Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Today, we have a question from a listener:

TODD: My name is Todd Penoyer, I'm from Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

Megan: He owns a business.

TODD: I do maintenance for retail shopping centers in southeastern Massachusetts.

Megan: And he uses a lot of power tools to do his job.

TODD: ...drill, grinder, circular saw, hedge trimmer, weed whacker...

Megan: About half of his tools are electric, and the other half are gas-powered. He wonders whether it’s worth replacing the gas ones with electric versions.

Megan: We had Max Kozlov and Fatima Husain from our Possibly Team look into this question. Welcome, Max and Fatima! 

Max: Hi, Megan! 

Fatima: Hello! 

Megan Hall: So, first, what kind of power tools are out there for Todd to choose from?

Max: Todd has three main options: corded, battery-powered, and gas-powered. 

Fatima: Corded tools plug straight into an outlet, while battery-powered tools are cordless and are charged using electricity, just like your cell phone.

Megan: Why would someone want to choose an electric tool over a gas one?

Max: Well, burning fossil fuels releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

Fatima: And they’re not just any greenhouse gases:

BULL: The downside of gas-powered tools is that they’re less regulated than automobiles, so the emissions are more problematic.

Max: That’s Christopher Bull, an engineering professor at Brown University. He says that many gas-powered tools use what are called “two-stroke engines.”

Megan: What are those?

Fatima: As opposed to the four-stroke engines that cars use, two-stroke engines slosh together a mixture of gas and oil in the combustion chamber because they don’t have a separate lubrication system.

Max: These engines spew out as much as a third of that fuel unburned, which releases pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and hydrocarbons into the air.

Megan: How much pollution are we talking about here?

Fatima: A 2020 study by the California Air Resources Board found that engines such as the ones in gas-powered leaf blowers create a lot of smog-forming gases

Max: More than the state’s 14.4 million passenger cars combined!

Megan: But what does that mean for someone who’s just using a leaf blower a few times a year? 

Fatima: Even that can create a lot of pollution. Think about how long someone typically uses a leaf blower. Let’s say an hour or so.

Max: According to the same study, that would release the same amount of smog-forming pollution as driving a twenty-seventeen Toyota Camry for more than a thousand miles.

Megan: Whaaat! Really? So, are electric power tools much better?

Fatima: Yes. Even if your state makes electricity using power plants that burn fossil fuels, those plants have scrubbers to filter out most of those pollutants. That means they’re still cleaner than gas-powered tools.

Megan: What about the noise?

Fatima: Gas-powered tools are much louder. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that using the average gas-powered leaf blower for two hours can have a harmful impact on your hearing.

Max: Some places like Washington, D.C. and Palo Alto have even banned gas-powered leaf blowers because they’re so loud.

Megan: So what would you recommend for Todd?

Fatima: I’d say, try buying either tools with cords or ones that are battery-powered. Between these, it just depends on how long he’ll need to use them and if he’ll have reliable access to an electrical outlet.

Max: And Todd might be surprised by his options. In the last decade, there’s been a surge in tools that can be powered using electricity — even larger ones like snow blowers or lawn mowers!

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Max and Fatima!

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.