By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center
The inversion season may be over, but that’s not stopping Sue Pope, landscape supervisor in Facilities Management, from continuing to implement a policy aimed at reducing air-polluting emissions at the University of Utah.
From now on, landscaping crews at the University of Utah will not use leaf blowers and other high-emission equipment on red air quality days.
The new policy was implemented during Facilities Management’s Energy Challenge, which asked the different offices within Facilities to find new ways to limit their energy consumption during the month of February.
“The Energy Challenge got everybody in the shop to brainstorm ideas about how we could improve the environment, each one of us. It was one of those things where the light bulb just clicked, and we realized that we use leaf blowers practically every day to blow a few little leaves here and there. Now, we’ll just tolerate a little more debris on the ground than we’re used to… to help reduce our impact and improve our air quality,” Pope says.
After the Energy Challenge wrapped up, Pope decided to make the leaf blower policy permanent.
“We’re taking it upon ourselves to try and do this year round,” Pope says because summer air quality can also be poor. In the summer, the main contributor to air pollution is ground-level ozone.
So what difference will this policy make? Perhaps a big one. Landscaping equipment might not get as much press as more frequently mentioned polluters like personal vehicles, but gasoline-powered lawn mowers or leaf blowers pack a hefty emissions punch.
An experiment from Edmunds.com compared the emissions output of two types of leaf blowers to a Ford Raptor truck and a Fiat 500. The results were staggering: a leaf blower with a two-stroke engine produced 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons—which can be carcinogenic —than the truck did. The accompanying article reports that to emit the same amount of hydrocarbons produced by half an hour of yard work, you’d have to drive a whopping 3,887 miles in the Raptor. Even a “cleaner” leaf blower that Edmunds tested, one with a four-stroke engine, produced the emissions equivalent of 1000 miles in the truck.
It seems counterintuitive that an appliance you can carry could outpace a full-sized truck in emissions. But it’s the very simplicity of the two-stroke engines used most frequently in landscaping equipment, specifically designed to be portable, which makes them so guilty of emissions.
Unlike the four-stroke engine of a car, which has lubrication system totally separate from the fuel system, a two-stroke engine requires special lubricating oil to be mixed in directly with the fuel to keep everything running smoothly. When the fuel is burned in the combustion chamber to get the piston moving, the oil burns, too. And if you’ve ever had an oil-related cooking mishap you know this: burning oil creates a lot of smoke.
In addition, cars made since the 1970s have catalytic converters, which help scrub emissions before they are introduced into the environment. Without scrubbers in place, fuel-laden exhaust, filled with carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons, spews into the environment.
For homeowners, there’s a simple solution: Stop using landscaping equipment and do it by hand. However, for large areas like the University of Utah campus, this option can be too time consuming and expensive. A cleaner alternative is electric landscaping equipment. Thoughelectric equipment isn’t entirely “clean” (because electricity in Utah comes primarily from fossil fuels), it eliminates the particularly dirty pollution specific to the small engines in leaf blowers.
The electric option is one that Pope is looking into. She has purchased a few battery-powered leaf blowers and is currently having landscaping crews use them to see if they can stack up to their gasoline-powered counterparts in the context of commercial use.
Besides leaf blowers, several other sustainability efforts are underway in the Landscaping department. Pope is currently working to help landscaping crews prepare more effectively to reduce trips in utility carts and trucks. This winter, Landscaping began collecting and recycling the plastic bags that road salt comes in.
Pope says that consistency will be key as her department continues to incorporate changes into their routines.
“It’s a big department, so sometimes it’s hard to get everybody on the same page, but it’s just a matter of continually reminding ourselves to do it,” she says.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.