The takeaway is that if you fret about the air pollution coming out of your car’s tailpipe, you should avoid gas-powered leaf blowers. While it’s true that their contribution to overall air pollution is modest, that’s largely because so few people rely on them. As their usage grows, so will the environmental effects.
Leaf blowers are less of a concern with regard to carbon dioxide emissions. The numbers vary widely, but a leaf blower uses significantly less gasoline per hour than a car, and they spend far less time in use.
How a two-stroke engine works
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All of this goes to say that, if you use a leaf blower, you should opt for an electric model if possible. As with cars, an electric model will not eliminate your contribution to the production of greenhouse gases. Electric motors shift fuel combustion from the device to a power plant, but the power still has to come from somewhere, which means carbon dioxide will be released. (More than 80 percent of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels.)
But switching to electric would sharply reduce air pollution. Power plants are equipped with scrubbers to filter out pollutants, the kind of technology that could never be attached to a hand-held leaf blower. Consumer Reports says that, for ordinary yards, electric blowers perform comparably to gas-powered models.
Before anti-leaf-blower activists get too high and mighty, though, a brief word to keep this all in perspective. As mentioned above, leaf blowers aren’t the only household tool that uses a two-stroke engine. Many lawn mowers also rely on the technology. A Swedish study released in 2001 showed that one hour of using a gas lawn mower releases approximately the same amount of air pollutants as 100 miles of driving.
For reasons I’ve never fully understood, the campaign to ban gas-powered lawn mowers hasn’t been nearly as intense as the one over leaf blowers. It can’t be the lack of alternatives: The hand-push lawn mower has been around since 1830 and is still widely available, even if it doesn’t produce a lawn with the putting-green feel that a gas-powered mower does. I suspect it’s merely a matter of inertia. Leaf blowers aren’t as entrenched as lawn mowers. But if we’re going to get serious about yard work and pollution, let’s not let a thin layer of leaves obscure an equally significant problem.