Landscaping equipment will be electric in California soon, as a new bill moves to ban gas-powered lawn equipment in the state — including lawn mowers and leaf blowers — in an effort to limit air pollution. Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill on Saturday that will stop sales of gas-powered equipment with small off-road engines by January 1, 2024. That prohibition could also come sooner, if the California Air Resources Board (CARB) says such a law is “feasible.”
It’s not only landscaping equipment that is part of the law. Portable gas-powered generators will need to be zero-emission by 2028, according to the Los Angeles Times. Again, CARB has final say in that end date. The law requires all newly sold small-motor equipment primarily used for landscaping to be zero-emission — essentially to be battery-operated or plug-in — and includes any engine that produces less than 25 gross horsepower, such as lawn mowers, weed trimmers, chain saws, golf carts, specialty vehicles, generators, and pumps.
It does not apply to on-road motor vehicles, off-road motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles, boats, snowmobiles, or model airplanes, cars or boats — yet.
What’s the Problem with Small Gas-Powered Off-Road Engines?
Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns, using 800 million gallons of gas per year and producing tons of air pollutants, according to the organization, People Powered Machines. Garden equipment engines — which have had unregulated emissions until the late 1990s and emit high levels of carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and nitrogen oxides — produce up to 5% of the nation’s air pollution and a good deal more in metropolitan areas.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has adopted emission standards to control both exhaust and evaporative emissions from small spark-ignition engines. They state that nonroad engines contribute significantly to air pollution. The emission standards address oxides of nitrogen (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC), particulate matter (PM), and carbon monoxide (CO). These emissions help form smog and include toxic compounds such as benzene, so reducing them will benefit our health and environment. In the Clean Air Act, Congress required the EPA to set emission standards that address these problems.
The EPA says a new gas powered lawn mower produces as much air pollution in 1 hour of operation as 11 new cars each being driven for 1 hour. Using a gas-powered leaf blower for one hour causes the same amount of pollution to be emitted into the air as does a 2017 Toyota Camry driving from Los Angeles to Denver, which spans roughly 1,100 miles. That’s why lawmakers are working to curb emissions that come from those tools.
“It’s amazing how people react when they learn how much this equipment pollutes, and how much smog-forming and climate-changing emissions that small off-road engine equipment creates,” Assemblyman Marc Berman (D), the author of the legislation, related, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This is a pretty modest approach to trying to limit the massive amounts of pollution that this equipment emits, not to mention the health impact on the workers who are using it constantly.”
California Sets Emissions Standards for New Non-Road Engines & Helps Professional Landscapers with $$
California has adopted its own emission standards for certain types of new nonroad engines, vehicles, or equipment. In those cases, manufacturers must certify their products with CARB; these products are also certified with the EPA even if no additional requirements apply. There are more than 16.7 million small engines in California, which tops the number of passenger cars on roads by roughly 3 million.
CARB began working on the landscaping equipment regulations after Newsom issued an executive order in September 2020 that required the state to “transition to 100% zero-emission off-road vehicles and equipment by 2035 where feasible.”
The state has allocated $30 million to support professional landscapers and gardeners with switching their equipment from gas-powered to zero-emissions. Machinery with so-called small off-road engines create as much smog-causing pollution in California as light-duty passenger cars, and reducing those emissions is pivotal to improving air quality and combating climate change, proponents of the law said.
Already, may homeowners have converted to all-electric landscaping equipment such as lawnmowers and hedge trimmers, as have many cities and universities. A 2019 CARB survey found that more than half of household lawn and garden equipment in the state was already zero emissions.
The small engine gas-powered ban legislation was opposed by Republican lawmakers, as well as some Democrats, who expressed a variety of concerns.
- Residents in rural areas may be particularly affected by the zero emissions portable generator requirement.
- Battery equipment would have limited charge during blackout periods.
- The $30 million grant may not fully cover the estimated 50,000 California small businesses that will be affected by the law.
- Zero-emission commercial-grade equipment tends to cost more than parallel gas-powered equipment.
- The battery equipment may not have the efficiency scales of the existing gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and other small machinery.
- Batteries present an uncertain expense, and a crew may have to carry multiple batteries to complete a day’s agenda. (These naysayers need to check out the charging built into the new Ford F-150 Lightning.)
Berman said those concerns are being taken into account, and the law specifically requires the California Air Resources Board to adjust the restrictions on generators based on their “expected availability” of that equipment on the commercial and retail market.
Final Thoughts about All-Electric Landscaping Equipment
Matt Harrison, a longtime public works employee, told the Washington Post his initial skepticism about using all-electric landscaping equipment was that the electric versions wouldn’t be powerful enough or would die too quickly. “It proved me wrong,” he admitted. Now Harrison uses all-electric mowers, blowers, weed whips, and chain saws. “You ain’t got to wear ear protection,” he explained. And “you don’t have to worry about coming home smelling like gas.”
Organizations like the American Green Zone Alliance (AGZA) are ready to help outdoor-focused companies and municipalities make the transition away from gas-powered small equipment, including training in EPA and CARB-compliant equipment, people-powered tools, and battery electric options. “It’s just exploding,” said Daniel Mabe, founder of AGZA . “We’re on the precipice of a revolution.”
Of course, electric equipment is only part of the equation to protecting the environment. A sustainable yard also requires new approaches to watering, fertilizer, and pesticide use. We need to rethink cultural norms that a successful, middle class life equates with a sprawling green lawn. We must grow more drought-tolerant plants, remove invasive plants, bring in plants that attract pollinators, and support biodiversity whenever possible.
And we should reconsider the energy we use for lighting our outdoor landscaped spaces. For example, a small-but-growing number of golf courses are now turning to solar energy systems to either directly power their operations or feed electricity into the local utility’s grid in return for offsets on their electrical bill.
Until those ways of landscaping replace the All American front lawn and our favorite outdoor gathering spaces, mowing, blowing, and trimming will be weekly tasks. Electrifying everything is a really good start.
Photo by Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica