For Jazz Montgomery, it was a new career path. After opening Heavenly’s Lawn Care in 2020, he built a four-person crew, offering residential lawn care, pruning, and yard maintenance to customers in Costa Mesa, California.
“But ever since that stupid rule change…”
Montgomery wasted no time in our phone conversation addressing the elephant in the room. On January 1, 2024, California Assembly Bill 1346 took effect, banning the sale of gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other small off-road engines across the Golden State. These engines do present real concerns for air pollution, noise pollution, and climate change. But for a small growing business like Heavenly’s Lawn Care, the regulation has proved crushing.
“I actually scaled down my crew,” Montgomery told me. “It used to be four of us. And then I scaled it down to two because I had to try to make up the cost to be able to get the equipment.”
Heavenly’s Lawn Care isn’t alone. Per the California Air Resources Board’s own estimates, the cost of transition for professional users is expected to reach $1.29 billion. The state government only set aside $30 million to help cover transition costs. With nearly two million pieces of professional gas-powered equipment in use across the state, these funds amount to a mere $15 per piece of equipment.
“What if one of us doesn’t get qualified for one of those programs?” said Montgomery. “That’s over $30,000, $40,000 [for an electric riding mower]. That’s coming out of our pockets. And there’s no work around.”
Moreover, according to the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) website, zero emission technology is improving, but not yet able to handle the workload of a full workday. CLCA members report issues with short battery life, availability of extra batteries, and lack of sufficient resources to repair zero emission equipment. In Montgomery’s experience, using battery-powered equipment can sometimes take twice as long.
But many environmental and public health advocates support regulations like California’s.
“The push mowers and the handheld equipment are so egregiously polluting,” said Kirsten Schatz, Clean Air Advocate for CoPIRG Foundation. “Ultimately, we should just not have those on store shelves.”
Working on air quality in Colorado last year, Schatz was surprised to learn that gas-powered lawn and garden equipment is a top contributor to the state’s major ozone problem, second only to the oil and gas industry. After diving into the issue, Schatz co-authored a report published in October which found operating a commercial lawn mower for just one hour produces as much ozone-forming pollution as driving 300 miles in a car. Worse yet, a commercial leaf blower emits as much ozone-forming pollution in an hour as driving 1,100 miles in a car — about the length of a trip from Los Angeles to Denver. Ground-level ozone is the main ingredient in smog, and has been shown to reduce lung function, worsen asthma, and even lead to premature death.
In 2020, lawn and garden equipment in the U.S. also emitted more than 21,800 tons of fine particulates — equivalent to the pollution from 234 million typical cars. Short-term exposure to fine particulates can trigger cardiovascular events, hospitalization episodes, and mortality, while long-term chronic exposure can increase risk of strokes, coronary heart disease, and premature death.
According to a 2016 American Thoracic Society (ATS) report, California and Los Angeles are the worst state and city in the nation for ozone and fine particulate health impacts, with 3,632 excess mortalities, 7,686 excess morbidities, and 6,741,955 adverse impact days across the Golden State annually due to these pollutants. If Los Angeles attained ATS recommendations for ozone and fine particulate concentrations, the city would avoid 1,341 deaths, 3,255 morbidities, and 2,892,029 impacted days each year.
Tony Dutzik, Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst at Frontier Group and a co-author on Schatz’s report, explained why lawn equipment spews such high quantities of these pollutants.
“With two-stroke engines, in particular, incomplete combustion is a big issue. They are just not burning the fuel as efficiently or completely.”
Two-stroke engines, favored in handheld equipment due to their light weight, are the worst polluters, especially as it pertains to fine particulates. Increasingly, lawn equipment manufacturers have opted for more efficient four-stroke engines, but these engines still lack the advanced emissions controls that reduce pollution from automobiles.
“The emissions control technology that we enjoy on our vehicles and has helped reduce some emissions in the cars and trucks we drive is just too expensive and doesn’t make sense to put on handheld lawn tools,” said Schatz.
These inefficiencies illuminate the large climate impact of gas-powered lawn equipment as well. In the United States, lawn and garden equipment powered by fossil fuels released more than 30 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020 — more than the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the city of Los Angeles. Carbon dioxide is the primary driver of human-caused global warming.
Critics of gas-powered lawn equipment have also voiced frustration with noise pollution. Dr. Erica Walker, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at Brown University, performed an experiment in Lincoln, Massachusetts, measuring noise from two backpack leaf blowers and one hose vacuum at 0, 50, 100, 200, 400, and 800 feet away. The study, published by Environmental Toxicology in 2017, found that even at 800 feet away (nearly three football fields), sound from this equipment exceeded the World Health Organization’s outdoor daytime standard of 55 decibels.
“The sounds did decrease the further we moved away from the leaf blower activity, but not by much,” recounted Walker. “It gave me profound appreciation for what people go through when that leaf blower activity is happening because it’s annoying.”
Walker clarified that nuisance is not just an inconvenience, but a serious health concern.
“That feeling of annoyance sets off a stress response in your body that’s very similar to the stress response you would have if you were walking down a dark alleyway, and out jumps a ferocious pitbull. It’s your body telling itself to either prepare to fight that threat or flee that threat. […] Consistent stimulation of that stress response can lead to increased risk for some pretty serious cardiovascular related illnesses like hypertension or cardiovascular related mortality.”
In a community setting, Walker added that noise pollution contributes to disrupted sleep, mental health issues, and decreased quality of life. And for workers who use this equipment, Walker contended that hearing protections have been insufficient remedies.
“The hearing protection doesn’t mitigate that vibrational component, which is a significant part of leaf blower activity.”
The problems with gas-powered lawn equipment are grounded in science. But the path forward — particularly the viability of electric alternatives — remains up for debate.
According to George Kinkead, President of Turfco Manufacturing — a small landscape equipment manufacturing company in Minnesota — the electric technology isn’t proven out for commercial use yet.
“We’ve spent six figures developing an applicator that was run electrically, and it simply wouldn’t be up to our standards of what we’d sell to any customer. It doesn’t last long enough. There’s questions on reliability.”
Kinkead also draws a distinction between smaller handheld equipment such as leaf blowers, and larger riding equipment that requires more power.
“I think the technology on smaller stuff is more credible… but the stuff where you’re riding on it, and it’s doing applications, I don’t think they’re there yet,” said Kinkead. “Unfortunately, we all got kind of grouped in as a bunch of leaf blowers.”
Kinkead shared that California’s new ban will prevent Turfco from selling equipment in the state at this time. However, he did express optimism that viable electric equipment is not far away.
“I think we’re five years out before they have some credible solutions for people,” said Kinkead. “I’d feel a lot better if it was phased in, kind of like, percentages of your fleet, allow us to put prototypes out there. And then they run and then we find out what’s wrong. And then we bring in another batch.”
Kinkead maintained that a more gradual phase-in would also help businesses set up infrastructure to charge their equipment, allow opportunity to purchase higher quality equipment that comes out a few years down the line, and alleviate unforeseen strains on California’s electric grid.
Yet not everyone shares that perspective.
“We can’t afford to wait,” said Dutzik. “Sitting around and waiting for the perfect technological gizmo to come out of the lab is not really how any of this tends to work. It works by getting good, beneficial equipment out there into the world as quickly as we can and learning from that experience.”
Schatz agreed with that viewpoint. She discussed a variety of policy options beyond California’s ban that could accelerate a transition, including seasonal or geographical use restrictions, financial incentives to discount cleaner and quieter equipment, or vouchers for individuals or businesses who make the switch.
Schatz and Dutzik’s report did acknowledge commercial users have different needs than homeowners, pointing out that homeowners may even save money in the long-run due to the change. However, even on the commercial side, they argued electric equipment was up to the task. As one example, Schatz pointed to Clean Air Lawn Care, a company with franchises nationwide offering lawn mowing and landscaping services with electric and biodiesel powered equipment.
“The gap with gas has really closed within the last five years,” said Kelly Giard, CEO of Clean Air Lawn Care. “In terms of the operation, we use a solar system on our truck. […] We have two batteries per piece of equipment. One battery is used and the other one is getting charged on the solar as we move around during the day.”
Giard acknowledged some downsides to the approach — some equipment such as gas-powered aerators can’t be replaced yet, and the battery-powered leaf blowers make fall cleanups take significantly longer. But he also recounted a variety of benefits, including no fuel expenses, healthier environments for employees, and fulfilling customers’ desire for cleaner, quieter lawn care.
“You go down a street on a Tuesday afternoon in a residential neighborhood and you’re going to see all kinds of work trucks, and the neighbors pay attention to what’s going on. When they see somebody’s doing it quieter, cleaner, I think that’ll pique their interest, and the business doing it that way would benefit from the word of mouth.”
Of course, most small businesses don’t have the capacity to immediately replicate Clean Air Lawn Care’s solar-powered generator setup. That’s why Giard says time and sensitivity are key in creating legislation.
“We’re working with different people like Kirsten on legislation, and I think that these are small business owners and it needs to be sensitive to their [needs], giving them time to transition if they’re going to be asked to do that. I think time is the most critical thing.”
Despite backlash from many landscaping professionals, California’s ban on the sale of gas-powered lawn equipment took effect on January 1, 2024. The ban only applies to new purchases; homeowners and businesses can continue using their gas-powered equipment until the end of its life.
Kinkead told me that he’s all for change, but he worries about how aggressive policies like California’s could hamper aspiring entrepreneurs looking to enter the industry.
“Landscaping could be a gateway for someone without a college education. [With] one truck, the guy could have a business. He could grow that business to five, ten trucks. It’s kind of a gateway to American prosperity. Whereas some of these technological changes all of a sudden cut that off. Now, only big companies can afford to do this. And it’s kind of unfortunate because in our industry, we see a lot of first generation immigrants. You know, they’ve gotten into this business, they’ve built a successful business, but they didn’t need a lot of capital to do that.”
As for Heavenly’s Lawn Care, Montgomery anticipates that the coming months will be tough. But letting out an exasperated chuckle, he assured me that he’ll find a way forward.
“One thing about being a lawn care tech is that you gotta adapt to every scenario, and we’ll adapt to it. It’s a pain in the butt, but we’ll adapt to it.”
Ethan Brown is a Social Mobility Fellow for Young Voices with a B.A. in Environmental Analysis & Policy from Boston University. He is the creator and host of The Sweaty Penguin, an award-winning comedy climate program. Follow him on Twitter @ethanbrown5151