TO: W. Calvin Horton, Town Manager
FROM: Bill Terry, Interim Public Works Director
SUBJECT: Use of Gas Powered Leaf Blowers within the Public Works Department
DATE: November 3, 2004
This memorandum responds to questions regarding the extent to which gas powered leaf blowers are used in routine Public Works operations.
Gas powered leaf blowers are an essential tool used by Public Works staff to accomplish a number of daily tasks. The Landscape Division at Public Works currently uses 18 leaf blowers on a regular basis. The banning of this tool would reduce operational efficiency and the level of service that could be provided. There would be a significant increase in the amount of labor that would be required to accomplish many routine tasks. We believe that the loss of gas powered leaf blowers would require us to allocate on the order of four to five times the amount of labor hours to perform typical landscape clean-up functions.
Impact on Town Operations
There are several specialized operations which are cost effective only because gas powered leaf blowers save a significant amount of time and provide a high level of service. The service level attainable with leaf blowers is characterized by speed, minimal residual debris left behind and minimal damage to underlying surfaces while the service level attainable using hand tools is characterized by longer completion time, incomplete removal of all debris and some minor damage to underlying surfaces. Some examples are discussed below.
Public Works provides clean-up services for major town supported events such as Apple Chill, Festifall, Fourth of July Fireworks at Kenan Stadium, UNC Basketball victory celebrations, and the annual Halloween event. Clean-up of trash and debris from these events would be much more time consuming and, thus expensive without the use of gas powered blowers.
Maintenance of Town facilities such as Fire Stations, the Library, Police Station, Community Centers, Public Housing units, and Town Hall also involve the use of gas powered leaf blowers. These facilities have a variety of surfaces such as concrete sidewalks, mulched areas, and gravel walkways. These surfaces require clean-up of grass clipping, leaves and other debris and gas powered leaf blowers enable workers to perform this task effectively and efficiently, especially in mulched and gravel areas that cannot easily be raked or swept. Leaf blowing, as compared to manual raking, has the added benefit of minimizing the damage to newly installed plants and flowers when removing leaves and other debris from landscaped areas.
One of our major challenges is to keep the 2.4 miles of walking surfaces on the Town’s greenways clear of leaves and debris. The same challenge exists on the several miles of paths in the Town parks. Gas powered leaf blowers help to make this effort possible within our limited landscape maintenance staffing.
Our landscape maintenance staff uses gas powered leaf blowers for removing grass clippings from sidewalks and parking lots after mowing adjacent lawn areas. It would be a very labor intensive task to do this clean-up using a broom. One employee usually completes this task using a gas powered leaf blower in about the same time that one other crew member is completing the mowing process.
The downtown area of Chapel Hill has a large amount of hard surface which requires clean-up on a daily basis. This cleaning involves the collection and removal of cigarette butts, paper products, leaves and other vegetative debris. At our current staffing level, using brooms and scoop shovels we could not clean this expansive area as quickly or as well as we now do with leaf blowers. We could do this work with manual tools; however, we would have to compensate for lost efficiencies by significantly reduce the frequency, adding additional grounds keeping staff, contracting for these services or some combination of these measures.
Fall leaf removal from town facilities is another use for gas powered leaf blowers. The time required for hand raking lawn areas would exceed our current capability and prevent us from completing this annual task. This would result in a gradual decline of turf areas and much of the grass in these areas would be lost over time. Gas powered leaf blowers facilitate the leaf removal process so that lawn areas can remain established and leaves can be collected and transported for composting. At the Memorial Cemetery, for example, a crew of 14 can remove the leaves from the area in about 4 hours using leaf blowers. The same 14 member crew would spend about 20 hours to accomplish this task using manual tools. At the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery a 14 member crews requires about two days to move all of the leaves using leaf blowers. The same 14 member crew would spend about 10 days (2 weeks) to accomplish this task using manual tools. The diversion of such a large portion of our grounds keeping staff for two weeks would prevent us from completing other required work. Therefore, we would probably have to explore other options such as eliminating some services or contracting out some services.
Relative Efficiency of Leaf Blowers as Compared to Manual Tools
We estimate that a single employee with one leaf blower is able to do what it would take five employees using rakes or brooms to do in the same amount of time. In other words, it would take one employee five times longer to do this work using a rake or broom instead of a leaf blower. Without the use of leaf blowers, the same level of labor effort would result in the completion of only about 20 percent of the assigned task. Furthermore, the use of rakes or brooms is much more physically demanding than the use of a blower, greatly adding to the fatigue factor of doing this type of work and further degrading productivity. We would expect to see an increase in muscle strain and repetitive motion injuries within the grounds keeping workforce.
During the growing season a typical three person landscaping crew using a blower for about one hour a day would need two additional employees to do clean-up work using rakes and brooms in order for the same amount of work to be done. Each person on a two person facilities clean-up crew uses a blower on the average of three hours a day. To get the same amount of work done using brooms instead of blowers would take approximately nine additional people. A five person mowing crew at the Police Station would normally have two people finishing up the job of blowing off the hard surfaces. To clean-up these hard surfaces with brooms instead of blowers, would take ten additional people to complete the job in the same time frame.
The fall leaf season provides for the largest increase in labor demands on the division if leaf blowers are not used. At this time of year we spend a significant percentage of our grounds keeping staff resources on leaf collection and removal operations at the Town’s buildings, parks, greenways and cemeteries. As noted about, the additional time required to complete this task using manual tools would require us to consider the elimination of some services if no additional funding is available to support this work or the contracting out of some services if additional funding could be made available. We estimate that the cost for leaf removal services would increase by at least a factor of 4 whether the service is provided with additional in-house resources or by contracting out the service.
Banning leaf blowers would have an immediate negative impact on the level of service that is provided town wide by the Landscape Division of Public Works. Over time, it could be possible to restore service levels by adding a significant number of groundskeepers to accomplish these services using simple hand tools; however, the cost of providing these services manually would be very high.
Gas powered leaf blowers provide significant operational efficiencies when compared to completion of the same tasks with rakes, brooms, and water hoses. These manual tools can be used efficiently on certain tasks and we do use rakes and brooms to perform certain tasks where it is reasonable to do so; however, they are simply inadequate for many of the large scale leaf collection and trash removal operations that we are expected to conduct every year.