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Smart choices

Weapons in the leaf wars

Electric blowers, some of them cheaper and all of them quieter, offer a choice that makes sense, and screens may be best option for keeping gutters clear

Consumer Reports / September 26, 2010

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Gas leaf blowers are still the fastest way to clear a yard full of leaves. But Consumer Reports’ latest tests of more than 30 models show that lower prices and comparable performance for the best electric blowers make them a smart choice for most homeowners, especially if you care about noise.

Toro’s corded-electric Ultra Blower Vac 51599, $70, and Super Blower Vac 51592, $60, swept away leaves and loosened stubborn fragments almost as well as the top gas blowers. And while some gas models are less noisy than others, electrics are quietest overall.

Keeping your neighbors happy might be the best reason to choose a less-raucous blower. A quieter engine and a smaller impeller made the $230 Kawaski KRB300A backpack blower the least noisy gas backpack model tested. It’s among a growing breed of relatively compact, lower-priced models that are essentially hand-held blowers with backpack straps. But don’t expect the power you’d get with most full-sized backpack blowers.

How to choose a leaf blower
Know the law. A few areas prohibit gas blowers, and a handful in California ban all blowers, no matter how quiet the machine is. Check with your community or go to www.ConsumerReports.org/blowernoise for a nationwide list of regulations.

Decide whether you need to vacuum. Many hand-held blowers also pick up yard debris. But their relatively small tubes limit how much you can suck up at one time.

Factor in other features. Flatter nozzles tend to be better for sweeping leaves, while rounded ones are usually best for loosening them. Adjustable speeds let you power down around fragile garden beds, and a clear gas tank shows fuel level.

Look for labor savers. Hand-held models that scored well in CR’s handling tests have better balance and, often, a second grip for added control. A convenient shutoff switch lets the user cut the motor or engine quickly. And while the wheeled Little Wonder 9502, $700, is a heavyweight, its pneumatic tires took some of the fight out of pushing it over uneven terrain.

Skip dirt-cheap models. At less than $40, the corded Weed Eater WEB160 and Homelite UT42100 may be tempting for sweeping smooth driveways and other light-duty chores. But CR’s Ratings show that spending a little more buys a lot more performance. Also be wary of cordless-electric blowers, which pack even less power than the wimpiest corded models.

Gutter Guards: do-it-yourself systems beat the pros
Systems that promise to keep your gutters leaf-free can easily cost thousands of dollars. But CR’s 16 months of outdoor testing showed that a low-priced screen may be all it takes to keep out leaves and other debris.

CR tested professionally installed and do-it-yourself products sold at Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other major retailers to see how well they kept out maple leaves, pine needles, and other gutter-cloggers. Here are CR’s results:

Pros disappoint in a downpour. Most of the professionally installed systems use a surface-tension design, where water is supposed to cling to the surface and flow into the gutters while leaves pass over and fall to the ground. Though all were impressive at shedding debris, even the top-scoring LeafFilter screen was only middling at containing a severe downpour.

Convenience costs. At $20 to $30 per foot, the pro-installed systems tested would cost $3,000 to $5,000 for the roughly 160 feet needed on an average-size home. But you’ll pay less than $100 if you install the CR Best Buy Amerimax 85198 or 854054 yourself. You’ll still save thousands even if you add in the roughly $100 to $500 a contractor will charge to put in a do-it-yourself system.

Some inserts underwhelm. Most do-it-yourself gutter guards were easy to install. For inserts, you simply cut the foam or bend the brush and press it into the gutter. But none of the inserts were good at keeping out debris.

Consumer Reports writes columns, reviews, and ratings on cars, appliances, electronics, and other consumer goods. Previous stories can be found at consumerreports.org.