April 26, 2019
Bill Howard

Elon Musk Announces a Leaf Blower, Controversy Ensues

Outside of Washington, or Hollywood, there are few people better qualified than Elon Musk when it comes to moving air. So it was no surprise when Musk said Tesla will develop a quiet, electric — obviously electric — leaf blower. This announcement came in what was one of Tesla’s busiest weeks ever, with a media-analyst “Autonomy Day” update Monday on AutoPilot and self-driving, and then Tesla’s abysmal, red-ink earnings report Wednesday. Others said the had the idea first, shared it with Musk, and called on the Tesla CEO to share credit. That included Rainn Wilson, otherwise known as Dwight Schrute on The Office.

Meanwhile, of course, the plain fact is that electric leaf blowers are already available, as are electric lawn mowers and string trimmers. What holds them all back is range anxiety. The best get the job done on a small urban lot, but not out in the suburbs, and certainly not as the go-to technology for lawn-and-garden services.

On April 23, the quiet day between Autonomy Day and the earnings report, Musk tweeted:

Although, the previous week, Wilson had tweeted Musk asking:

Afterwards, Wilson tweeted, “… give me some credit,” and Musk replied, “Nope.” Musk could have added, “Nice idea, it exists already, and Tesla will make them better, and quieter.”

 

Consumer Reports‘ top-rated (by score) Kobalt (Lowe’s) KHB-400 series leaf blower: $250 with 80-volt, 2-Ah battery, $150 as a bare tool.

Rainn Wilson (Dwight Schrute of the Office) asked Elon for a quiet battery leaf blower.

All this back-and-forth is beside the point: In addition to gasoline-power leaf blowers and corded electric leaf blowers, there are battery-electric leaf blowers on the market in both handheld and backpack versions. They come from makers including Kobalt (Lowe’s), Craftsman (formerly Sears), GreenWorks, EGO, Echo, Troy-Bilt, Worx, DeWalt, Stihl, and Ryobi. As more people work from home — being a young parent, or out of work at home counts, too — more people are affected by the whine of lawn-and-garden crews on top of remodeling crews, roofers, and tree companies. Ironically, the wealthier the neighborhood, the more that noisy work gets done by crews every day of the week. File that under #fwp, or first world problem.

For what it’s worth, the Consumer Reports ratings of leaf blowers gives the highest score, 86 of a possible 100, to a Kobalt ( KHB 400B-06) 80-volt battery handheld blower and a gasoline-power Husqvarna (350BT) backpack module.

In fact, most all makers of battery-powered power tools have, or soon will, have leaf blowers (or at least blowers for moving dust and scraps around a jobsite). The reason: Once you buy your first battery power tool, and a couple of batteries, you’re likely to buy the same brand for the next purchase. Take me. Most of my home workshop uses battery tools: circular saw, Sawzall, multi-tool, impact wrench, two drills, two flashlights and, yes, one wimpy 18-volt blower that moves leaves off the back porch and also gets charcoal briquettes glowing in record time, but can’t clear a one-acre yard. Also, 10 batteries. Once I bought that first Milwaukee drill and two batteries, Milwaukee owned me.

EGO 6000 series battery-power backpack blower, was essentially tied (85 vs. 86) with the gas-power Husqvarna 350BT backpack.

If there’s an opening for Elon Musk and Tesla, it’s not to invent the battery-power leaf blower, but take it to the next level: fit and finish, usability, durability, and quick charge. Except he’d be getting into a work already in progress. Many batteries quick-charge in 30 minutes, and contractors keep multiple batteries charging so recharge time is almost a non-issue. Contractors also expect one-day or immediate repairs on equipment if it’s a critical item; a lawn crew may have 3-5 leaf blowers on the truck but only one $12,000 Scag Turf Tiger zero-turn mower. So for commercial gear, Tesla would have to partner with local dealers and repair shops, something Tesla absolutely isn’t doing for car sales.

Most likely, Tesla’s opportunity is for the homeowner/handyman who doesn’t mind paying for high quality. Tesla could also partner with a third party and provide access to its battery know-how, possibly produce “Powered by Tesla” battery modules that go on someone else’s cutters, blowers, or saws. Tesla also could create a smaller version of the Tesla Powerwall to charge batteries.

But what everyone living in suburbia — or urban areas with grass that calls for cutting, edging, and a blower — wants most is quiet. Some towns have enacted maximum-noise-level ordinances for power equipment already. In general, dumping two-stroke gas engines for four-stroke yard equipment engines makes them quieter and less polluting. Battery power would drop emissions dramatically and make the devices even quieter. If Elon Musk can put rockets in space and solar panels on rooftops, he could put batteries into leaf blowers and lawn mowers.

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