was watching a couple of guys with blowers, clearing the area on the other side of my next-door neighbor's yard.  Earlier that day, my neighbor's own crew had cleared a bunch of leaves out of his yard (blowing some of them into the street, some of them into the other yard, and some into our own yard).  Well, the guys across the way proceeded to blow some of the same leaves back into my neighbor's yard (as well as into the street, the next yard, etc.)

What's more, a lot of the trees around here still have plenty of leaves on them.  This means that the Power Squadrons are basically wasting their time (or, more to the point, their customers' money) -- before they've even finished clearing a yard, a gust of wind comes along and blows a bunch more leaves off the trees.  So they have to keep coming back and blowing leaves again and again and again, until the trees are bare.

Which leads one to wonder if it wouldn't be a good idea to limit people to blowing their yards once a year.  The leaf-blowing ordinance could be much more restrictive.  Instead of allowing them starting October 1, we could allow them only for a one-week period -- say, in late November, once most of the leaves are already off the trees.  If we did that, people could still (if they must) use leaf blowers to clear their yards, but they'd only be able to do it once and for all, after all the leaves had fallen off the trees.  No more of this blow-today, blow-again-tomorrow nonsense.

Some people have gone so far as to try to get gas-powered leaf blowers banned altogether.  As reported by the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a group called BLAST (Ban Leafblowers And Save our Town), of Santa Barbara, California, lobbied successfully to pass an ordinance outlawing the machines entirely.  The statement of purpose filed with the initiative petition said that the measure was intended "to secure and promote the public health, comfort, safety, and welfare, and to protect the rights of its citizens to privacy and freedom from nuisance."  That's a pretty good description, in a nutshell, of what we're looking for.  Leaf blowers are a nuisance -- right up there with basketball-bouncing kids and four-way stop signs (please, don't get me started on either of those topics).

Whatever happened to raking leaves?  Or, as we used to do in the Kafalas household when I was growing up, simply leaving most of them in the middle of the yard?  My parents' house still has plenty of grass in front of it, despite the fact that most years, we hardly bothered to clear the leaves out of there at all.  Why the urgent need to blow every last leaf out of every last yard, every week of autumn?

Copyright © 1998 John J. Kafalas

Feedback?  Drop me a letter to the editor, and I'll post it on-line!

Urb's previous columns can be found in the Column Archive, where you'll also find letters to the editor.

Return to the home page