Opinion: Leaf Blowers Violate Town Noise Ordinance, Part 1

by | Dec 9, 2021

Above: Leaf blowers on Vine Street earlier this week.

By John Paulhus

“Wanna hear the most annoying sound in the world?” asked Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) in the 1994 blockbuster comedy Dumb & Dumber. Without a word of affirmation from his two front-seat-mates, Lloyd proceeded to produce an instantly iconic sound that the subtitles understatedly described as “(screeches).” 

Sure, it was technically a screech, but it was so much more. It was a totally unnecessary, borderline sociopathic, prolonged, aural assault. Joe, riding middle next to Lloyd, could only take it for two-and-a-half seconds. But, I do give Lloyd credit. He asked first. He clearly told Joe and Harry what they were in for. They could have said no. The rest is Hollywood history.

Lloyd was wrong though. His screech, while annoying, was not the most annoying sound in the world. What is the most annoying sound in the world? My money’s on gasoline-powered leaf blowers.

I’ve lived in East Greenwich since 2016. I run my own graphic design business. I’ve worked from home since pre-pandemic 2019. It wasn’t until fall 2020 that I noticed a proliferation of gas-powered leaf blowers disrupting work and my otherwise quiet neighborhood. My reaction was bemusement. I joked about gas leaf blowers on Facebook, shared a few articles that expressed similar annoyance. I didn’t realize it then, but a pattern was forming. 

Fast-forward to April 2021, “Spring Cleanup Season” for residents and commercial landscapers alike. “The most annoying sound in the world” began to penetrate my neighborhood and my head with alarming intensity. Coincidentally, on April 12, The Public’s Radio program Possibly ran a piece outlining the environmental problems related to gasoline-powered lawn maintenance tools:

“As opposed to the four-stroke engines that cars use, two-stroke engines slosh together a mixture of gas and oil in the combustion chamber because they don’t have a separate lubrication system. These engines spew out as much as a third of that fuel unburned, which releases pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons into the air.

“How much pollution are we talking about here? A 2020 study by the California Air Resources Board found that engines such as the ones in gas-powered leaf blowers create a lot of smog-forming gases – more than the state’s 14.4 million passenger cars combined!

“What does that mean for someone who’s just using a leaf blower a few times a year? Even that can create a lot of pollution. Think about how long someone typically uses a leaf blower. Let’s say an hour or so. According to the same study, that would release the same amount of smog-forming pollution as driving a twenty-seventeen Toyota Camry for more than a thousand miles.”

I figured gas leaf blowers were bad, but I didn’t realize they were that bad. Possibly went on: 

“What about the noise? Gas-powered tools are much louder [than electric tools]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that using the average gas-powered leaf blower for two hours can have a harmful impact on your hearing.”

I immediately emailed our Town Council, asking them to work to ban gasoline powered leaf blowers from the Town of East Greenwich. Similar bans have been approved in Burlington, Vermont and, um, THE ENTIRE STATE OF CALIFORNIA. 

One of the town councillors responded asking for noise readings, saying, “There is a noise ordinance and perhaps [the noise] may fall within those limits.”

I replied, “I’d be happy to take some noise readings. Does the town’s noise ordinance enforcement team have any equipment I can borrow?” I was being admittedly smarmy. 

“I think what people have been using is their phones,” replied the councillor.

I inferred from that response that multiple residents had been using phone apps to take decibel readings and report noise complaints to the town. I took some solace from that, thinking, “OK, some residents are on this issue. I’ll research some apps, maybe some dedicated decibel meters, and prepare for Fall Cleanup Season.”

Meanwhile, a second councillor responded to me. “[Town Manager Andrew Nota] seems to think it is more realistic to regulate time of use rather than ban them.”

“I’ve yet to hear a time of use appropriate for a gas leaf blower, so I don’t have much faith in Mr. Nota’s plan,” I replied. But, at least the town seemed to have an awareness of the problem, and a rudimentary plan of regulation in place.

Fast forward from April to November. I had my new decibel meter unboxed (the phone apps didn’t have great reviews). The leaves were falling. It was only a matter of time before – as Margaret Renkl said in her October New York Times essay – “the monsters arrive.”

And arrive the gas leaf blower monsters did! If I thought Spring Cleanup Season was bad, it was no match for Fall Cleanup Season. It seemed like any day, at any time of daylight hours, I could hear a droning buzz from inside my house. Walking outside to confirm, it was clear – loud gas-powered leaf blowers operating blocks away in other neighborhoods could be heard from inside my house!

When the monsters arrived in my neighborhood, I was ready. Multiple times, I walked from my house to the sources of the noise, decibel meter powered on, smartphone video camera recording the growing decibel reading – 60 decibels, 70 decibels, 80 decibels, 85 decibels!

The town’s noise ordinance is written to be accessible. It’s concise, appropriately broad, but with specific and reasonable exceptions to the ordinance. It reads in part: 

 152-4 Maximum permitted noise level.

  1. The noise levels listed in this section shall be the maximum permitted sound levels used for the purposes of this chapter, unless another maximum permitted sound level is provided for in this chapter:
Zoning District Time
Sound Level (dbA)
R-6, R-10, R-20, R-30
10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
55
R-6, R-10, R-20, R-30
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
60
F, F-1, F-2
10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
55
F, F-1, F-2
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
60
CD, CL, CH
10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
65
CD, CL, CH
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
70
W
10:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.
65
W
7:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
70
M
Any time
75

The zoning districts with R prefixes are residential. The numbers 6, 10, 20, and 30 refer to the residential district’s size, in thousands of square feet. So R-6 is a 6,000 square foot residential district while R-30 is a 30,000 square foot residential district.

The ordinance language makes clear that the maximum permitted noise level from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. in any residential district is 60 decibels.

I had my noise readings, as the first Town Councillor had requested. I had the ordinance. I had video of the ordinance being broken. All that was left to do was phone the East Greenwich Police Department’s non-emergency line and file my report. Surely the EGPD would respond appropriately, ask the landscapers to cease operation of their unacceptably loud gas-powered leaf blowers, maybe issue a warning that a fine would follow in the future, and I could return to the peaceful sanctitude of my home on a lovely, crisp fall day. 

Unfortunately that’s not how it went down. 

End of Part 1. 

John Paulhus lives and works in East Greenwich.

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21 Comments

  1. Kate Williams

    Thank you John! I have similarly be become aware of the idea of “leaving the leaves”, which can support our local caterpillars/butterflies and birds. I had no idea how much pollution the gas leaf blowers emit! Of course the non-stop noise is tough as well. This year we are doing our own fall clean up as an experiment if we can rake the leaves to the garden beds and it is going pretty well so far. Thank you for bringing this issue to the light!
    https://xerces.org/blog/leave-leaves-to-benefit-wildlife

    Reply
    • Sandra

      Along with Kate, I heartily thank John for his extremely relevant article regarding the very loud, and polluting leaf blowers! It’s too bad it didn’t get published earlier before most of the leaves were rudely removed. Also, thank you Kate for the link explaining the rational behind “leaving the leaves”. Our gardens spend the winter season adorned with leaves. When everywhere is so sanitized, gardens are the only havens the urban creatures have.

      Reply
    • Ralph

      Well I guess John just became the male version of Karen complete with his own liberal noise meter.

      Reply
  2. Bill smith

    Maybe the most ridiculous story I’ve ever read on this news site….can’t stop laughing.

    Reply
  3. Judith

    I heartily agree that the noise from gasoline powered leaf blowers is extremely annoying. Some of the landscapers who work around here use are using two at the same time which doubles the discomfort from sound and the amount of pollution. Some properties are cleared of leaves two or three times in a season. Hopefully some amount of control is needed.

    Reply
  4. Dean

    Be ready to address the town as well- they continue to use leaf blowers into the winter months to clear lesser amounts of snow; many times starting between 4 and 5 am.

    Reply
  5. Erik wilcox

    Makes me want to buy a leaf blower.

    Reply
  6. Dave from Stave

    Paul wants us to follow California…says a lot about Paul.

    Reply
  7. Your neighb

    John Paulus is fortunate to work from home !!!! (And is fortunate to live in a great town in a nice neighborhood)
    Those gas mowers your complaining about are being run by men n perhaps women making a their LIVING !!
    Keep that in mind !!! I’m certain they need these jobs

    Reply
  8. Micheline Nilsen

    Thank you John for bringing this matter up. For years, I have referred to these infernal devices as “penile extensions” as they seem to be wielded primarily by men, who often mitigate the noise by ear covering, an option not always available to the neighbors submitted to their noise.
    Lawn mowers and leaf blowers are a documented and significant source of pollution.
    What do these blowers do: they just move the leaves around – what is wrong with a rake?
    And from an ecological point of view, the obsession to remove leaves (except where they can cause falls) is misguided. If allowed to stay on the ground through the winter, by the spring they contain bugs and worms that provide nesting birds with the proteins they need to feed their young. Once the fledglings are strong enough to fly, the wet, composting leaves can then be raked, composted and used as garden fertilizer. (Consult the work of the entomologist Douglas Tallamy on this topic).
    In a broader context: the prevalent landscaping model of chemically maintained lawns and foundation plantings is noxious, outdated, and contributes to climate change as well as polluted wells. Shouldn’t we give some thought to how we can use our yards to promote a healthy habitat for the creatures we share this environment with?

    Reply
    • Jill

      Makes me think of the environmental impact from maintaining golf courses.
      I agree with you 100%. I’d love to turn my lawn into a meadow of wildflowers one of these days.

      Reply
    • Dan

      I have a small business in Western Massachusetts the lawn care business if I did not have backpack blowers it would cost an awful lot of money to hire people to rake Lawns and the price would be through the roof for each individual house that I went to I know backpack blowers make a lot of noise but it does do a lot of work in a short amount of time.

      Reply
  9. Dougls

    Thank you Johnny!! I’ve been beating this drum for a while now too, albeit not nearly as effectively. The excessive, dirty, and noisy denuding of our yards every season is outdated and ecologically unnecessary, not just at 7:30 AM on a Sunday but all the time. It’s past due for a wealthy, heavily-trees town like ours to get smarter and cleaner about it.

    It’s a growing trend, a quick search found:

    Princeton, NJ: http://www.towntopics.com/wordpress/2021/10/27/council-passes-ordinance-to-ultimately-phase-out-gas-powered-leaf-blowers/

    Evanston, IL: https://evanstonroundtable.com/2021/11/11/gas-powered-leaf-blower-ban-evanston-ordinance/

    i propose a well-crafted ordinance phasing out gas-powered blowers and trimmers completely over the new few years. Give the yard services time to trade in their two-stroke polluters for electric versions, which are far, far better than they once were. In fact, this piece just prompted me to buy one!

    Reply
  10. Cragan Field

    What was this typed on?

    boiling a kettle produces about 70 grams of CO2; an hour of television on a 32-inch LCD screen equals about 88 grams; driving a mile in an average car makes about 710 grams; and enjoying a steak costs some 2,000 grams of CO2.

    The carbon emissions from cell phone use are generated by wireless network servers and data centers, where smartphones access apps, maps, texts and more.

    Pew Research Center estimated that 92 percent of adults — approximately 228,000,000 Americans 18 and up — in the US had a mobile phone (including non-smartphones) as of 2015. If Viessmann’s claims are true, that would account for some 319.2 million tons of CO2 a year. And in 2014, the EPA reports that the US produced around 5.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide, meaning cell phone use could account for between 5 and 6 percent of total carbon emissions in the country.

    Cell phones and other tech are some of the biggest emissions offenders. Research by McMaster University in Canada found that greenhouse gases produced by the information technology industry could account for 14 percent of global emissions by 2040, up from just 1 to 2 percent about a decade ago.

    Reply
  11. Lily

    That is alarming info. I would imagine the people employed doing yard cleanup can get even more hours by hand raking instead. My neighbors often insist on doing this in the early hours of weekend mornings and due to the location of my master bedroom on the corner of the first floor, directly across from their side yard, it creates what sounds like a vibration/wind tunnel that makes sleep or even relaxing very impossible. Even with white noise on. I also notice they’re blowing a lot of the leaves into my yard/hedges, which isn’t appreciated. If it bothers us humans I bet it bothers the wildlife even more. It’s an unnecessary thing, we managed to survive without them for ages so I think we can figure it out!

    Reply
  12. CR

    This has to be the most ridiculous article I’ve ever read on the Opinion page (and there’s been many), and even more hilarious that there are people on here who agree. I am embarrassed for those of you who have even given this some thought and disgusted with those of you who say to “use a rake, it gives the workers more hours.” I’ll tell you what – I’ll stop using my “penile machine” if you come to my house, rake my leaves for me and/or pay the hourly wages for someone else to use a rake. I will GLADLY stop using the leaf blower. If not, please take your First World Problems to another town.

    Reply
    • TC

      Use an battery powered leaf blower. Problem solved.

      Reply
  13. Katie

    I can’t wait to tell my Husband I want a “penile extension“ for Christmas.

    Reply
  14. AJ

    You made a mistake at the beginning. The Dumb and Dumber sound isn’t the most annoying sound in the world… it’s the internal dialogue created when reading about leaf blower noise complaints. Get an office. Go to work 9-5. Problem solved.

    Reply
    • Ag

      Solution for those that want to use a leaf blower without using gas = battery powered leaf blower. Bought mine this year and it’s amazing. Also is pretty quite compared to gas. Try it out. Also gas mower is top notch!

      Reply
  15. 5th ave landscapInG

    We are offering hand raked carbon neutral sustainable organic leaf clean ups you can see but not hear just in time for the holidays starting at $5,000. Call now!

    Reply

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