Tortured by leafblower noise? What can you do about it? Jamie Banks and David Sykes of Quiet Communities join us in this episode to describe how they help cities switch to quieter and cleaner lawn-maintenance equipment. They've been successful in creating training programs, sharing data, and persuading local governments to administer positive change. Learn more about their programs in this episode of Soundproofist.
This is episode 18 of Soundproofist. And my name is Cary.
And this is Phill.
And today we're going to talk to some experts about an issue that many of you know, very well, especially in North America: leaf blower noise, whether you're working from home and trying to concentrate or sleep a little later on a weekend morning, or just enjoy some open space in your town. You've probably been disrupted by someone else's noisy lawn equipment. And you wonder why can't we do something about this? Well, actually there are things you can do to create positive change. Our two experts today are from an organization called Quiet Communities. Their goal is to help communities reduce harm from noise and pollution that impacts our health and our environment. Jamie Banks is the director of Quiet Outdoors, which is one of the Quiet Communities programs. Their mission statement is to transition landscape maintenance, to low noise, zero emissions practices. David Sykes is the co-founder of the Acoustics Research Council. And he's also the director of Quiet Healthcare, another part of Quiet Communities. This is an all-volunteer community of professionals that develops codes and standards for the healthcare industry. You might've heard about some cities that mandated electric lawn equipment, and they're phasing out gas-powered blowers. And you might wonder how you might be able to do that in your town. We'll talk about some of those challenges and processes in this episode.
Jamie Banks (01:58):
So I worked in healthcare for many, many years as a health economist, and what's called "outcomes researcher." But all healthcare-related doing quality of life and cost-effectiveness studies and things like that. And also very involved with behavior change in policy in medicine. And switched to environment, in 2007, I had a company. An environmental behavior change company that was sold. And then in around 2012, I think formed with another resident in Lincoln, a group called "Quiet Lincoln." And Robin Wilkerson was my co-founder. And we connected with a small group of residents who were becoming distressed with all of the noise and the fumes from gasoline in their neighborhoods, particularly in the center of town, but not exclusively. And this was a situation that arose over time, you know, and there seemed to be a shift at some point where there were more absentee landlords, more people who did not take care of their own yards. And many more outside contractors coming in to do work in a very uncoordinated way. Where I happen to live was in the small village center in Lincoln and Lincoln has a very rural feel to it.
Jamie Banks (03:19):
There's the miles of conservation trails. There's a densely populated village center where I lived and then a lot of larger properties on the outskirts. So we started to bring attention to this issue. We ended up going to our town meeting, which is a democratic, everybody participates -- there's no representatives, except individuals. Proposed to town meeting that we study this problem and try and recommend solutions to it because at least where I, I lived this noise, went on hours a day, several days a week in the seasons of use, which could include not just spring, fall and summer, but winter as well, believe it or not.
Oh, I would.
Jamie Banks (04:07):
Yes, yes. To remove snow from roofs and even dustings of snow and so forth. And so we went to town meetings, our group was approved. We formed the Lincoln Lake Lower study group and eventually became a subcommittee of the conservation commission in later years.
Jamie Banks (04:25):
So that group lasted for seven years. And I think we were successful. We actually dissolved ourselves last year, spring of last year. But what I started doing as healthcare professional healthcare researcher was to look at some of the adverse health and environmental impacts of dependence, just suddenly flowers, but on all of the gas tools that we use today to do landscape maintenance. So that's blowers, which tends to be the most egregious piece of equipment in terms of residents response to it. But there's also string trimmers, hedge trimmers, saws, and of course, industrial lawnmowers that you see today used even on postage stamp-sized properties. You know, these crews go around with large, large pieces or large assemblies of equipment and get out of the truck and do each property. It's all gas. You know, so gas equipment today really does all tasks or nearly all tasks that were once done manually.
Jamie Banks (05:36):
And these hand tools, hand held tools as they're called, are mainly two stroke engines, which are colluding very noisy. And of course the lawnmowers are cleaner, but they're also very, very noisy.
Yes, they are.
Jamie Banks (05:50):
When I started investigate this, I came across all of the community efforts that were going on really in California as far back as the late 1980s and complaints about blowers mainly. And in looking at it, I realized that all the so-called facts and things that were being brought to bear in support of proposed legislation, I couldn't tie them to any primary source. They were kind of all over the map. And I thought it would be really useful to form an organization that had evidence-based facts and resources that could be shared with different communities to help to present the problem. And its adverse impacts as well as find solutions.
Jamie Banks (06:41):
So one of the people that I visited with where the Kendalls, who lived out in Orinda, California. And the Kendalls were the subject of an article in The New Yorker called "Blowback" in 2010. And they had tried very hard to convince their community to get rid of this equipment because it was totally disrupting their life. Some of their neighbors' lives to the point where some of the older people in the community would be tearful. You know, coming and saying, "we have to do something about this." You know, they're kind of in a valley as you probably well know, with hills around. And that sound can be heard for miles and miles. So I visited Peter and Susan a couple of times. And on the second visit, I said, I want to tell you about this idea I have for a national nonprofit organization and which would provide these kinds of resources.
Jamie Banks (07:41):
And he left the room and came back and he handed me a check and he said, "go incorporate it." And that's how Quiet Communities got started. So very early on, a couple of things happened that have really shaped the evolution of Quiet Communities over time. One was that I was recommended to contact somebody named Dan Mabe, who was working in electric land care at the time and trying to transition cities like South Pasadena, California universities, shopping centers, and so forth. And I met Dan down at UCLA where he was showing crews at that time technology, battery electric technology... and those crews were responding very favorably to what he was showing. It had started out with some resistance, but you could see them soften as they tried the equipment and so forth. Anyway, Dan and I started to collaborate in 2013. Dan formed a group called The American Green Zone Alliance, which exists to this day.
Jamie Banks (08:53):
And we have maintained this collaborational all along. The second thing that happened was that Quiet Communities started to attract attention from mainly professionals concerned with other types of noise. So Dan Fink, it was restaurant noise, indoor noise, but also noise in general. And then it just seemed to snowball, you know, people talking to each other, Dan wanted to start a group called The Quiet Coalition that eventually came under the umbrella of Quiet Communities and involved medical, legal, and other professionals who were concerned about environmental noise in general. And the various sources, raising awareness, educating people and so forth. So the Quiet Coalition we joined forces. And today we really are focused on a lot of different types of noise, especially. I mean, the problem with environmental noise exists largely because of the absence of effective federal legislation today. The burgeoning of noise and the inability of localities -- states and so forth -- to address this effectively.
As far as I know, there is no national legislation at all, really other than something from the 1970s.
David Sykes (10:23):
There are two national acts and they're quite powerful. But Reagan, when he became president, stripped the funding from them. So they're active on the books, but not enforced.
Jamie Banks (10:32):
And that, you know, that legislation was not just regulating, it was education, it's research, it's product, labeling, you know, all kinds of things that would have built on the base of knowledge that we had in the 1970s of noise as a public health problem. But it just all got stalled. And here we are today, the problems worse than ever. And we need to regroup, put this back on the radar screen and find ways to effectively address it. So one of the things that you know, were focused on the problem, but we're really very driven by finding solutions as well. So today it's the quiet coalition. It's what we're calling quiet outdoors, which is our Landcare construction agricultural program, kind of outdoor power equipment. And then David directs a program called quiet healthcare. That's involved with the acoustic environment building codes to make a quieter acoustic environment and healthcare facilities. And then we have a new program, which we're hoping to get off the ground called quiet conversation. And that's really about how do you bring the tools of governance and other solutions to bear on a problem that's not being effectively addressed because of these factors that we've just discussed.
David Sykes (11:57):
I mentioned Jim and Deb Fallows in Washington, DC. I think that's the biggest city solution we've worked on. I kind of refer to what we did there with them as a "full court press." That's what they call it in basketball, as a particular technique for winning. And the full court press that was carried out in Washington, DC is a good example of all the tools we brought to bear in a big-city example. Jamie's done. What is it? 36 communities so far.
Jamie Banks (12:25):
It's more than that now. Yeah. Okay.
David Sykes (12:29):
I think it's 12 or 15 states. I lost track.
Do you have any data on any notable measurable difference, for example, in Washington DC, which is, I would imagine most of the time, it's a dense city before and after the, I think there were legislative changes in Washington DC. Correct? But then followed by months of pandemic, probably. So perhaps that isn't the best measure because there was a lockdown period where everything got quieter. Although where I live, it did not stop the leaf blowers.
Jamie Banks (13:03):
Very little does.
As a matter of fact, there were more... Noticeably, because there was no traffic.
Jamie Banks (13:10):
In sharp relief.
David Sykes (13:11):
DC -- the ordinance hasn't gone into effect yet? I think it starts in 2021. Doesn't that? Jamie? I forget what the start date is.
Jamie Banks (13:18):
It's a phased-in ban of gas blowers. Yeah. And that's kind of the trend.
David Sykes (13:25):
The ordinance is available, I think on the QC DC website. So you can actually read what they did, but there was a start date. I think a lot of people would like to start it earlier, but that's what they agreed to.
Jamie Banks (13:36):
Yeah. It's January of 2022. And part of the idea was to give industry a chance to transition fairly, because battery electric equipment really involves an investment. It involves some training, it's a wholly different technology than gas technology. And there's a lot of things that people don't consider when they move from one technology to another. And if you're interested, I can mention some of those things as well.
Yeah. I am interested actually. I think that would be... yeah.
Jamie Banks (14:07):
So as David alluded to, you know, Jim has written eloquently about this idea of technology pull. I don't know if he uses those words, David, but that's...you know, technology as a solution to some of these problems. Moving to renewable energy because noise -- and loud noise -- is very strongly associated with gas combustion equipment. But because of the cost of the batteries, hopefully that's going to come down over time. But right now it makes the equipment more expensive to purchase. So you want to make sure if you're investing in that equipment, you will handle it properly. You use it properly, it's stored properly and so forth. So that you can get a return on the investment. So some of the different things to consider are operating, handling, storing, and maintaining that equipment properly, charging it properly. And then you want to use it in a way that you're getting the same aesthetic as you do with gas, comparable productivity, as you do with gas equipment.
Jamie Banks (15:15):
And sometimes, like with blowers, they're not as powerful. So you really have to encourage workers to use them in a different way and sometimes supplement them with manual tools. Or, ideally, to realize a lot of times they're not needed at all. I mean, this -- as you've probably seen -- a lot of this is "make work," you know, blowing dust off the streets. They're contracted to show up. And we've heard in talking with landscapers off the record and I won't identify anybody, but the business owners just say, "honestly, we pick up guys at the truck stop or the worker stop, you know, hand them a piece of equipment and just say, 'you get to the property, turn on that tool and start working.'" You know, it has no relationship to the task a lot of times.
David Sykes (16:12):
Should interject that your expertise in medical outcomes though, is one of the brilliant insights that Quiet Communities brought to this was the understanding that what those devices emit. The motors themselves. Because they're two-stroke they're extremely polluting. Two-stroke engines are effectively unregulated in the U S in different noise or pollutants. So you get more pollutants out of a leaf blower than you get out of a Ford truck. So they're highly, highly polluting. And that industry that makes them resists any improvements whatsoever. They don't want to lose the business, but they're also backed up by the petrochemical industry. It doesn't want to lose the sale of gasoline. So the key point here is the only way to make progress against major targets like that huge industries, the energy industry, that doesn't want to change is actually dealing with it one community at a time. And you build up success stories.
David Sykes (16:58):
Could you walk us through perhaps like a case study of one of these communities? What is it that you do? Is it organizing, sharing fact-based research? Is it advocacy to the public about this? You're helping draft legislation with the community? Can you walk us through what a typical process would be or is there no typical process? Is every community different?
Jamie Banks (18:07):
Yeah, I'll give a couple of examples. The first thing is that just to understand is that we do have a behavior-change model. So in anything we do, we identify the relevant constituencies and try and bring them together and put them on the same page with regard to understanding the problem and then finding practical and effective solutions. So...and also understanding that behavior change itself is very complicated. It's way beyond just providing somebody with information. You know, if you get people to open their minds and be receptive to change, you want to make sure also that the change is sustained. So there's a lot to that. What we did for Washington DC is we first went down there at their request and we gave a presentation to their community group, followed up by a more public presentation that involved their city counselor. And they were very focused on trying to get a regulation in place that would give relief to residents of the city.
Jamie Banks (19:14):
They were very well-organized. They, as a group recognized the importance of being organized. And also reaching out beyond their districts, which happened to be more affluent districts in Washington, DC, to other districts in the city to get their support. So all that was happening at the QC DC level, the citizens group level, quiet, clean DC. So we provided education, we provided resources. And then one of the more interesting things that we did for them that was really critical in their success in getting legislation enacted was to demonstrate that sound from battery electric blowers was not the same as from gas blowers. B"ecause one of the defenses of the gas industry is that, Oh, well, you know, quieter gas blowers are available. You just have to use." Those well there's different problems. One problem is that, well, they're not as powerful. So workers don't want to use those less-powerful machines and yes, they exist.
Jamie Banks (20:23):
But the experiment that we did, and we knew something about this, cause we had done a pilot project with a researcher from Harvard school of public health, who you might know, Erica Walker. That pilot study showed that with gas blowers and vacuums and so forth, that there's a very strong low-frequency component to that sound as a shallow sine wave form that -- and a vibrational component to it -- that enables that sound to travel over long distances and through walls and windows. Like any, you know, bass sound does, whether it's a boombox or music from a concert venue -- strong bass music. And so we knew that there was that component to it, and that that sound could travel at loud levels over long distances. What we did with Washington DC is raised funds with them and then organized a study where we did a head-to-head comparison of leading brands of commercial backpack gas blowers to leading brands of commercial backpack, electric blowers. So we compared them head to head. We brought in acoustic engineers from a leading design and engineering firm called Arup... International firm. Two of their acoustic engineers became involved with this and we together with them designed the study.
David Sykes (21:56):
That was Chris Pollack. And Cary, you've already cited Chris Pollack. Chris was the person.
Jamie Banks (22:03):
So we did the study and we measured sound. It was a very well-controlled study. We measured sound at different distances and found, again, the gas equipment had a very strong, low-frequency component that carried loud, harmful noise -- over 55 decibels as defined by WHO -- up to 400 to 800 feet out. In comparison, the electric equipment has a more high to moderate frequency spectrum. And that sound has more of this type of shape, kind of like the stock market. And dissipates over a much shorter distance and does not penetrate walls and windows easily. And then the most interesting finding was we compared the distance over which harmful sound was carried by a gas and an electric blower each with the same manufacturer noise rating of 65 decibels at 50 feet, that's an ANSI rating. And what you find is even though they're both 65 decibels at 50 feet, the gas blower loud sound is carried over much longer distance than it is with the same rated battery electric blower.
Jamie Banks (23:23):
So from those data, we then said, okay. Just from a practical standpoint, what does this mean for communities like Washington DC -- densely populated? If you drew a radius of a neighborhood with a radius of 400 feet and populated that with a bunch of houses, let's say with quarter-acre zoning, this is in Jim's report. What you see is that the number of homes affected by harmful levels of sound is much higher with the gas equipment. And you can imagine you're squaring the radius, you know, and getting the area of that circle. So we had a nice diagram that's showing the difference in sound. And this was a very pivotal piece of the testimony that was presented to the Washington DC city council in order to ban -- get a phased-in ban of gas blowers, but still allow electric blowers in the city.
That's a really interesting point. And specifically about the measuring the roll-off of the sound or the decibel level of those instruments at say 50 feet, 65 decibels. But it's not a guarantee that they have the same drop-off in volume the further you go from there. And these kinds of simplistic, one-metric regulations or measurements for products in general, we've seen this before in materials for building -- with guests we've interviewed. We've seen the same thing in ocean acoustics conservation, that simplistic metrics, maybe they say, you know, this is the aggregate decibel rating sound-pressure level that a sound could have. But it doesn't take into account the different kinds of frequency content that could be impacting. So, you know, in general, these are complex issues and these "simplistic, one number, slap a sticker on it solutions" are not, they don't .....they're inadequate. Correct?
Jamie Banks (25:22):
Absolutely. And you know, one of the points we made is that the standard metric is A-weighted decibels, which underweights that low-frequency component. So you lose information when you just use that. You really don't understand the community impact of the sound because it is that much more complex. Phill. And I think, you know, David -- National Academy of Engineering report in 2010 brings out this issue too, for equipment like construction equipment. And the inadequacy of that metric to really understand the impact of that type of sound.
David Sykes (26:01):
Should add to this, by the way, that historically, over the last roughly a hundred years, there's been a deliberate effort on the part of the engineering community to establish one metric for measuring noise. And that's the decibel rating. Even though they themselves understand that in a decibel rating, it doesn't tell you much. Only to turn around and handle the decibel scale to regulators and industry sources. They begin to use it in their own defense. And that's exactly what happened with the outdoor landscape equipment. People basically said, "okay, 65 decibels is the same." When in fact they know it isn't the same, but you have to use other metrics and there are other metrics available. It's not that decibels is the only way to measure noise, but in the simplistic kind of arguments, it's kind of like telling somebody that their temperature is the only thing that matters about their health.
David Sykes (26:45):
"You're 98.6 and therefore your healthy, go away." It doesn't tell you everything you need to know. There are other metrics available. They've mostly developed in Europe, by the way, not here in the U S and there's still strong resistance to bringing those other metrics to bear on the problem. However, one of the successes here is that in the passage of the FAA Reauthorization Act, which happened in 2018, they actually included a clause that was there at the insistence of a national caucus of 50 Congresspeople. They included a clause that basically said the FAA is required to start looking at all so-called alternative metrics. Those metrics exist. The FAA national transportation system research center, which is based here at MIT, has been handed in order to begin working on this. But it's not like they don't know there are other metrics, but when you confront an industry about noise, they always come back with the defense that, well, our level is 65, whatever, they pick a number and they use that in their defense.
David Sykes (27:45):
And they did that in Washington, too. They stood up. And in their own defense, the industry representatives, they said, "well, 65, we can do that with our equipment." And, you know, they didn't themselves recognize the difference. They refuse to recognize that there was a difference. That was the brilliance of that study. And we thank Arup for bringing it in. And Chris Pollack was the person who led that study. And we brought Arup in precisely because we knew we needed the stature of a national engineering firm to conduct this study when it came back to presenting it. And that's why we wanted Chris Pollack to present it in Washington, as opposed to Jamie presenting it.
Jamie Banks (28:19):
So, you know, regulation is, can be helpful and giving a push to industry, both the manufacturer and service industry. But we're really in favor of the carrot-and-stick approach and with real strong emphasis on the carrot. And that's really the technology pull. And so with the American Green Zone Alliance, -- the acronym is AGZA -- we have been pursuing programs that are really lead by example programs. Those programs have happened in South Pasadena, Ojai, I think it's Glendale, California at the Yerba Buena School District, East Side Union School District, West Side Union School District, out here on the East coast with the town of Lexington, Massachusetts, South Hampton, and recently Mountain Brook, Alabama. And what we do there is we help the municipal operations in those cities and entities transition away from fossil fuels. Sometimes it's a sudden transition. Like the city of Ojai just took its gas equipment, scrapped it, invested heavily in electric equipment.
Jamie Banks (29:29):
More commonly it's a transition over time. But what we do there is we educate and train workers, orient them to the equipment, recommend equipment that's really up to the demands of commercial level work in terms of performance, and work productivity and so forth. And that's only a small portion of the equipment out there. So you really have to understand that technical criteria. So helping with equipment recommendations, and Dan's been in the industry for years and years, starting with the gas industry and working with electric equipment from something around 2007. And then understanding the impacts of all the gas equipment that used on city lands or school property in terms of -- not just noise, but pollutants. Toxic and carcinogenic pollutants like fine particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone forming chemicals, like benzene, other volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. And then, you know, also greenhouse gases, cause that's of interest to cities too.
David Sykes (30:45):
When you write a report for community, get into details, specifics over how much of those pollutants exist in the two alternative metrics. A town gets a very detailed report, so there's a cost benefit analysis, a careful cost benefit analysis.
Jamie Banks (30:59):
Yeah, we quantify all those impacts and it provides a baseline against which progress can be measured as the transition to electric equipment happens. And there's other things that Dan originally brought to my attention. That are things like fuel spillage, you know, how much fuel is spilled when you refuel mowers. And then all this small, handheld equipment. There's a statistic in the nineties that says it's over 17 million gallons a year from refueling lawnmowers, which is 50% more than what was spilled off the coast of Alaska by the Exxon Valdez. So these things become very significant, especially with the tremendous growth of the industry that we've seen over the past 20 to 30 years. So anyway, these are solutions. These are cities, towns, schools that want to lead by example for others, show that it's possible, you know, train and educate workers. So they can really get a return on electric equipment and understand how to use it properly. So it's not abused or broken or so forth. Cause that's, that's a problem.
David Sykes (32:13):
But you have to understand that at the community level, very often the first people who arrive there is somebody from the industry, big, large powerful industries who show up and basically start laying all the arguments out about why there's nothing wrong. And it's organized opposition, and organizing very well-funded opposition. They do a good job of it. So we've encountered that everywhere we go. So it's always seems to be it's an uphill battle. So Jamie will get a call from a community leader or a city council member or whatever saying, can you come help us? And it's the fact that we've done it before and we have a method in place and we have the research, et cetera, that makes us valuable to them. We're not grandstanding when we get there, our job is to provide them with the arguments in order to win what they need to do. But the call always starts with them saying, can you come help us? And then having to reassure them that, first of all, the problem is not minor. And it's going to be very hard to do. They're not going to do it in one city council meeting.
So speaking of the industry, I mean, how many of these leaf blower manufacturers are also making a quieter model that they can offer? I mean, are there some manufacturers that only make a two-stroke engine gas-powered leaf blowers and they simply don't want to change?
David Sykes (33:26):
Yes. The vast majority of the new product is coming from Europe or Asia. The new electric product is not being made in the U S. But there are exceptions.
Jamie Banks (33:35):
So I think things are changing. The manufacturers, I think, are really starting to see the writing on the wall. The challenge for them is that the electric business model is a wholly different model than the gas business. You know, just like electric cars. You don't get that service repair and service revenue that you had with gas engines. Cause they're so complicated in so many of the parts wear out and don't work and so forth with electric, it's a much simpler motor. So they're losing revenues on that side. And so how do you construct a business model that is really, you know, successfully replacing that old model. And companies like Husqvarna, I would say, are really stepping up and are reinventing themselves. To some extent, I spoke at a Husqvarna conference in 2018, attended the same conference last year in 2019. And Dan's actually speaking at their conference on December 1st, which was virtual this year. But it's looking like they are going to be much more of a technology company than an equipment company within 10 years. They are depending on robotics, artificial intelligence, battery, electric technology, data analytics to manage green spaces. And getting much more into the service sector. So for instance, they have something called "robotic fleet management" and it's branded, I don't know exactly what they call it, but that's, you know, how do you manage fleets of robotic mowers to mow when you want it to mow the areas you want to mow and and so forth. And meet the challenges that different properties present.
David Sykes (35:29):
But you can go to a Home Depot or Lowe's now. I mean, walk in and you'll find very expensive displays of five or six electric alternatives to things like leaf blowers and such. They'll often have one row of gas-powered stuff and another row, which is the electrical alternative. So the retailers have actually picked up on it, but that's for domestic use. So the industry is still pushing back on the commercial side. They need to use gas because it's more powerful. That's their argument.
That is one of the arguments I have seen is that some of these same contractors who go to a site and maybe go to multiple sites in a day, don't have the means to recharge an electric battery. So one of the arguments that was made is that you're, you know, you're interfering with their livelihood because they can just refill with fuel and continue on to the next golf course or whatever. And, with an electric battery charge, they may not be able to recharge that battery for a large site or multiple sites in a day. Is that accurate?
David Sykes (36:30):
That's exactly one of the issues that needs to be taught is how much backup do you need and where can you get the recharging done?
Jamie Banks (36:35):
And this is, in part, what makes the investment expensive. You have to buy multiple batteries and be able to switch them out during the day. You know, the idea of charging at a client's home is... you know, it's a solution, but it's not going to be a solution that every client is going to like. And it's, you know, a clumsy one at best. So...
So these batteries are probably too large and require too much charge to be able to charge them from inside the car. For example, inside the truck, as it's traveling. Through the cigarette lighter port or something like that.
Jamie Banks (37:11):
Yes. Generally. Yes. I mean, there are solar panel trucks to increase the runtime of some of the equipment and that can be very successful. And there are trucks, landscape companies with solar panels that are doing this very successfully, but it is, it's an investment, it's a retraining and that's... it's a barrier.
David Sykes (37:34):
This point, the electrical stuff on the commercial basis is somewhat more expensive as a first cost. You go to buy it. The purchase cost is more because you have to buy the batteries and all that kind of stuff. And the equipment is somewhat newer. So I ran into an argument, local park here between the contractors and one of them was saying, "Well, this electric mower cost us twice as much. We could have bought two for the same price." I mean gas. So even at the labor level, their attitude is well, we could have used two mowers. And now we only got one.
The fueling though is -- I don't know -- like at $3 a gallon or something over time. That does add up.
David Sykes (38:08):
Yeah, that's the carrying costs. So the first cost is the purchase price. The payback is over time. So Jamie includes a payback period as well in her reports to the towns. So they can see how long it's gonna take them to amortize the cost of the improvement. And they do very well if they're willing to wait more than one season.
Jamie Banks (38:24):
Yeah. So you're paying that higher upfront investment and then getting those economic benefits downstream in terms of avoided fuel and reduced maintenance.
And this is true with many conservation tactics, right? Like it's perhaps more inconvenient at the beginning, but once we start going down the path to a conservation based approach to these issues, that the market will respond to purchasing of electric stuff, we live in California. There's a lot of electric car charging stations, for example. So it's not inconceivable that the, these things will also become easier with time. The technology itself will improve. I have a question for you all because of a variety of communities you've worked with, I was trying to imagine this process happening in my hometown. I grew up in a small town in Texas and there it's much wider. People have much larger lots in general, they're more spread out. They definitely love burning gasoline for any reason they can. So I guess I wanted to, I wanted to just reiterate a few things that you said, and hear additional arguments that you might use in this community?
First of all, we were talking about two-stroke motors in these gas-powered leaf blowers versus the electric ones. And maybe for listeners that don't know, that's kind of like comparing a little small dirt bike, pocket-rocket motorcycle to an electric scooter, in terms of the kind of noise it would make. And also if you do live in these larger communities where maybe you're not so disturbed by your neighbors' noise, even if you can't hear it, the pollution is still there. And the reason why it could be such a problem is that, or is, is that the lawn is the most irrigated crop in the United States, right? We spend more water on our lawns than anything else. So there's a lot of this happening. So even if you're not aware of it personally, this is still an issue worth paying attention to.
Jamie Banks (40:20):
One thing that seems to be powerful is conducting workshops and educational events so that people can learn about this. Because you just dismiss it. They're all around. People are very unaware of the health and environmental effects that this equipment has, you know. And how much of it is around us. And so framing the issue as a public health problem and an environmental problem has been very powerful for communities. And, you know, with that knowledge, it's almost like the conversation can start to happen over, "okay, we get it now, what do we do?" So that's, you know, and we've had people articulate that to us. I just saying things like, "I really had no idea how polluting they were, what the effects of those pollutants are on my health, how loud they are." You know, how that can damage hearing and cause other health problems and so forth.
And what about the particulates?
Jamie Banks (41:24):
Okay, so fine particulates are one of the pollutants that is a by-product of internal gas combustion and it sees inefficient two-stroke engines that produce the vast majority of fine particulate pollution of all lawn and garden equipment. I don't know if you've seen it. We did a study with the help of EPA back in 2015, looking at the national burden of emissions from lawn and garden equipment. But I'm happy to share that with you if you haven't seen it, but it's pretty dramatic to say the least. That, you know, the real play here is, is air toxics. It's not greenhouse gases. That carbon that it takes in is, you know, it's conserved. And most of it becomes toxic pollutants, not carbon dioxide. Yeah. So fine particulates, it's abbreviated PM 2.5, which means it's at or less 2.5 microns in diameter, less than a human hair.
Jamie Banks (42:25):
It's stuff that you can't see. And that goes down to the level of the molecule really. And so that, and the rule of thumb is that the smaller, those particles are, the more dangerous they become because they can go deep. They can't be coughed or sneezed out like coarser material. They go deep into the lung. They can be absorbed into the bloodstream and cause things like cancer and heart disease and stroke and things like that. And this is all very, very well-documented. There's an enormous literature and consensus as to the dangers of fine particulate pollution. And in the time of COVID, the Harvard School of Public Health put out a report that people who live in areas with higher levels of fine particulate pollution are more apt to have complications of COVID and death from COVID. Now...and what they say is that one, I think microgram per meter cubed concentration can make a difference of, I think, 8% higher risk.
Jamie Banks (43:29):
So these are all statistics, but what you find with these two-stroke engines the big commercial gas pack blowers can produce more than 30 million micrograms of fine particulates an hour. So it's hard to compare large atmosphere concentration to the effect of this highly concentrated pollution. But I think it's fair to say that it's concerning. You know, it's right in proximity to workers to bystanders. It does not leave easily. It can stay in the air for long periods of time. And you can have multiple machines working on these properties sometimes in very close proximity. So there's serious risks for workers. And then of course, other vulnerable populations.
David Sykes (44:24):
You look at the habits of a park where there's a child's playground. For example, I was near one in Concord the other day, and there were four leaf blowers going around the playground. I mean, simultaneously four leaf blowers, all owned by the town. And you know, this playground where there's got kids ranging from infants up to, you know, 10, 12 years old.
So not only were they stirring up a lot of pollution, but also the noise level must've been...
David Sykes (44:49):
It was deafening. Yeah, it was ridiculous. This is a densely populated neighborhood, but the town seemingly doesn't care. The crews don't care.
Right. They're wearing earphones.
David Sykes (45:01):
One of those towns it's right next to Lexington. Lexington has moved ahead, but Concord is still dug in. So Jamie has done some work with Concord. She's also done some in Lincoln and a bunch of other towns, but Concord itself is still dug in on some of these issues.
Jamie Banks (45:14):
And, you know, you're getting that exhaust pollution and then you're blowing stuff off the ground that you don't know what it is. If it's a shoulder of a highway, it could contain lead or arsenic or, you know, trace heavy metals. If it's a lawn, it could be fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides. And then of course everything, you know, pollens and fungus and bacteria and all kinds of things. So, you know, that stuff that tends to be more coarse, but can include a mixed range of different-sized particulates. But the exhaust particulate sets, benzine and budadiennne, and all of these carcinogenic chemicals that come from the exhaust and ozone ground level ozone, which is also not good.
Well, this has been really informative. And I'm just wondering, do you have any final takeaways for our listeners?
Jamie Banks (46:10):
I think the last thing I just want to say is that we try and work with all the constituents. We realize the challenges that this presents to industry. Not just manufacturers, but the service industry, you know, especially where you have a lot of very small businesses that may not have many resources and yet legislation may set force them to change. And so we try and support reasonable legislation. So these phase-in legislations, we think give the service industry a chance to adjust. We're right now developing a professional certification course that is going to launch in December to train workers. It's a 15-lesson online course and... Not to promote that, but it's the kind of education and training you really need for workers. So they understand how they can become competent and what the requirements are. You know, to really have a successful business with a different technology. So I just want to emphasize this. This is not a case of fighting against industry. We really want to work with them, you know, to bring them along and have everybody, all the constituents benefit from this kind of change.
David Sykes (47:30):
We don't do outreach. So we are not reaching out to hundreds of communities and saying we're available to help. It always comes from a community. And generally from some person like the Kendalls who have played a role in this and realized the issue was tough and they needed some help. So it starts with a request. You know, we hear from a lot of communities. And where there's a strong community advocate, someone who is intelligent, well-placed able to handle this. We can help them, but we can't march in and run it for them. We don't want to march in and run it for them.
And I think that's such a great takeaway from all of this too, is that you can get involved in your local community and take care of your little corner of the universe. And not ...even though there is a reason to have existential dread about federal or executive branch things. Our advocacy is not as direct as it is in a city council meeting or a town hall or whatever. So I really appreciate that aspect of y'all's work.
David Sykes (48:23):
Justice. Louis Brandeis said famously "Communities are the laboratories of democracy." In America is when they can't get something done in Washington, they say, well, take it off on a local level.
I'd really like to thank Jamie Banks and David Sykes of Quiet Communities. And I hope this episode inspired you. If your community is struggling with noise issues, there's a lot of resources and research out there already that you can leverage to create positive change where you live. We've got links to some of them on the Soundproofist website. And of course you can learn more at quietcommunities.org. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.