BY KARIN WEIR-JIMERSON
The end of summer is always a sad time. Many home owners feel positively bereft as their large trees start to drop their leaves. One leaf flutters through the air like the starting flag on a racetrack. Days later the lawn, patio, and walkways lie buried beneath colorful piles. Some folks might keep their fingers crossed for a nor’easter that will relocate their leaves to their neighbors’ lawns, but there is a quick way to tackle cleanup: use a leaf blower.
Outdoor equipment manufacturers have harnessed the power of the wind to make leaf cleanup a breeze. Leaf blowers are nearly as impressive as a gale—but more controllable. And although its name suggests it is a tool you would use only in the autumn, a leaf blower is an ideal way to keep patios, driveways, and walks clear of grass clippings, soil, small sticks, and other debris that accumulates over the course of the seasons. In fact, a leaf blower is the perfect spring-cleaning tool for places where winter winds have wedged clots of leaves and dirt—between buildings, around the bases of shrubs, and against fences. Some home owners use the fast blasts of air to sweep away cobwebs inside garages, barns, and garden sheds. And if you live in an area where snowfall is light, you can even use a leaf blower to clear snow.
Many models also have the capability of converting from blower to vacuum or blower to sprayer. Some include mulching features. Depending on the brand, you may even be able to soup up your blower with a gutter kit to perform that specific cleaning task.
Libby Bernardin of Georgetown, South Carolina, is one gardener who uses her leaf blower all year round. “I particularly use my blower in September, when the magnolia trees in my yard drop their leaves,” she says. “I also use it all summer as a cleanup tool. I blow tree pollen off my wrap-around porch and blow out leaves from around my perennials.”
Leaf blowers are manufactured in several designs: handheld, backpack and walk behind. Handheld and backpack blowers provide the ultimate mobility, allowing users to get into small spaces. They are small, lightweight, and easy to maneuver. A backpack model is useful if you plan to operate the blower for any length of time. Most small blowers weigh between 5 and 11 pounds, so hand operation may become straining after a while.
If you plan to round up leaves from your front steps, walkways, and patios, then a handheld leaf blower will surely suit your needs. But if you want to clean up larger areas, such as long driveways and large-acreage yards, you may want to invest in a walk-behind leaf blower. These gas-powered, heavy-duty super blowers employ engines that range from 5 to 13 horsepower. They come equipped with pneumatic tires for easy pushing. If you have a sizable lot, many large-leafed trees (oaks, sycamores, maples), or you need to blow the leaves a long distance or uphill, a walk-behind blower is worth considering.
THE DECIBEL DISPUTE
Leaf blowers are certainly convenient, but what about the noise they create? Today’s leaf blowers are quieter than ever—most are in the 60 to 90 decibel level (at 50 feet). Still, manufacturers—and audiologists—suggest that leaf-blower operators wear ear protection to filter out the noise. Since hearing loss occurs from consistent exposure to high decibels, you should wear ear protection every time you use your blower. It is also important to don protective eyewear when operating a blower. Because they can emit air bursts as fast as 250 miles per hour, leaf blowers make pea gravel, mulch, open soil, and other loose material all potential missiles.
Before you buy a leaf blower, check the local noise ordinances in your area to make sure you will be able to use it. Rules may stipulate a maximum decibel level. Another ordinance restriction may limit the hours in which you can use your blower. Some gas-powered leaf blowers can be throttled down to reduce the decibel output. Check your user’s manual for other ways to turn down the sound.
Like most outdoor power equipment, leaf blowers appear in electric and gas-powered versions. Some home owners, including Libby Bernardin, find electric models more convenient. “I like to just plug it in, use it, then put it away. It doesn’t require any maintenance,” she says. Some handheld models are battery powered, so they allow you to move farther from the house than the plug-in models do. Gas-powered models appear with two-stroke and lower-emission four-stroke engines.
The cost of leaf blowers, as with most other outdoor power equipment, depends on brand and power. You can buy a handheld blower for as little as $60. Backpack models cost from $300 to just under $600. And the larger walk-behind blowers can run more than $1,000, depending on the engine’s horsepower and accessories.
Comparison charts of leaf blower makes and models can be found on Horticulture’s Web site. Visit www.hortmag.com/ope and click on “Leaf Blowers.”