Some residents in D.C.'s Ward 3 say that the annual deployment of leaf-blowers is an assault on their senses.
In the beautiful tree-lined neighborhood of Wesley Heights in Northwest Washington, composer Haskell Small sits at his piano as he describes his passion.
“Recently I’ve been more and more fascinated with silence,” says Small, who teaches piano and composition at the Washington Conservatory of Music. “Sounds that are as quiet as feasible, approaching inaudibility.”
Small turns to the keyboard to demonstrate, playing a peaceful yet haunting piece that begins in a minor tonality before shifting into a more optimistic mood.
“That’s called ‘A Journey in Silence,’” Small says. “This is part of my obsession with the sounds of the monastery, people that spend their lives focused on silence, and a seeking of silence. It can never be found completely until we’re dead.”
But there’s something standing in the way of Small’s inward quest for silence.
“Okay, let’s say I’m sitting here,” he says, improvising a quiet melody on the keyboard. Suddenly Small does his best impression of a loud, grating leaf-blower. “I can’t hear it anymore and it’s in the wrong damn key, too! Not only does it bother me if I’m at the piano, but especially if I’m sitting in my other chair, and trying to hear the music in my mind, it’s a showstopper. I just can’t — I can’t work.”
Composer Haskell Small says leaf-blowers add an off-key dissonance to his efforts at the piano. (Matthew S. Schwartz/WAMU)
'Could you do something about this?'
Small is one of many residents of Ward 3 who have contacted their D.C. Council member, Mary Cheh, to ask her to do something about all those gas leaf-blowers.
“Every year, particularly when the fall leaves start to fall, I would get many many many emails about doing something about the noise, without specificity, but just — ‘Could you do something about this?’” Cheh says.
D.C. has noise restrictions, but they’re almost impossible to enforce, Cheh says. By the time city inspectors can respond to a complaint and take measurements, the noise would be over. “So then a suggestion was made, that, why don’t you just ban them?”
It wouldn’t be the first time a city has banned gas-powered leaf-blowers. Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and dozens of other cities in California ban them. Last month, Cheh introduced legislation that would ban their use in the District within five years.
“These gas-powered leaf-blowers are at least four times as noisy as electric powered ones,” Cheh says.
But there’s another benefit to a ban: “Gas-powered two-stroke engines produce an enormous amount of pollution, way out of proportion of what you think that little engine could do," she says.
Federal law takes emissions issues out of D.C.’s hands, so Cheh is using noise control as the legal basis for the rule, she says. “I’m doing it, ostensibly, on noise control. And it could rest entirely on noise control. But I’m happy that as a byproduct of that, it will control these emissions.”
Grif Johnson is a resident of Wesley Heights who has been involved in the efforts. He became interested in a ban because of noise, but when he did some research, he realized the environmental impacts are profound — not just for the community, but also for the workers themselves.
“It’s been established through an independent laboratory that a half-hour use of two-stroke gas-powered leaf-blowers has the same carbon emission output as driving a Ford F-150 truck 3,900 miles,” he says. “The equivalent of driving from North Texas to Anchorage, Alaska.”
That’s not all, he says. Some of these gas-powered leaf-blowers boast claims of generating wind speeds of 200 miles per hour. That’s “the equivalent of some of the most serious hurricanes we’ve seen in the Western Hemisphere,” he says. “You don’t need 200 miles an hour to move a layer of leaves off your yard.”
That wind moves more than just leaves, he says — it blows soil, bacteria and contaminants into the air.
Lawn care companies warn the ban could make doing business in the District much harder.
“It’s really going to become an enormous hindrance,” says Derek Thomas of Thomas Landscapes in Maryland, which does work in D.C.
He warns that a switch to electric blowers could bring big costs, which might have to be passed on to customers. Since electric blowers aren’t as powerful, he says, it would take longer to clear a property. “I could see where some larger properties would end up having double the labor rates.”
Alex Manzano of Manzano Landscaping said in an email: “If we weren't able to use gas blowers in the District, we wouldn't do leaf removal/clean-up work there.”
But some landscape architects are friendly to the cause.
Kent Slowinski used gas-powered blowers for many years, and says he used to be part of the problem. But he uses battery-powered leaf blowers now, and says they’re just as effective. “The more we can lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and use renewable energy sources, the better for the environment” it will be, he says.
‘Can’t Think Straight’
Slowinski is a neighbor of composer Haskell Small, and he’s brought one of his old gas blowers to demonstrate the noise. Slowinski stands in the yard outside Small’s studio. As Small begins playing “A Journey in Silence,” Slowinski cranks up the leaf-blower. Small’s quiet music is almost entirely drowned out.
“Sometimes these guys work in teams and it’s like a whole combat unit,” Small says with an exasperated sigh. “It’s impossible to hear the harmonies. I get a new orchestration of what I imagine, let me put it that way. And when I’m composing, I can’t think straight. I can’t discern what’s going to happen next. It’s just a foreign intrusion.”
Small says he’s thought about moving to the country somewhere, finding a quiet place where he can compose in peace. But he hopes it doesn’t come to that, especially when the problem would be bearable if only landscapers switched to electric blowers, he says.
“I’ve been a Washingtonian for four generations, this is my home, I’d like not to be forced out of my home, thank you.”