The Madeleine Brand Show for July 17, 2012

SoCal entrepreneurs hope to make leaf blowing safer, quieter for gardeners

Michael Gould of Whisper Landscape Maintenance poses with his leaf blower.

Jennifer Sharpe

Michael Gould of Whisper Landscape Maintenance poses with his leaf blower.

Michael Gould of Whisper Landscape Maintenance

Jennifer Sharpe

Michael Gould of Whisper Landscape Maintenance, with the customized batteries that power his clean quiet zero emissions landscape service.

Gardener Martin Gutierres and his leaf blower

Jennifer Sharpe

Gardener Martin Gutierres and his leaf blower.


Clinical psychologist Michael Gould sees the aesthetic of the immaculate yard, and the leaf blowing required to maintain it, as revealing a schism in Southern California's relationship to nature.

"We're taking care of our landscape, what's supposed to be like beautiful, and have this beautiful aesthetic, and help connect us to the earth and to what's real, and we're treating it in such an artificial and highly polluting way, it's asinine," said Gould.

Before I met Gould a year ago, I'd never thought much about leaf blowers. But as he talked about how his fixation with them began a decade ago, after moving from Northern California to Sherman Oaks, something I'd been suppressing started to resonate.

"There was not a day that would go by where I wouldn't feel irritated by the sounds of the gardeners just marauding the streets. Our normally quiet cul-de-sac like street, where there's very few cars driving by on a daily basis, was constantly noisy, so it was really getting to me," said Gould.

After his daughter was born with health challenges, Gould's leaf blower phobia peaked as he'd rush across the house to shut windows, blocking out the fumes he'd now so thoroughly researched. He decided it was time to take action.

By day, Dr. Gould screens the mental health of reality TV candidates. In his spare time, he and a friend (who happens to be a NASA engineer) tinker with advanced battery technologies, hoping to evolve the cleaner quieter cordless electric leaf blower into something more commercially viable.

"The batteries that come stock off the shelf to power a blower, that'll run you maybe eight minutes. Our battery pack lasts at least four times as long because these batteries are just a better quality altogether than the off the shelf NiCads," said Gould. "We use lithium technologies, so yeah, eight minutes versus like 35 minutes."

Gould charges the batteries using solar power, then snaps them into off-the-shelf equipment he's modified. Cordless electric string trimmers, leaf blowers, hedge trimmers and lawn mowers that get dispatched to two full-time maintenance crews driving around in Priuses. The company logo on the door says, Whisper Landscape Maintenance.

Though Gould's business has been steadily growing over the past five years, Whisper's services aren't cheap. His homemade batteries are expensive to build and require special handling to maintain, barriers that get in the way of but don't totally obscure his expansive vision.

"If you could convert 1,000 two-person garden crews, let's say they do 40 houses a week, that is 40,000 residences a year, that is a substantial reduction in pollution,"  said Gould. We could outfit 1,000 crews with these battery packs for a couple million dollars. Now that sounds like a lot, but when you look at the scale of society, a couple million dollars is nothing. Seems like a great deal."

When I checked back in with Gould a year later, he'd made significant strides forward. He was now working towards manufacturing his batteries in local factories, and had become the head of research and development for another company just as passionate about leaf blowers as he is.

Gould has teamed up with Dan Mabe, president of the Green Station L.A., a local zero-emissions gardening manufacturer whose electric mowers go head to head with a Black & Decker model, as the South Coast Air Quality Management District's mower of choice for their exchange programs.

"It was kind of like a simultaneous epiphany, if you will. Both of us in the Valley, riding up and down streets and seeing six, seven, eight gardeners operating at one time," said Dan Mabe. "It was amazing to us, how we said to each other, there's got to be a practical way to do this."

Next, the Green Station hopes to introduce the leaf blower of tomorrow.

"There's something in development now. The decibel levels are under 60, it's very lightweight, and it's going to probably run for more than an hour on one charge," said Mabe. "It's going to be very powerful, in fact it's going to rival the power of gas."

Ironically enough, the gas-powered leaf blower rose to popularity as an environmental savior. Though it was introduced to the U.S. by Japanese engineers in 1970, it wasn‚t until gardeners were prohibited from hosing leaves into piles during the California water crisis of the mid '70s, that they turned to the leaf blower. But now some gardeners, like Martin Gutierres, want to get away from them.

Gutierres says he hopes to get away from using gas-powered blowers, because he knows people who have sustained ear damage from prolonged use of the loud engines.

"People start to complain about the ears, they don't hear anything…" said Gutierres. "So I think that is a good thing to change, something different."

Dan Mabe is hauling an array of state of the art cordless electric equipment into my yard with the hopes that Gutierres and I will enroll in a city program the Green Station has helped instigate. But Gutierres and I are skeptical of the equipment.

"It's not heavy, so it's so easy to move." said Gutierres. "I don't see any difference, so I think it's good."

As the demonstration goes on, Gutierres and I are filled with excitement, greed and frustration. Since there isn't much lawn at my house, the equipment the city's offering would be wasted on us. But everything else we want and can't afford.

Out of deference to Santa Monica's ordinance, Mabe hasn't brought a leaf blower, which only makes Gutierres and me want one more. Days later, as I'm scheming over ways to save up so I can buy Gutierres a contraband electric leaf blower for Christmas, something in me breaks.

I just think: leaves on the ground. What's so wrong with leaves on the ground? I ask the tenants in the front house if they'd be willing to experiment with seeing if we can stand living among more leaves. After two weeks, no one's cracked. Psychologically, we may have turned a corner Dr. Gould would approve of.

"I do believe it would be healing for LA to be on the forefront of a movement such as this," said Gould. "My interest in going into the field of psychology was to figure out how people work and how to make their lives better. I want people to be happy, I want them to be happy! And there are ways to get there."

And in fact, my newly disheveled yard, now the messiest on the block does make me happy. Especially when I think about the letter a neighbor once wrote describing the leaves falling from one of my trees into her yard as filth. I figure, between the sight of my increased leaf filth and her filthy leaf blower, we might finally be just about even.



Listen to Part I of Jennifer Sharpe's brief series on leaf blowers in Santa Monica


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