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The noise over noise

When choosing your stable of lawn care equipment, you may want to give some thought to how noisy it is.


January 18, 2012
By Jim Chliboyko

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When choosing your stable of lawn care equipment, you may want to give some thought to how noisy it is. Especially in suburbs, people today are less tolerant than ever of loud leaf blowers, lawn mowers and chainsaws. The good news is, new technology may make it easier than before to balance performance, cost and noise.

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No one wants to hear this when they are lining up a putt.


 

In the world of landscaping equipment, the word leaf blower has almost become a curse word over the last 40 years. Leaf blowers have been banned in a large number of California towns, for example. The state’s first banning came as far back as 1975. One small-town campaign against the leaf blower was even documented in the austere weekly The New Yorker, in an article which detailed the Japanese birth of the leaf blower (initially used to spread pesticides in farmers’ fields) and, later, describing the struggle over leaf blower use in a leafy Oakland suburb.

One of the reasons behind the unpopularity of leaf blowers is the noise they make. Sound, as readers of community newspapers and letters to the editor know, is a common source of complaints for unhappy suburbanites, whether it is coming from leaf blowers, lawnmowers or nearby airports. But whatever is making the noise, over the last few years people seem to have become less willing to tolerate any kind of noisy yard machinery.

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To cite one example of noise bylaws in Canada, the City of Toronto’s chapter on noise is covered by a 15-page document. It covers the waterfront in terms of all potential conflict based on noise, including religious celebrations. However, it does not specifically cite any one piece of equipment. In comparison, leaf blower operators in Vancouver are only permitted to use their machines between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturdays.

“Look at the drivers of what encourages change, especially with noise,” says David Schwartz of Stihl Canada. “In California, in part, and in California North [otherwise known as B.C.], regulation really focuses around blowers.”

But in terms of landscaping equipment, it is not just leaf blowers that make noise. Edgers, trimmers, lawnmowers, snowblowers, chainsaws – they are all examples of equipment we use in our yards, and whose tell-tale aural signature is a high-pitched, oscillating cacophony.

According to Health Canada, power landscaping equipment is one of the more common suburban irritants cited in a telephone poll commissioned by the agency, along with aircraft, trains and construction equipment.

Health Canada has also measured the problem: “Scientists measure the levels of different sounds with a unit called the A-weighted decibel (dBA). The A-weighting reflects how people respond to sound. In a typical community, noise starts to make people highly annoyed when the sound level outside their home is around 55 dBA. In comparison, the sound level on the shoulder of a major highway is between 80 and 90 dBA.”

The source of the sound that machinery makes is produced by either many moving parts or equipment that is prone to high vibration. Gas-powered machinery makes more noise, as does equipment that is older and/or less maintained and lubricated than newer models.

It is an engine featuring overhead cam (OHC) technology that will give you a quieter piece of equipment, as compared to an engine with an overhead valve (OHV), or pushrod, design. The OHV-type of engine was created and tinkered with by automobile pioneers such as David Buick and the Chevrolet brothers. On an OHC engine, there are less moving valve train parts and the engine’s components are engineered for more direct motion; the camshaft is actually within the cylinder head, removing the need for pushrods. The engines themselves are more complex, but the performance is better and there also happens to be less noise.

But another way that landscaping equipment is changing is in the move to battery powered lines of equipment. Gas-powered equipment, not surprisingly, is a lot like a gas-powered car, and tends to be a lot noisier than its electric cousins. It could also be that in trying to create a cleaner, more efficient machine, a surprising by-product of such product evolution is quieter landscaping equipment.

“All the new models seem to be getting quieter and quieter,” said Burlington-based dealer Mark Peart. “It is all based on U.S. requirements and they are all getting quieter, as well.”

“I see people going towards more battery-operated equipment,” says Ed Dwyer, owner of C & T Rentals in Winnipeg (and the new president of the Canadian Rental Association). “Stihl is coming out with electric trimmers and with a battery-operated chainsaw.”

As are many other companies. One of Stihl Canada’s recent press releases is headlined “No Gasoline. No Emissions. No Power Cord.” It might just as well have added “Less Noise.”

David Schwartz knows a thing or two about noise and equipment.

“Leaf blowers (the quieter models) use different fan wheels that produce less oomph. They use foam to deaden the airflow,” he says. “As far as the muffler goes, the bigger the muffler the quieter they will be.”

But it is not just a matter of slapping a muffler on something to quieten it down. Mufflers require some measure of precision, just like any other piece of equipment.

“With hand-held equipment, it is tough to put a big muffler on,” Schwartz says. “Too big a muffler and you lose performance, too small a muffler and you lose performance.”

Schwartz mentions that European regulations are also a driver for quieter equipment and, specifically, Germans (Stihl is a German company) are particularly focused on creating low-noise equipment.

But there are other advantages to the new lines of quieter equipment. Advocates for battery powered equipment, rather than merely electric equipment, also cite having no cord or emissions to deal with as being collateral benefits.

“You climb in a tree with a 100-foot cord, or if you are working on a ladder, and you have a cord hanging down, that is not good,” says Ed Dwyer. “With battery powered equipment, you don’t have to worry about a cord.”

Dwyer also says going in the battery powered direction is a trend one is seeing in commercial equipment these days. There are other benefits to the low sound output of a battery-powered unit as well, he says. “Without the noise, operators can actually start that earlier in the day and go later. And with battery-operated lawnmowers, there are no emissions and operating costs are way down. It is environmentally friendly. You see cars going that way, too.”

Manufacturers who are selling quieter equipment like to mention that the cranky neighbour is not the only one who needs to be satisfied with noise levels. There are other settings in which landscaping equipment is used, like rooftop gardens, hospital grounds, indoor landscaping areas, hospitals and parks. Condominium complexes are another setting that may be steering product development towards quieter landscaping equipment.

“It is definitely going quieter, especially with the condos. They do not want the noise,” says Peart. “You can work right next door to a guy’s bedroom, and he won’t know you’re operating anything.”

Another place where landscaping and noise sensitivity converge is on the golf course. “I’ve noticed battery-operated greens cutters on golf courses,” says Ed Dwyer, an avid golfer. “People are golfing and they do not want to hear a gas-powered edger going.”

Another advantage of using the battery-powered units is the education factor. Dwyer says when dealing with clients with a gas-powered unit, “You have got to give him mixed gas, you have got to talk to him about hearing protection – you have got to educate him.”

Schwartz differentiates between the casual equipment user and the professional. “Construction crews have not seen the demand for low-noise equipment,” he says, citing the fact that crews are wearing hearing protection anyway. “On the jobsite, they want tools that will perform. The guys using our Cutquiks, for instance, do not care about noise.”

As equipment becomes more efficient, and quieter, some believe that quiet means less powerful. ”You’re paying the same price for less performance,” Schwartz says. But others say it all depends on the setting, the user, and the user’s goals. “Not with today’s technology,” Peart argues, saying he does not believe quieter necessarily means weaker. “It is more efficient; a more efficient use of fuel, of course. The whole thing is coming together from every angle.”

And, according to Consumer Reports magazine, though they’re specifically talking about leaf blowers, “The best handheld electric blowers have long beaten their gasoline-fuelled competitors with comparable power and less weight and noise.” However, the magazine follows this up on another page, writing, “For sheer power, you are likely to prefer a gas-powered backpack or wheeled blower. Nearly all the gas-powered blowers we tested meet the tougher new California emissions standards.”

Evidently, even the workers operating the equipment benefit from efficiencies newly built into landscaping equipment. “Some of the equipment has iso-handles just to get rid of the vibration for worker fatigue,” says Peart.

From the manufacturer’s perspective, cost may yet prove to be a factor in how popular low-noise equipment sells. Schwartz says, “Most of our tools have an optional low noise model. We carry them, and if people need them or want them, they can spend the money.”

Schwartz points out that different types of users have different expectations. Professional users want performance and fuel efficiency, while homeowners tend to be more motivated by a low price point. And he believes that while many people talk up the benefits of low noise equipment, the ultimate motivator is the one usually kept in the back pocket.

“Everybody’s really interested in low noise until they have to reach into their pocketbooks.”


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