If your lawn is just a touch too large for you to do your leaf cleanup with just a rake alone, we recommend the Black & Decker BV6600 High Performance Blower/Vacuum/Mulcher (about $80), a corded electric handheld blower that offers leaf-moving power on a par with that of many gas models for a fraction of the cost.
We came to this conclusion after spending almost 80 hours on research and testing (30 of which were for this 2015 update) involving 13 leading leaf blowers and three pro landscapers with 52 years of combined experience among them. This year’s pick unseats last year’s recommendation, the Toro Ultra 51609 ($70), which has been discontinued. When we tested the Black & Decker against new Toro models, we found it had the same great blowing power and superior ease of use overall. Although it weighs only a few ounces less than the new Toros, the Black & Decker offers much better balance, which reduces arm strain while you’re moving leaves. Black & Decker’s padded handle is more comfortable than Toro’s, and the variable speed dial is easier to access one-handed. You can quickly modify the Black & Decker’s airflow (if, say, you’re dropping the speed to blow leaves off a mulched flower bed), whereas that one-handed adjustment isn’t possible with the Toro. In addition, the Black & Decker comes with three nozzle attachments (a reducer, an oscillating nozzle, and a leaf scraper), and unlike with the Toro, changing the attachments on the Black & Decker’s blower tube is easy.
Though the Black & Decker’s leaf-moving power is comparable to that of gas-powered blowers, it comes with none of the smelly exhaust, irritating noise, or messy and labor-intensive maintenance involved with a two-stroke engine. At just about 8 pounds, it’s a few pounds lighter than similar handheld gas blowers—and at $80, it’s about $50 to $100 cheaper, too.
If the Black & Decker is unavailable, we also like the Toro 51619 Ultra Blower Vac (about $75). This model is Toro’s closest successor to our previous (now discontinued) recommendation in this guide. Its great leaf-moving power is nearly identical to that of the Black & Decker, so it’s satisfying overall. But when we compared the models side by side, the Toro was a little heavier and out of balance, putting added strain on the wrist. It also has a tedious system for switching out the reducing nozzles that requires the removal of the entire blowing tube and the guard that protects the underside of the blower.
One drawback of the Black & Decker and the Toro (and any other electric blower) is that such models need to be tethered to an outlet, which isn’t practical for every property. So if you have to go farther than a 50-foot extension cord will allow, the cordless battery-powered DeWalt DCBL790H1 40V MAX Lithium Ion XR Brushless Blower (about $340) is a better fit. It offers power comparable to that of our corded picks, and with a 22-minute run time, it has twice the stamina of the four other cordless models we tested. We also liked its pro-grade durability and beefy design; it feels tougher than the other cordless (and corded) models we tried. At 12 pounds, the DeWalt is about 3 to 4 pounds heavier than our corded pick and the other cordless blowers, but because of the ergonomics of the handle and the design of the blower tube, it causes minimal arm strain.
If your property is more than an acre with densely wooded areas, and you often need to blast a heap of leaves 100 feet across a field, we suggest going with the STIHL BR350 ($350 and available only from authorized brick-and-mortar dealers). You can certainly find more powerful blowers, but after an initial test against four competitors in 2014 and a full year of long-term field testing by pro landscapers, the experts agreed that the midrange BR350 has all of the power that anyone would really need. “This one puts a lot of air right where you want it,” one of them told us. In addition to its significant leaf-moving ability, the BR350 is chock-full of smart design features, which led a landscaper to say, “It just seems like less things are going to get broken.” Because the STIHL is gas-powered, you’ll have to learn how to properly use, store, and maintain a two-stroke gas engine (not to mention how to diagnose and fix any issues that may arise), so you really need to have a lot of ground to cover to justify purchasing this blower.
Our 2015 update to this guide contains a number of changes. In addition to our new picks for corded and cordless models, we’ve eliminated a couple of picks. In last year’s guide we recommended the Ryobi RY08420A ($200) as a backpack budget option based on positive reviews and strong initial feedback from a team of landscapers. Unfortunately, our landscapers’ long-term tests revealed some weak points, including problems starting the blower with a hot engine.
Also, due to the solid run time and power of the cordless DeWalt, we believe we no longer need our recommendation for a smaller backpack model, the Husqvarna 130BT Backpack Blower ($230). The DeWalt has similar blowing power and none of the hassles of a gas engine. One thing remains the same as last year, however: We don’t think gas-powered handhelds are the right choice for anybody, and we don’t have a pick in that category.
Before we handed our leaf blowers over to a landscaping crew for testing, we spent hours reading everything we could on the topic. We spent most of our time with Consumer Reports’s massive leaf blower guide (subscription required) and Roy Berendsohn’s impressive collection of articles at Popular Mechanics, most specifically his two roundups of backpack blowers (here and here) and his review of handheld blowers. Berendsohn has been testing lawn equipment for decades and is one of the most respected voices on the topic. A review by Sal Vaglica of This Old House also proved to be helpful, as did a piece in WIRED that looked at four different blowers.
In addition to our reading, we consulted with two landscapers: Kevin Walker of K.G.W. Services out of Carlisle, Massachusetts, for in-field testing, and Chad Crosby of West Michigan Lawn Services LLC for interviews. We also had a long conversation with Dan Pherson, a product manager at STIHL USA.1 And I’ve personally spent many hours using leaf blowers—even before researching and testing products for this guide for the past two years. Currently I own a 15½-acre property in rural New England that has plenty of leaves to manage.
If you live on less than a quarter acre, clean up after only one or two trees, and don’t mind a workout, a rake will be your best option (see our recommendation for one). If raking takes more than an hour and it’s more labor than you’re willing to deal with, a leaf blower is a better choice.
Leaf blowers not only work faster than rakes and take less effort, but they can also perform many tasks that rakes and mowers can’t. With the right nozzle attachments, blowers can clean pine needles from a gutter, blow dust out of your garage, clear grass clippings from a driveway, or get leaves out of your thick ground-cover plants like Vinca or Pachysandra.
Another way to deal with leaves is to use a lawnmower with a mulching function (for more, see our pick). These mowers can slice and dice leaves into small pieces, leaving them behind to compost and provide nutrients to your lawn. This is a good solution for lawn areas, but you’ll still need something for clearing walkways, flower beds, and stonework.
To understand what makes a good leaf blower, it helps to know how to use the device properly. A leaf blower is not a rake, and it won’t replace a rake if you use it correctly. Rather, it’s intended to make raking easier.
Longtime landscaper Kevin Walker told us that “[many] people use blowers to move large leaf piles across a yard, but that’s not what they’re good for. They’re good for getting under leaves and debris and getting them up and in one place.” In fact, for his own crews, he purchases “the lightest, smallest commercial grade ones I can find.”
Walker instructs his employees to use the blowers to pile the leaves, after which he has them rake the piles onto tarps that they then drag into the woods or wherever. Then, instead of blasting that one stubborn patch of leaves until it finally moves, they go back to it with a rake. If you blow leaves using this method, you’ll operate your blower for less time, which means less gas (or battery or electricity) used, less wear on the machine, less noise, and less emissions. It also means that regardless of your property size, you can get by with a small or midsize blower.
David Beaulieu, writing at About.com, has a detailed piece on how to use a leaf blower, including strategies on how to approach a large lawn and how to use the vacuum mode, which comes in handy for tight spots—under bushes or decks, for instance.
Oh, and always use ear protection. We measured most of our test models at above or around 90 dBA (A-weighted decibels), which is the point at which noise starts to become a health issue according to OSHA.
Our initial research in 2014 revealed four prominent styles of leaf blower: corded, cordless, gas handheld, and gas backpack. Each one comes with a unique set of trade-offs that make it ideal for a different set of circumstances.
Corded (electric) blowers, the least expensive option, offer power comparable to that of many gas blowers, but with less weight, less irritating noise, no emissions, and no maintenance. I’ve owned a corded blower for about eight years, and when I’m not using it, I just shut it off and toss it in a corner of the garage. Many corded blowers have a shredder/vacuum feature, which can suck up leaves and chop them up into tiny pieces, kind of like a quieter, engine-free version of a mulching lawnmower.2 According to STIHL’s Dan Pherson, corded blowers are good for “general use, smaller properties, condos, a small back yard, and cleaning up the deck.” They’re usually not much quieter than gas handheld models on a decibel level, but we think the tone of the noise on corded models is far less irritating to the ears.
The best battery-powered cordless blowers offer power similar to that of the corded models but with a much higher degree of maneuverability, so they’re perfect for large lawns with few trees, small properties with multiple trees, gutter cleaning, and blowing a light snow off the deck. They’re also the quietest blowers. As Pherson told us, “when it comes to low noise, it’s tough to beat lithium-ion cordless.”
Gas handheld blowers have solid power and no tether, but they’re pretty hard to use—in fact, our general recommendation is to skip them and step up to a backpack model if you can afford to. Here’s why: On average, gas handhelds weigh around 10 pounds, making them 2 to 3 pounds heavier than similar corded models. Blowing leaves can take a while, and 30 or 40 minutes swinging and pivoting a gas engine at arm’s length is difficult to do. With backpacks, you’ll get at least the same power (and usually more), but with much better ergonomics.
Backpack blowers offer the best in power and ergonomics for medium to large yards. By relocating the weight to the user’s back, backpack blowers can have a bigger, stronger engine and a larger gas tank for longer run time without putting a lot of strain on the user. The drawbacks of a backpack blower are cost and maintenance. For the most part, backpack models start in the $250 range and rise to more than $500. The small to midsize models (such as our pick) generally cost less than $350. As with all gas blowers, handheld or backpack, they can be loud and stinky, they require proper off-season storage, and you have to mix gas and oil precisely to fuel them up. Concerns over emissions (and noise) have led many cities and neighborhoods to restrict or ban gas-powered leaf blowers entirely.
In the end, we narrowed our hands-on 2014 test roster to one corded blower (Toro 51609 Ultra Blower), two cordless blowers (EGO 56-Volt and Ryobi 40-Volt), two small backpack blowers (STIHL BR200 and Husqvarna 130BT), and three midsize backpack blowers (Ryobi RY08420, STIHL BR350, and Husqvarna 350BT).
For the 2015 update, we did another 30 hours of research and tested five new models. For corded blowers, we looked at the Toro 51619 Ultra Blower Vac (about $75), the Toro 51621 UltraPlus Blower Vac (about $100), and the Black & Decker BV6600 (about $80). On the cordless side, we tested the Kobalt 80-Volt Max Medium-Duty Cordless Electric Leaf Blower (about $200) and the DeWalt DCBL790H1 40V MAX Lithium Ion XR Brushless Blower (about $340).
In addition to Kevin Walker, a landscaper with 31 years of experience, we were joined by two of his crew (Anthony, with nine years of experience, and Justin, with 12 years of experience) for our hands-on testing of the gas blowers. Each landscaper fueled up, started, and used each blower for an extended period of time, and all three inspected each unit from tip to tail.
We also recorded decibel readings of each blower that we tested. Using a Triplett SoniChek sound meter, we took the max decibels from the user’s ear during normal operation of the blower with the power set to full. We discovered that they all pretty sound loud and measure pretty similarly in terms of dBA,3 but that different tones were either more or less annoying.
We tested the BV6600 directly against two of this year’s Toro models and found that it had the same power; it felt better in the hands, too. It weighs a few ounces less than the new Toro models, but it feels much lighter due to its spot-on balance. The variable speed adjustment dial sits close to the handle, so you can control the airspeed and the blower with one hand (a feat that is impossible on the Toro blowers). Both the Black & Decker and the Toro products come with a reducing nozzle that focuses the airstream for blowing out tight spots like stone walls, but on the Black & Decker, switching these components out is far simpler. The Black & Decker, like all quality electric blowers, also comes with a cord holder, so you won’t yank out the blower’s plug while walking it around the yard. Overall, no other corded blower we tested combined this level of power with such easy-to-use features.
The Black & Decker has blowing power on par with that of many gas handheld models, so it’s effective at getting under leaves and moving them into a pile. Priced at around $80, the Black & Decker is on the higher side of the corded blower range (most are $50 to $80) but far less expensive than any cordless or gas-powered models. With its impressive power and easy handling, it’s a worthy investment.
With any leaf blower, the analysis has to start with raw leaf-moving ability, and the Black & Decker BV6600 is impressive in this regard. We tested it on the matted leaf bed of a forest floor and had no problems getting under the damp leaves, lifting them, and moving them forward. So it wasn’t surprising that the blower easily moved a pile of wet grass clippings across a yard, too.
When we used the Black & Decker next to this year’s Toros (the 51619 and 51621), we found that all three had similar power. On paper, they also have the same features—but we learned in side-by-side comparisons that the Black & Decker executes those features more effectively.
While we were testing the blowers, the Black & Decker felt noticeably lighter and better balanced. At 8 pounds, it’s only a little lighter than the Toro models, but the weight distribution makes all the difference. The body of the Black & Decker is simple and stripped of anything superfluous. The handle consists of only the curved gripping area and a front pommel handle. Toro, on the other hand, bulks up its blowers with a secondary pommel handle at the rear of the main handle. You use this second handle only while the unit is in vacuum mode, so it’s unnecessary when you’re using the tool as a blower. Black & Decker smartly puts this secondary vacuum handle on the vacuum tube, so it’s attached to the tool only when you have it in vac mode.
Because of the arc of the handle, you can choose where the nozzle points just by where you grab the tool. If you hold the rear of the handle, the nozzle naturally points downward; if you grab the front of the handle, it naturally points horizontal. Thanks to this design, you suffer little to no wrist strain if you’re working at waist height—say, blowing out a truck bed or getting leaves off a shrub. Overall, the superb ergonomics stem from the fact that the tool is so light and easy to maneuver compared with a bulkier gas-powered tool.
As with other highly regarded corded blowers, the Black & Decker’s variable speed dial gives you total control over the rate of airflow. Because the dial is so close to the handle—it’s integrated into the on/off switch as part of a single dial—you can make this adjustment on the fly by just dropping a finger and nudging the dial. If you’re cleaning out a flower bed or blowing leaves around a freshly mulched tree, having the ability to dial down the airspeed is crucial. Even if you’re using the blower just to sweep dust out of the garage, using less air will prevent a giant dust cloud. On the Toro models, the dial is too far away to control comfortably with one hand.
The Black & Decker also comes with a few interesting attachments: a reducer nozzle, an oscillating nozzle, and a leaf scraper, all three of which clip on the end of the blower tube. The reducer narrows the focus of the air stream, helping you get into small crevices to blast out pine needles or leaves; it worked well in our testing on stone walls, walkways, and steps. The oscillating nozzle is a segmented piece that wiggles back and forth when air blows through it, creating a wider swath of air without your having to move the blower manually. The leaf scraper is a small rake, about the size of a hand, that fits over the blower tube. You can use it to pull up stubborn or damp leaves while the blower is running. Although the oscillating nozzle and the rake are interesting and functional, we rarely used them, preferring to spend our blowing time with the wider nozzle or the simpler reducer.
To take these attachments on and off the blower, you merely slide them over the blower tube until they lock in with a little tab. It’s an especially easy process compared with the tedious system on the Toro models, where you have to remove both the blower tube and the intake guard to install and remove attachments.
By the numbers, the Black & Decker blows air at a very high 250 mph (the same as this year’s Toro models). That exceeds the listed airspeed of the gas-powered blowers we looked at. As a result, it’s quite good at lifting leaves. But speed isn’t everything. Air volume is also important,4 because that is what dictates how good a blower is at actually moving leaves. In this regard, the Black & Decker—like each electric model we tested—falls short of its gas-powered counterparts, and as such, it might struggle with some larger leaf piles and with compacted, wet leaves. The act of moving leaves may take a little more time with the Black & Decker, but you also won’t be spending time prepping and maintaining an engine, obtaining gas, or winterizing the blower.
To put this in more familiar terms, the Black & Decker is like a station wagon while larger gas blowers are like pickup trucks. They’re capable of doing many of the same tasks, but unless you need the extra towing capacity and cargo space of a truck, you’re better off with the station wagon because it’s easier to live with.
Judging from our own decibel readings, the noise of electric blowers ranks right up there with that of many of the backpack models, but the tone of the noise renders it fairly inoffensive. Most electric blowers sound like really, really loud hair dryers, which, minus the heating coil, is basically what they are. The sound of an electric motor is very different from that of a two-stroke engine, even if the decibel readings are in the same ballpark.
When calculating overall price, keep in mind that if you’re starting from scratch and in need of the full 100 feet of maneuverability, you’re going to be dropping an additional $40 to $50 on a cord. STIHL recommends at least an 18-gauge cord for 25 feet, a 16-gauge cord for 50 feet, and the heavier 14-gauge cord for 100 feet. I can say from experience that a 100-foot 14-gauge cord is extremely unwieldy and difficult to wrap up—and, sadly, capable of taking out an entire flower bed. So our recommendation is to stop at a 50-foot cord. If you require more mobility, you need either a cordless blower or a gas model.
The Black & Decker BV6600 lacks one feature that we found to be useful on the Toro models: a cord wrap. This simple piece slides over the blower tube and provides a hook that lets you easily wrap a designated cord with the blower. Although this is a nice feature, it’s by no means an essential one. Far more important is how the tool operates and feels in the hands, and that’s where the Black & Decker succeeds.
Consumer Reports doesn’t rank the Black & Decker BV6600, but the testing house does rate the BV5600, which is the same as our pick minus the variable speed dial and padding on the handle. Consumer Reports places that model below the Toro 51621 (which is nearly identical to our runner-up, the 51619), ranking it lower in the categories of “handling and ease of use,” “noise at 50 feet,” and “sweeping.” The CR reviewers offer little detail on the ratings, and elsewhere they write that the ”handling [of the Black & Decker] was fairly easy.” Perhaps CR rated it lower than the Toro because that specific Black & Decker model lacks variable speed.
Regarding the “noise at 50 feet,” the Black and Decker model has a slightly higher pitch than the Toro, but that isn’t enough for anyone to discount the tool. In the individual write-up for the BV5600, CR notes, “your neighbors will appreciate its low noise from 50 feet away.”
As for the “sweeping” rating, we found little difference between the tools. In some of our leaf-moving tests, the Black & Decker model was faster (but not by much); other times we ran the exact same test, the Toro was faster (but not by much). Our assessment is that the leaf-moving abilities of these tools are basically the same.
Compared with last year’s pick, the 51619 is more powerful and a bit heavier. The power increase is difficult to detect unless you’re testing the tools side by side. Toro also added a texture to the handle (which we don’t care for).
The Toro weighs about 8 pounds, 5 ounces, less than a half pound more than the Black & Decker. Due to how the weight is distributed, though, this model feels much heavier and puts a little more strain on the wrist, which becomes apparent after a long leaf-blowing session.
To put the reducing nozzle on, you need to remove the entire blower tube, and to do that you also need to take off the intake cover, which extends along the entire underside of the unit. You then slide the reducer nozzle inside the blower tube until it pokes out the front, where you have to give it a pull to snug it in place. To remove the attachment, you reverse the process (including removing the blower tube and the intake cover). It’s an unusual and frustrating system, and because of that we ended up putting the reducer back in the box and leaving it there. Remember, on the Black & Decker, you need only to clip the attachment over the blower tube—much easier.
Toro also sells the UltraPlus Blower Vac 51621 (about $100), which we also tested. It appears to be the same as the 51619 except that it has an additional piece to aid leaf shredding, as well as an oscillating nozzle. The oscillating nozzle on the Black & Decker works better, so we don’t think the $20 upcharge is worth it.
For cordless convenience, we recommend the DeWalt DCBL790H1 40V MAX Lithium Ion XR Brushless Blower (about $340), which we found to be on par with the electric models in leaf-moving power. When it came to battery life, the DeWalt left the other three tested cordless models in the dust. On a single charge, the DeWalt can run on high for about 22 minutes, more than twice the run time of the Kobalt and last year’s pick, the EGO. At 12 pounds, the DeWalt weighs 3 to 4 pounds more than the others, but it has a strong feel of durability that the others lack, and it feels like it can withstand repeated drops. Even with its weight, the ergonomics of the DeWalt are solid, producing minimal wrist strain (further helped by a clever tube design that stops the blower from twisting in the hands). As with the company’s power-tool lineup, the DeWalt blower’s handle is comfortable, with an easy-to-use variable speed trigger and a lock-on switch for extended use.
Where the DeWalt truly proved itself was in battery life. We charged batteries up to full and timed the blowers on high power, and the DeWalt lasted almost 22 minutes—far, far longer than the others did. The EGO and Kobalt both hovered around the 10-minute range, and the far less powerful Ryobi survived for 15 minutes. When we worked with the EGO and Kobalt, their battery life limited us to one or two trees’ worth of leaves; the DeWalt was capable of much more. Keep in mind that our timed test was with each blower on constant high speed. With the convenience of the DeWalt’s variable speed trigger, we found that we spent a decent amount of time at lower power levels, which furthered the battery life considerably.
DeWalt is a maker of pro-grade tools, and the blower is no different. The EGO, Kobalt, and Ryobi feel durable enough for light use, but we’d be worried if they took a few 4- or 5-foot spills. The DeWalt is made from durable plastic and has a mini roll cage on the bottom that protects it from drops and also lets it sit flat while on the ground.
This durability brings with it some weight, but we found the DeWalt to be easy to hold and operate. The handle is oriented so that simply gripping it and letting your arm hang puts the blower tube at the correct angle to the ground for most leaf-moving jobs. The other cordless blowers we looked at have an in-line design, so pointing the blowing tube downward (which is what you’re doing 95 percent of the time) puts strain on the wrist. The handle itself is extremely comfortable, and using the trigger is as natural as can be. To the left of the trigger, where your thumb curls around, is a little lever that you can move to lock in the speed of the blower without having to use the trigger. This convenience was nice to have during longer blowing sessions, when we were switching the blower from hand to hand.
The blowing tube has a slight jog to it. According to DeWalt, this design “creates rotational control which helps reduce arm fatigue.” During testing, we noticed that it didn’t have the aggressive “twisting” that some gas handhelds have.
Because the DeWalt model is designed like a traditional gas handheld blower, the air intake sits on the side of the tool. If you’re holding the blower with your left hand, it may try to suck at your clothing. After it grabbed us once, we quickly developed the habit of holding it a little off the body so that this wouldn’t happen.
Another drawback to the DeWalt is the charging time. Completely charging the battery takes about two hours. The Kobalt battery, which has a little more than one-third the battery life, takes about 30 minutes to charge fully. Obviously this is much faster, but keep in mind that we tested the DeWalt’s 22 minutes of run time at constant high. The reality we found was that the variable speed trigger let us modulate the power, so our actual working time was much longer. We found it far more efficient to have the extended working time (and longer downtime) than to have shorter bursts of working time interspersed with shorter periods of downtime. On DeWalt’s website, the company mentions that a 30-minute fast charger is in development, but no release date is available for it yet.
Kenny Koehler of Pro Tool Reviews, in a review of the DeWalt, concluded that pros will ultimately feel the strain of the limited run time (as with all cordless leaf blowers), but that other users “are likely going to love this unit for their personal landscaping applications.” On Amazon the DeWalt currently holds a very nice rating of 4.7 stars (out of five) across 63 reviews.
One important note on the DeWalt blower is that the company sells two versions. Our recommended pick is the DCBL790H1 ($340), which comes with a 6-Ah battery. Also in stores is the DCBL790M1 ($279), which comes with a 4.0-Ah battery. According to DeWalt’s press material, the 4.0-Ah battery has half the run time of the 6.0-Ah one, which would likely put it at around the 10-to-15-minute mark (much like the Kobalt and EGO). To us, what’s so appealing about the DeWalt blower is the longer run time, so we do not recommend the DCBL790M1. Consumer Reports ranks the DeWalt blower in the middle of the pack, but the testing house appears to have evaluated the M1 and not the longer-lasting H1.
The BR350 ranked second in the Consumer Reports rundown, placing behind only the $430 Husqvarna 356BT. You can find more powerful blowers than the STIHL BR350, but as far as Walker is concerned, this midsize model offers all the blowing power anyone would ever need.
The fact that the BR350 moved leaves better than the other backpack blowers set it ahead of the pack, but all of the small touches in the overall design are what especially appealed to Walker and his crew. The gas fill is oriented upward, as opposed to at an angle, making for an easy, spill-free pour; the gas cap has a hard plastic ridge around it, protecting it from bumps; and the top of the tool is the perfect shape for placing a hand while you’re pulling the starter.
The BR350 weighs 22.5 pounds, quite a bit more than the 14-pound Husqvarna 130BT. Although the tool is comfortable to use, that’s still a good amount of weight to carry around. The landscapers stressed to us that most small to midsize properties wouldn’t need the power and size of the BR350.
For the past year landscaper Kevin Walker and his crew have been using three of our finalists during their daily work: the STIHL BR350, the Husqvarna 130BT, and the Ryobi RY08420. Of the three, the STIHL has been the most well-received. Walker told us that it “has been a great workhorse and definitely a crew favorite for larger work areas where a lot of distance needs to be covered.” When he first looked over the unit a year ago, he mentioned the higher-pitched noise, but he recently told us that none of his crew have mentioned it.
His crew has also responded positively to the Husqvarna 130BT, saying it is “great for all kinds of pick-up-and-go uses.” He told us that it’s reliable and light, and that it has had no problems. It even “held up well on a mowing crew when a new helper was being trained—always a scary time for machines.” While we still like this blower, we think that the DeWalt cordless, with its long run time, can handle most of the same jobs without presenting any of the drawbacks of gas-powered engines (starting, prepping, maintaining, and storing).
In last year’s guide we recommended the Ryobi as a budget backpack option. At the time, we wrote that we liked it but questioned its long-term durability. As Walker recently reported to us, the Ryobi has not held up well over the past year: “It seems that when it is used non-stop for a full tank of fuel, it is very reluctant to start again until it has cooled down, making it a very frustrating choice.” It is also “now on its second pull cord, probably because of this.” He said that his crews originally appreciated it because it was light and easy to use, but that they now leave it behind at their shop. Granted, the Ryobi blower was designed more for the homeowner than for the landscaper, but these issues still point to a shorter life over the long term, especially when compared with pro brands like STIHL and Husqvarna.
When you’re getting into gas-powered models, noise and emissions are big concerns.
Regarding emissions, all of the gas-powered blowers that we recommend in this piece are CARB-compliant, meaning that they comply with the strict emissions regulations of the state of California as set by the California Air Resources Board. We found in our research that most blowers from reputable companies are CARB-compliant. This doesn’t mean that they emit rose petals instead of pollution, of course, but it does mean that the manufacturer has made an effort to tighten the ship.
As for noise, you need to understand local regulations regarding the operation of leaf blowers. Some cities and towns have full-on leaf blower bans and others allow leaf blowing only during selected times. Arlington, Massachusetts, for example, allows just one blower per 6,000 square feet, to be operated only 30 minutes at a time, with 15-minute breaks in between. Other communities adhere to maximum decibel levels.
Regardless of your local regulations, using your blower in a respectful manner is a good idea. Most of it is common sense: Don’t blow leaves at 9:45 p.m. Don’t blow your leaves into your neighbor’s yard. Don’t leave your blower running while you go inside to watch the big game. STIHL has guide to safe and courteous leaf blowing that is worth a look.
If you choose a corded or cordless blower, you don’t have to do much as far as taking care of it. Don’t let it get rained on, and don’t drop it off the roof. A gas blower, on the other hand, needs some effort, as do all small engines.
The most important thing to do is to read the manual and follow what it says. You can end up voiding many warranty claims through improper storage or winterizing of the tool or the incorrect mixture of gas and oil.5
Jack’s Small Engines provides a thorough listing of daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance tasks. It’s geared toward the professional who uses a blower on a constant basis, but it’s still a good guideline. If you find that listing to be too dense, Roy Berendsohn of Popular Mechanics offers a good summary of tips for keeping any two-stroke engine in working order at the bottom of this article.
One particular piece of advice to keep in mind is to avoid filling any two-stroke engine with a fuel that is high in ethanol. As Berendsohn explains, “The alcohol in the fuel dissolves plastic and rubber parts in the fuel system. It also attracts moisture, which leads to corrosion of metal parts. And even if the engine escapes damage, it experiences a loss of performance from chemically degraded fuel, because ethanol-based gasoline can spoil rapidly, often separating into layers of alcohol and fuel.” Many gas stations pump E10 these days, which is a 10 percent ethanol mixture. You can use that if necessary, but you should absolutely avoid E15 (15 percent ethanol).
If something does go wrong, seek out an authorized service dealer for your specific brand; such dealers are likely to be reputable repair shops with a deep understanding of that particular tool and its engine. Purchasing from a service dealer in the first place—which is often the setup when you’re buying a STIHL or Husqvarna tool—is a good idea too, as you can register the blower during purchase. A service dealer will also give you the opportunity to handle the blowers and, in the case of backpack models, try them on.
We tested a number of additional blowers and dismissed others before the testing phase.
In 2015 we researched, but didn’t test, models from Remington, SunJoe, Troy-Bilt, and Worx due to overall availability, low airflow numbers, or so-so consumer reviews.
The STIHL BGE61 ($110) is the corded blower most similar to our pick, but it costs more, lacks the vacuum feature, and offers only single speed. In Consumer Reports rankings, blowers by Black & Decker, Homelite, Remington, Troy-Bilt, Weed Eater, and Worx all ranked considerably lower than our previous pick, the discontinued Toro, so we believe the dismissals we applied to them in 2014 remain valid now.
We tested the Kobalt 80-Volt Max Medium-Duty Cordless Electric Leaf Blower ($200) in 2015, and we found it to be a little more powerful than the DeWalt (but not by much). It’s also lighter, but it’s hamstrung by an 8-minute run time. It would be a good pick for someone who needs to clean up leaves from one tree or to blow off a deck, but for most people, making an investment in the DeWalt is a better option. The GreenWorks GBL80300 ($200) is the exact same tool.
The same goes for the EGO 56-Volt Cordless Electric Blower ($180), which was our cordless pick last year. In addition to a short 10-minute run time, the EGO suffers from a control setup that feels clunky in comparison with that of the DeWalt. This tool is also less powerful.
The Ryobi 40-Volt Cordless Jet Fan Blower ($170) was the least powerful of the bunch. We liked the longer, 15-minute run time and the smooth variable speed trigger, but this model offered less power than the others and had problems moving any significant amount of leaves.
STIHL also has a cordless blower, the BGA 85, but we did not test it due to the exorbitant price. Just the tool alone, with no battery or charger, costs $300. To get the rest of the package, you need to drop another $200, making it a $500 purchase. According to Consumer Reports, “you could blow off concerns about price if the model were a winner in your outdoor clean-up chores.” Unfortunately the testing house found that not to be the case, saying that “its oomph for loosening moist, embedded leaves was only so-so.”
Small and medium-size backpack blowers
When looking at backpack models, landscaper Kevin Walker avoids a number of things: “Anything that could break easily—long wires, protruding switches, unprotected spark plug cap, gas fill tank sticking out, anything that will get caught in branches … and anything that can break being thrown in the back of a truck.”
To Walker, the Achilles’ heel of all backpack blowers is the small, flexible electrical conduit that runs from the engine to the joystick throttle. “They get caught on everything. Those pulling out is a common problem.” He showed me the blowers that his crews use, and they’ve added wire-ties on all of the tools to hold the wire securely to the blower arm.
Foam-padded straps are another feature that Walker told us he steers clear of. “They tear and start to smell awful once they’re sweated into.”
In the end, what he looks for is simplicity and ease of use. “How easy is it to fill the gas, adjust the straps, start the engine,” he said. “Basically, can my sheepdog figure it out?”
Last year the Husqvarna 130BT ($260) was our recommendation for a small backpack blower; we replaced it with the DeWalt cordless this time around. Comparing it against models of a similar size, Walker and his crew liked the 130BT for its ample power, manageable weight, and relatively quiet operation. In one of his backpack blower roundups, Popular Mechanics’s Roy Berendsohn chose this model as his “Best Overall,” applauding it for its “well-shaped airstream,” which helped it do a “better than average job moving wet debris.” Walker has used a 130BT for the past few years as his personal blower (he won’t let his crew touch it), and he told us that it has always been reliable. It’s a nice tool, but we think most people will be happier with the DeWalt, which produces no emissions and requires no maintenance, no gas, and no storage considerations.
We also tested the STIHL BR200 ($280) small backpack, and in some ways the landscapers liked it better than the similarly sized Husqvarna 130BT. But in the end the price and the piercing engine noise did this one in. For power, the STIHL BR200 is on par with, or even a little stronger than, the 130BT, but the BR200 lets out a high-pitched squeal that none of the landscapers liked. By our readings, the two blowers are only 5 db apart, and by the ANSI standard, they’re only 1 db apart, but it’s the tone of the sound that made the difference here.
The BR200, at $280, is $50 more expensive than the 130BT. While the landscapers really appreciated the quality of the blower, given the noise, they found that price difficult to justify.
At first, Walker and his crew liked the looks of the Ryobi RY08420A ($200), praising it for its ergonomics and general ease of use. That, combined with positive reviews at Popular Mechanics and Consumer Reports, led us to choose this model as a budget pick in last year’s guide. Unfortunately, it has not held up well during long-term testing. Walker has had the blower for the past year, and he told us that the crew now avoids it because it has problems starting up with a hot engine.
We also tested the midsize Husqvarna 350BT but found it lacking next to the similar STIHL BR350. Beyond the fact that the Husqvarna 350BT wasn’t as strong as the STIHL BR350, it also had a few design issues that the landscapers pointed out. The landscapers immediately identified the knob that tightens the joystick control in place as a weak point. “Those things are just bad,” Justin said. “I have to re-tighten mine every day.” Kevin Walker also showed me the two unprotected wires in the engine. “Those will get caught on a branch and pulled right out,” he said. “I have no idea why they’re not in a sleeve like the other wires.”
We also had problems securing the blower tubes on the 350BT. Husqvarna models come with four lengths of tube rather than three, giving them an additional 5 inches of length. That’s good for tall people, but when the connections aren’t great, the blower tube picks up a massive wobble. We had this issue only with the larger Husqvarna and not with the smaller 130BT.
We did not test the $300 Echo PB500 (comparable to the midsize backpack blowers) because Popular Mechanics’s Berendsohn ranked it below the Husqvarna 350BT. As of this writing, it also has a four-star feedback rating at Home Depot, a lower score than that of the models we tested.
Gas handheld blowers
While we strongly advise avoiding a handheld gas blower, if we were to recommend one, it would be a toss-up between the STIHL 55C ($150) and the Husqvarna 125B ($150). Consumer Reports ranks the Husqvarna 125B in the top spot for gas handhelds, but that model sits just one point ahead of the second-place STIHL 55C. Berendsohn gave the STIHL 55C five stars and chose it as his “Best Overall”, saying, “The STIHL’s air-movement numbers were low compared with other blowers, but we found it moved debris better than those with higher numbers—the airstream is optimized, focused and less turbulent.” He gave the Husqvarna 125B 4.5 stars, though, and he didn’t have anything negative to say about it at all.
If you’re looking for a shredder/vacuum and the cord limitations of the Toro Ultra are too much to deal with, the STIHL 56 C-E looks like the model to get. Sal Vaglica of This Old House gives it a very positive review, writing that it’s “one of the easier engines to start” and that it’s the best of the tested shredder/vacs. Husqvarna’s 125BVx ($180) is that company’s version with the shredder/vac functions, and it also looks nice. But at that price, you’re well into the range of a budget backpack, which we think most people would find to be a better experience overall.
Larger backpack blowers
Our pick for a backpack blower falls into the midsize range of the category. If you have deep pockets and want to go all in on a large high-powered blower, we suggest either the STIHL BR600 ($490) or the Husqvarna 356BT ($430). These blowers move leaves faster and farther than the others, but at a much greater cost.
Roy Berendsohn tested the STIHL BR600 and called it “the ultimate pro-grade leaf-clearing rocket.” With all of Berendsohn’s experience reviewing blowers, that’s a strong statement. The BR600 is also the blower that landscaper Chad Crosby said that he likes due to its power and dependability.
Berendsohn didn’t test the Husqvarna 356BT, but in Consumer Reports backpack testing that model earned the top spot; CR reviewers say that it offers “a welcome combo of power and quiet (at 50 feet) operation, aided by a sound muffling design.” WIRED calls it out for being the “most comfortable unit in our test.” According to those reviewers, it’s so comfy that “you’ll feel like Sigourney Weaver strapped into the loader and ready to battle aliens,” whatever that means. It’s a shame that no one has done side-by-side testing of the Husqvarna 356BT and the STIHL BR600, because the research puts them both at the top.
In this upper-end category, Berendsohn also really likes the Makita BBX7600 ($520), but in testing he found it to be too loud. The Makita is also featured in the WIRED article, and those reviewers say that it’s loud as well. They also call it the “Marquis de Sade of ergonomics,” which can’t mean anything positive.
Sweepers, walk-behind blowers, and other options
You can also find light-duty sweepers, such as the Black & Decker NSW18 ($65), which are meant for dusting out a garage, blowing grass clippings off a paved walkway, or poofing a light coating of snow off the back deck. Because of their limited capabilities, we didn’t test at any of these models.
At the other end of the spectrum are walk-behind blowers such as the $850 Little Wonder LB170S. These tools are basically massive fans on wheels that have a tremendous leaf-moving ability. We passed over these machines because for residential use, only a very small minority would need them. Because they propel air out at one angle, they’re not suitable for getting leaves out of tall grass; that’s where the back-and-forth motion of a small blower will come in handy.
If you’d rather not use a leaf blower at all, you should consider getting a lawnmower equipped with a mulching function. Such mowers are designed to slice and dice your leaves and let them sit on your lawn to decompose, providing nutrients to the soil. We have a lot more information on the topic in our guide to the best lawnmower. We also have a recommendation for a good old-fashioned rake here.
(Photos by Doug Mahoney)
Originally published: October 20, 2015