The advent and growing popularity of backpack blowers doesn’t mean it’s time to retire the rake – but almost.
The story of the birth of the backpack blower is interesting. Landscapers learned to convert one manufacturer’s small, engine-powered backpack sprayer into a blower to clean up garden beds. When that manufacturer then successfully re-engineered its sprayer line into an independent blower product, others jumped into the marketplace, and the race was on for more powerful and efficient gasoline- and, later, battery-powered backpack blowers. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find any professional tree care crew without one.
At the birthing was Echo, according to Jason Wilk, product manager, who recounts the early days.
“Prior to 1975, they did not exist. Echo had been making backpack garden sprayers with a liquids tank on top for years,” Wilk begins. “We started getting the liquid tanks returned from our dealers. Engineering went through them to find out why and found no problems.” When they went back to the dealers to find the reason for the returns, “They said, believe it or not, landscapers were removing the tanks and installing sheet metal to direct air pressure directly to the nozzle in order to remove leaves and clippings from between shrubs.”
Echo sent a team of engineers to that Southern California dealer, where they watched a landscape crew with their modified sprayers. “The company was asked if we could make a unit without a tank, and that was the first backpack blower,” Wilk maintains, adding that the technology today is far more advanced than in those early days.
Look at any manufacturer, and you’ll see not only more power and less weight, but also a slew of models just in the “pro class,” which includes some monster material movers. Take, for example, Stihl, which, according to Marv Mathwig, Stihl product manager on the gas-engine side, offers eight pro backpack blowers for tree care applications, with units weighing from 21.6 to 25.8 pounds.
Mathwig says the biggest difference to consider when selecting a backpack blower has to do with “Newtons.” Named after Sir Isaac Newton, who came up with the concepts of gravity and the laws of motion, a “Newton,” in the case of a backpack blower, is about Newton’s Second Law, the measurable ability to move (accelerate) material (mass). Specifically, as an absolute, measurable unit of force, according to the International System of Units, an “N,” or one Newton, is the force necessary to accelerate a mass of one kilogram at a speed of one meter per second. You’ll also find specs that show the miles-per-hour (mph) air speed at the nozzle and the air volume expressed as “cfm,” or cubic feet of air flow per minute.
If that’s confusing, it’s all explained in manufacturers’ literature or online, but the basic premise is that the more Ns, the more power you have to blow material out of the way.
As a case in point, Wilk refers to the company’s recent release of what it considers to be “the most powerful backpack blower,” the PB-9010, designed to handle tough, heavy debris applications such as fall cleanups in the Northeast and large areas such as parking lots and stadiums. According to Wilk, the blower produces 1,110 cfm of air volume at 220 mph at the nozzle, “which equates to 48 Newtons.” At 79.9cc for an engine, “that’s a far cry from the 39cc original,” he states.
Mathwig says Stihl’s pro line of eight blowers targeted for tree care ranges from 22 to 41 Newtons, with engine sizes up to 79.9cc.
Husqvarna has three professional-grade backpack blowers. It touts the 570BTS as the most powerful blower in its class, which Husqvarna defines as petrol backpack blowers in the 63cc to 66cc range. It weighs 24.7 pounds and produces an air speed of 236.2 mph. Featuring Husqvarna’s X-Torq engine technology, the 570BTS is designed to deliver fuel savings of up to 20% and 60% fewer emissions. The 580BTS II is the company’s most powerful backpack blower. It weighs 26.3 pounds and produces a blowing force of 41 N. The hip/belt strap is designed for better weight distribution during long periods of use. Husqvarna’s 580BTS weighs 25.8 pounds, offers heavy air flow and produces an air speed of 206.2 mph delivered by a fan working in harmony with the X-Torq engine.
A quick check reveals that among the major brands, including Stihl, Echo and Husqvarna, along with Greenworks and Ego for battery-powered units, one can find nearly three-dozen pro backpack models in either gas- or battery-powered versions.
The reason is the various applications for them, says Wilk. “I see all kinds of applications as I do tree care company end-user visits. For example, when you’re cutting near roads and driveways and there is debris everywhere, more so as material is getting hauled to a chipper, lots of debris gets dropped along the way. Rather than reach for a rake, a blower is much easier, and in a commercial setting, faster and better.”
“There also are some typical features that can vary by model,” says Mathwig. He points to different tubes. “Some are fixed, others telescoping,” adding that lighter-weight tubes will not be telescoping. Furthermore, “Adjustable hand controls allow the operator to put the controls where they want and, together with backpack padding, add to operator comfort,” he adds.
As an aside, Mathwig says he’s seen or heard of some practical uses for blowers outside of the expected debris-cleanup mission needed in tree care. For example, he says, “There is a big use for blowers in the north to remove snow from cars at car dealers, especially if the snow is light. And they can be used to blow snow and water off horizontal surfaces, from cranes and bucket trucks – even from outdoor tennis courts.” He’s heard of using blowers (backpack and handheld) not only to clear debris off tree care rigs and equipment but also by farmers to clear grain combines and other processing equipment, where the dust from operations can create an explosive situation.
When asked if there is a drawback to using a blower because it might remove topsoil along with the targeted leaves and chips, Mathwig says that’s not really much of an issue. To get the most efficient use of the blower to move material, the angle of attack of the blowing air should be skipping over the soil and not skiving it off.
According to both Echo and Stihl (and based on user information from virtually all makers of small-engine-powered equipment), longevity of the engine – which pretty much defines the longevity of a gas-powered backpack blower – boils down to simple maintenance and fuel selection.
Echo’s Wilk says, “As far as maintenance goes, our professional backpack blowers are high-performance, two-stroke engines. Maintenance begins with a high-performance air filter. From a commercial standpoint, they need to be cleaned two to three times a year and replaced annually. The fuel filter in the gas tank needs to be replaced a couple of times a year in commercial applications,” he notes.
Both Echo and Stihl offer maintenance kits with air and fuel filters and a spark plug, and note that the kits are specific to each model.
Virtually all manufacturers, whether in an interview or in their owner/operator literature, warn that the most important thing to keeping one’s backpack blower (and all other small-engine equipment) running and running at its optimum, and to get full life out of it, boils down to the quality of fuel and oil you select. Gas-powered backpack blowers have 2-cycle engines and require an accurate mix of 2-cycle oil and higher-octane gasoline.
“While no one factor will determine maximum product life, in more than 20 years I do not recall ever seeing an engine worn out,” Wilk says. “Failure is usually from something like lack of maintenance or use of the wrong fuel or oil.” He adds it is usually due to “purchasing oil at a big box store or running 87-octane gasoline – just to get the cheapest. The label may say you can use the oil in snowmobiles and chain saws. The marketing is good, but the lower-quality oil can fry in high-temperature, high-rpm engines that scream at top speed all day long.” That applies, he says, to backpack blowers, which typically run at full force.
He and Mathwig, and just about every rep for manufacturers of machines running gasoline who have been quoted in TCI Magazine articles during the past 20 years or more, recommend using at least 89 octane or higher.
Wilk explains that higher-octane blends contain detergents, antioxidants and additives that extend the life of fuel. “It’s difficult to find ethanol-free gasoline in most parts of the country,” he states, “so we found in today’s fuel can draw moisture into the gasoline, so we advise users to avoid fuel additives with alcohol and use those that do not contain alcohol, such as our own Red Armor Fuel Treatment.”
Mathwig also advises that the problem of water-tainted gas is exacerbated by long storage, since the alcohol in the gasoline not only separates but also draws atmospheric moisture into the fuel. “First, we advise users to follow our maintenance tips. Most can do their own annual service, so we make tune-up kits for them. Or they can run to one of our dealers.”
At the end of the season or for long periods of non-use, Mathwig says to put the blower into what he calls “dry storage.” That consists of draining the fuel tank and running the engine until all the fuel is consumed, so that none of the gasohol remains in the fuel system to either eat away at parts or become so deteriorated as to clog it up. He added that there are over-the-counter products available that can be introduced to the fuel system after the gas is run out.
It is important to know that not everyone is pleased with the efficiency of a gasoline-powered backpack blower. Notably, as reported by those we interviewed, are the State of California and noise-sensitive sites such as homeowner associations, apartment complexes, office parks and hospitals. Noise and exhaust are the two culprits.
To that end, manufacturers have introduced low-noise, low-emission engines to complement the machines described above. Most obvious are the battery-pack versions. Sales of battery-powered blowers are growing to accommodate the Golden State regulations and to appease owners of other sites. Concurrently, early battery units are quickly evolving to meet the needs of power, flow, low- to no-noise levels and longer life.
Right now, says Sam Orlando, commercial marketing manager for Greenworks Tools, a maker of a variety of battery-powered tools, “We have one pro backpack, the GBB700 blower.”
He describes this 82-volt, 690-cfm unit as a “dual-port, dual-battery-pack blower that can fit two rechargeable batteries.” Orlando explains that it runs off one battery at a time and has an automatic switchover when the first battery is spent.
“The advantage of battery power is that these backpacks are exhaust free. Also, there is no idle; the engine is not running when not in use,” he says. “A gas blower can be hard to start, which means it is often left sitting in idle or, if you have to stop to clear branches or brush, has to be started up all over again. With a battery, turn on the blower and pull the trigger. Power is ready when the user is ready. There’s no pull start and minimal noise.”
Runtime for the twin batteries, Orlando says, is “up to 65 minutes, based on variable speed and the turbo-boost mode (the latter for heavier-application needs). The only thing we recommend is taking enough batteries with you at the start of the day.” Orlando says batteries from other Greenworks tools will cross over.
In Orlando’s opinion, tough jobs like tree care work require very powerful batteries, and the Greenworks GBB700 backpack blower offers 160 mph max air speed and 690 cfm max air volume to get the work done quickly. For the record, Newtons for the GBB700 come in at 22.75, according to company data sheets.
One feature, “A turbo button (which functions as a variable speed trigger and cruise control) can help clear larger areas with ease,” he maintains, adding that, “The dual-port, automatic switchover technology keeps crews running on the job.”
Orlando points out an interesting versatility feature. “There also is the option to remove the blower tube on this unit, thereby transforming the backpack blower into a plug-in power source for running the Greenworks commercial string trimmer, hedge trimmer, stick edger or hand-held blower.
“There’s always a cost to acquiring a new tool. Battery-powered equipment will save your business big bucks in fuel costs alone,” Orlando says. “Fuel costs are constantly fluctuating, making it a serious hassle to budget for your business operating costs. With no fuel to purchase, battery products offer savings every day. Our brushless motors have fewer moving parts and a long lifecycle and require virtually no maintenance, providing added cost savings. Finally, our batteries last – they retain power capacity even after 500 charges. And our multi-function batteries and chargers work with multiple tools, saving on overall battery costs,” he concludes.
Stihl has a separate product manager for its line of pro battery-powered blowers, Mike Poluka. “In places like California, which prohibit the use of gasoline engines, battery power is the solution. Also, it reduces vibration, and one battery can power multiple tools, for example, a pole saw, which reduces maintenance,” says Poluka, adding, “There’s no fuel, oil or filter cost.
“Right now,” Poluka offers, “there are certain specific applications where someone needs the most power and performance from gasoline engines, such as very wet, heavy leaves and very coarse material.” He notes that the larger battery units should be able to handle these, but that it is likely to take more time. “If there are no mandates, we would recommend a gas blower to our customers.”
Stihl’s solution for battery-powered backpack blowers is a bit different from that of others. Take, for example, the most powerful blower, according to Poluka, Stihl’s BGA 200. It’s a bit of both hand-held blower and battery backpack. According to Poluka and a review of the company’s product profile online, the users carry a battery on their back or hip, via shoulder straps or belt, that is connected via power cord to a hand-held unit. Poluka says that when using the largest backpack power pack at high boost – the most extreme power demand – power should last about an hour and a half, and up to nine hours at the low setting.
As one maker of gas backpack blowers puts it, it’s just a matter of time before battery-powered technology catches up to the gas-powered units.