Greening with less gasoline

[Photos courtesy LOF Photography] Ryan Hebel talks about a battery-operated leaf blower.

Landscaping businesses adopt quieter, cleaner equipment

If you hear landscaping firms talking about green, it may not be about the grass they are mowing or the money their businesses are making. A growing number of companies are replacing noisy and polluting equipment with quieter, battery-operated alternatives.
The president of Stanley Black & Decker’s outdoor products division told Bloomberg News last year that half of chainsaws, trimmers, and push movers sold are now electric. John Wyatt predicted that by 2025, 75 percent of push mowers sold will be electric.

Electric riding mowers currently make up only two percent of mower sales. But that will grow to 50 percent within five to seven years, he said. Green Ventures Landscaping started using battery-powered equipment about five years ago, vice-president Ryan Hebel says.

The family-owned firm, based in Kitchener, Ontario, has 25 staff year-round and 35 in the summer. It has one crew that uses only battery-powered machinery — a riding lawnmower, leaf blower and trimmers. Other crews take a hybrid approach, using battery-powered handheld equipment and gas-fueled riding mowers.

Riding mowers still use heavy batteries which make them less suitable for some jobs, company president Sean Hebel said. Heavier mowers can leave marks on some lawns. Green Ventures will move to using only electric equipment within a few years, he said. “Each generation, the functionality gets better.”

The landscaping industry tends to be quite conservative and slow to change. It is several years behind where it could be in terms of adopting battery-powered equipment, he said.

That is likely to change. High gas prices and customer demand will lead the sector to look more seriously at electric equipment, he predicted.

Ryan Hebel agrees. “I think we’re getting to our tipping point, if we’re not already there.”

Given the amount of pollution produced by “super dirty” two-stroke engines, “it would be cheaper to hand out incentives to get rid of their two-stroke engines than for electric cars (subsidies as a way to decrease carbon emissions),” he said.

An increasing number of observers agree that two-stroke engines, commonly found in gas lawnmowers, are a big problem. The US Environmental Protection Agency says gas-powered mowers are responsible for five percent of the country’s air pollution.

Operating a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour can have the same polluting effect as driving a Toyota Camry 300 miles, the California Air Resources Board says. Using a gas-powered leaf blower for an hour is even worse, according to CARB. That’s the equivalent of driving the Camry 1,100 miles.

Denver, Colorado’s Regional Air Quality Council has given rebates to homeowners and businesses who turn in gas-powered mowers and purchase electric-powered replacements. Similar programs have been offered in California and Utah. Some are also offering rebates for turning in gas-powered snowblowers, grass trimmers and leaf blowers.

Colorado lawmakers have introduced a bill prohibiting the sale of 50 horsepower or smaller gas engines by 2030. California is moving more quickly in that direction. It will stop sales of gas-powered equipment with small off-road engines by January 1, 2024.

Ryan and Sean Hebel stand next to a battery-powered, semi-autonomous tractor. The machine is used for cleaning sidewalks in the winter. In the summer, switching out the blades for a mower deck spares staff from the hot work of cutting grass in parks.

A similar bill was introduced in New York State last fall. It calls for lawn care and landscaping equipment sold in that state to be zero emissions by 2027. Illinois is pondering comparable legislation.

The writing may be on the wall for gas-powered leaf blowers elsewhere. As many as 170 US cities have already passed laws banning their use.

In Canada, Ottawa’s National Capital Commission will ban the use of gas-powered leaf blowers, line trimmers, hedge trimmers and small chainsaws on NCC lands effective April 1, 2023.

In the US, the National Association of Professional Landscapers has raised several concerns about these bans. One objection relates to having to recharge equipment several times over the course of a day. Another is that electric leaf blowers don’t yet have the power required for commercial use.

Since Green Ventures began using electric equipment, costs have come down significantly. Machines are now half the size and weight they were in 2017, with better power, Ryan Hebel said.

Company employees are encouraging the shift, as they find electric equipment breaks down less and costs less to repair.
Green Ventures already has one client that demands only electric equipment be used at their property. Some condo buildings are making similar requests due to noise concerns.

Use of battery-powered equipment is a year-round practice for Green Ventures. They use semi-autonomous electric robots to plow sidewalks in the winter and have three electric snowblowers as well.

Green Ventures will use all-electric equip- ment within a few years, Sean Hebel says.

The robots are made by Swap Robotics, a Waterloo, Ontario firm that the Hebels are investors in.
Swap is also producing semi-autonomous mower decks used to cut lawns in parks.

Use of electric, semi-autonomous equipment will have more than environmental benefits. It will reduce the toll on landscaping employees by automating menial tasks. That will also remove the health risks from fumes, noise, and vibrations.

Green Ventures is committed to paying its workers a living wage. Sean Hebel deems that a “moral obligation.”

The firm doesn’t have problems keeping employees. But they admit that finding new staff to add to their team is challenging. The Hebels don’t yet see the use of electric-powered equipment as providing a competitive edge for their firm. Sean Hebel thinks that day is coming. Others are already exploring that opportunity. A landscaping firm in Victoria, British Columbia markets itself as being a clean, green alternative. They market themselves as being a “solar-powered, zero-emission business model since 2010.”

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