Need a Leaf Blower? Think Features

Credit: Sears HoldingsMost of us wish our lawns looked better, but next month brings autumn to the rescue with a welcome coating of leaves. Still, for the sake of next year’s lawn, we ironically can’t leave them there—or this year’s turf will look great by comparison.

So if you’re in the market for a new leaf blower, here are some helpful features and extras of handheld models that help you get the job done more easily. Then you might even have time for some reseeding, along with laying down a healthy coating of fertilizer, before winter shows up.

Vacuuming

If you haven’t before had a leaf blower that can also suck up leaves, either standard or as an option, think carefully. Yes, such models can indeed make the pile smaller, important if you like to compost. And if you bag leaves, you’ll fit what remains into fewer of them. But if the point is saving time, forget about it. Anyone who lives around lots of trees knows that mixed in with that leaf pile are plenty of twigs, acorns and other debris that gets caught in the leaf blower’s impeller—the blade that draws in air—and makes you stop to get it all out.

Credit: Weed Eater
Weed Eater’s metal impeller

Metal impeller

If you’re undeterred and want a leaf blower that vacuums, too, look for a model with a metal impeller. It tends to better withstand the punishment of stuck twigs, acorns and other debris. Among corded-electric model, these include the capable Toro Ultra Plus 51621, $100, but blowers with metal impellers needn’t cost this much.

Variable speed

Many gas-powered leaf blowers have an adjustable throttle. On electric models, it might be on a dial. However you find it, variable speed lets you blow more gently around anything fragile or, say, put the finishing touches on a pile before your dog or the kids jump in. If you’re vacuuming, it also lets you turn down the suction around, for example, gravel.

Speed lock

While you’re shoving lots of leaves around and need to show them who’s boss, you might want nothing less than maximum power. For those minutes, it helps to be able to lock the machine at that speed, which on a gas model also keeps you from having to hold the throttle down. Many gas handhelds from Stihl have this feature.

Multiple nozzle tips

A flattened nozzle is fine for most leaves, but for moist leaves that are stubbornly holding onto the lawn, you’ll want a round nozzle tip. Some leaf blowers come with both, though you might find yourself sticking to the preferred one over time.

Credit: Stihl
Stihl’s gutter extension

Gutter extension

Models that accept this feature, typically an extra-cost option, have a blower tube that detaches. The gutter extension, several feet long and with a hook-shaped nozzle at the end, helps keep you off ladders. That saves time and could keep you out of the hospital, too. Our recommendation: a good hat and waterproof windbreaker. If leaves are stuck up there, there’s probably water, too.

On any model you’re thinking of buying, try it out for weight and comfort in its grip—some blowers have a second handle. Check where the power switch is and how easy it is to switch off if you’re in a hurry. And if it’s a gas model, look for a translucent gas tank, which helps you notice when it’s running low of fuel.

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Ethanol in Your Fuel: Just Say No

Ethanol free fuel
TruFuel ethanol-free fuel at Home Depot

Gasoline with 15% ethanol (E15) has been offered for sale in America since mid-2012. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t addressed the question of how to keep the average joe from putting it into lawn mowers, generators and other outdoor power equipment.

It isn’t that the agency didn’t know that gasoline with higher than 10% ethanol was bad for small engines. The Department of Energy studied that very thing in a 2008 report (PDF), with a focus not only on vehicles but also outdoor gear, including pressure washers, leaf blowers, generators and string trimmers. Among problems the researchers found when using E15 or blends with even more ethanol:

  • A Honda generator idled erratically while running fuel with 20% ethanol (E20).
  • Three Weed Eater Featherlite leaf blowers running with fuels higher than E10 failed or would not idle.
  • A Stihl FS 90 string trimmer ran at such a high idle on E15 and E20 that its clutch engaged by itself.

With all machines tested, average exhaust temperatures rose proportionately to ethanol content. In other words, the more ethanol the fuel contained, the hotter these products ran.

None of this apparently swayed the EPA, which merely says that E15, by law, cannot be used in any engines other than those in cars model-year 2001 or later, except for those of flex-fuel vehicles. But unless you’re paying attention, richer ethanol blends than E10 are bound to make it into your gear eventually. Consider, for instance, a so-called blender pump—one pump used to deliver everything from E10 to E85, the level used in flex-fuel vehicles. Even if you chose E10 to fill up your gas can, if the customer before you bought E85, what remains in the hose will make it into your can, and ultimately into your mower, string trimmer or chain saw.

But you don’t have to take it. Two options:

At the Pump

They’re not easy to find, but some gas stations do include ethanol-free fuel (called E0) as an option. Websites such as pure-gas.org and Buy Real Gas list stations that sell it. And if you live near any kind of seaport, you’ll find that gas stations serving boat owners tend to offer ethanol-free gas. In all cases, however, call first—and expect this fuel to cost more than you’re used to paying.

On the Shelf

It’s taken a few years, but it’s now hard to walk into a home center or Sears outdoor-gear department and not see multiple brands of canned ethanol-free fuel. Some is for handheld machines that require a 40:1 or 50:1 fuel-to-oil ratio; the gas includes both stabilizer and the right amount of oil for two-stroke engines. And some are for four-cycles engines like those found in mowers, snowblowers, and generators. (These products also include stabilizer.) One great feature: It lasts two years once opened. TruFuel might be the most common brand, though Sears sells it under the Craftsman brand. And most manufacturers now sell E0 in their own brands, such as Echo, Husqvarna and Stihl.

This fuel is even more expensive than marine fuel—a quart can typically costs about $6. But for a little perspective, don’t think about the national average retail price, $2.225 per gallon as of yesterday. Think instead of how much you pay for that wonderful new cold-brew coffee at Starbucks.

At an average $3.60 for a 16-ounce serving, it costs $7.20 per quart—not counting a tip for the barista—which is $1.20 more than the TruFuel. Sure, the coffee is bound to taste much better than a fluid that was never intended for human consumption. But your body can’t tell the difference between Starbucks and Maxwell House. Use only pure gasoline in well-maintained outdoor power gear, and it will thank you for years.

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