A look at California’s ban on gas-powered equipment

(Photo: Getty Images: Robin Gentry)
(Photo: Getty Images: Robin Gentry)

When one of the largest states in the nation bans the sale of gasoline-powered lawn care and landscaping equipment, landscape company owners should definitely take notice, industry advocates say. What happens in the Golden State often works its way to the rest of the nation.

“This won’t stay in California,” says Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). “There’s a significant environmental lobby, and they’re going to want to replicate this everywhere.”

The law, signed into effect in October, directs the California Air Resources Board (CARB) to create rules banning the sale of new gasoline-powered lawn tools, including mowers, handheld equipment and any new gas-powered equipment using small off-road engines, by 2024, or whenever feasible. Companies will still be able to use existing nonelectric equipment.

Assembly member Marc Berman, a Democrat representing Silicon Valley’s Menlo Park, argues that the law is necessary to fight global warming and to protect landscape industry employees.

“Leaf blowers, lawn mowers and other equipment with small gas-powered engines emit staggering levels of air pollution,” Berman says. “These noisy machines are terribly disruptive to communities across California, and the workers who breathe in exhaust from this equipment day in and day out face disproportionate health risks.”

The CLCA and the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) argue that the law doesn’t account for landscaping companies, and they argue that battery-powered, commercial-grade equipment won’t be powerful enough or have long enough service life on a charge to be practical for years to come.

Incentive dollars

Berman notes that the legislation includes $30 million to fund equipment upgrades for small businesses, and CARB has other grant programs that could offset gas-to-electric upgrade costs.

NALP Vice President of Government Relations Andrew Bray and Giarde say it isn’t nearly enough. California has about 12,000 licensed lawn care contractors and as many as three times as many unlicensed ones. Each company has several gas-powered tools, so that $30 million won’t go very far, Giarde says.

“Theoretically, CARB has more money, but there are a lot of hands out already for those funds,” Giarde says, referring to grant programs aimed at cutting emissions at ports, for commercial truck fleets or for agricultural businesses. “I don’t have any confidence that industry is going to see any more than the $30 million already allocated.”

CARB power

California’s Air Resources Board is arguably the second most powerful environmental regulator in the country, second only to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For decades, CARB has set stricter emissions rules for cars and trucks than the EPA, and more than a dozen states copy those regulations, putting more than half of Americans under CARB rules.

Landscaping industry associations in Northeastern states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania say they haven’t seen any legislation calling for similar laws outside of California.

Bray says every landscape professional in the country should be paying attention to the issue and politely sharing concerns with elected officials if they see local or state bans moving into their areas.

Opportunities abound

Bray and Girade are right to have concerns about how this new law will impact the industry, but many OEM manufacturers of battery-powered equipment say they see the adversity in California as an opportunity for the green industry nationwide to respond to the demand set by municipalities, corporations and universities for quieter and low-emissions equipment. Roger Phelps, communications manager for Stihl, says being proactive provides new opportunities for the industry.

“If a landscaper wants to continue to do business, they have to adjust,” he says. “I think a lot of landscapers offer both (gas- and battery-powered equipment), and that’s how they remain really competitive in the market. We’ll offer our gas services, or if you want us to operate before 9 a.m., we’ll have that because of our battery-powered equipment. We’ll carve out a whole segment of our business.”

Keith Coultrap, Husqvarna’s director of professional products, says it’s this bigger focus on sustainability and the environmental impacts of gas-powered equipment that’s pushing these municipalities to reconsider equipment use.

“States, cities and towns around the country are working to reduce their impacts on the environment, including efforts related to lawn care and landscape maintenance,” he says. “California’s new bill regarding gas-powered lawn equipment poses both challenges and opportunities for the industry.”

Phelps also says it’s these opportunities with battery-powered equipment that can turn a challenge into a benefit for a labor-strapped industry searching for workers to keep up with demand for services.

“One of our fastest-growing customers is the state parks,” he says. “We have a great relationship with America’s state parks. They rely a lot on seasonal labor. You can’t really depend on seasonal labor to start equipment properly or learn how to mix two-cycle fuel. I give them a piece of equipment; I give them a battery. Push the button. How many bars, put the battery in, pull the trigger. You’re done. That’s about as easy as it gets.”

Phelps says this ease of use is what’s enticing many landscape businesses to take a strong look at battery-powered equipment.

“Landscapers are saying ‘Wow! This is easier to use,’” he says. “It has all the market benefits, low emissions, low noise. As we see fuel prices climb up to $4 a gallon… all of a sudden, that 5 cents an hour for your watt hours starts to look pretty good. I definitely see more and more pros moving into this area not necessarily because they’re forced to but because they’ve run the numbers, and they’ve figured out that it is beneficial to their business.”

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