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Q&A: Which type of snow blower should I buy?

Consumer Reports News: November 30, 2007 04:28 PM

I’m finally ready to throw in the shovel and buy a snow blower, but I’m a total newbie when it comes to these machines. Which type should I buy?

Snow blowers will save you a lot of work. Similarly, choosing the right one for your home from among the three different types—single-stage gas, single-stage electric, two-stage gas—doesn’t have to be a hassle.

One caveat: Using a snow blower, aka snow thrower, might be easier than shoveling the white stuff, but it is harder than using a self-propelled mower. If you have hypertension, diabetes, or heart disease, consult your doctor before you use a snow blower. Also consider having your driveway plowed if it’s especially long and two or more cars wide

Before you shop, be sure to see our exclusive interactive, Snow blowers: Which is right for you?. And always follow our safety tips and maintenance basics.

SNOW THROWER TYPES
Single-stage gas, $300 to $750

This model of snow thrower is ideal if you have a flat, midsized paved driveway and walk(s), and the typical snowfall in your locale is less than 8 inches. Single-stage machines are lighter and easier to handle than two-stage models and take about as much storage space as a mower. Most offer electric starting.

But they’re a poor choice for a gravel driveway, since the auger contacts the surface and can throw stones. What’s more, the limited drive action of the auger is not sufficient for steep hills and can pull from side to side. Most clear a 20- to 22-inch swath. All lack drive wheels and require engine maintenance. Most also use a two-cycle engine that will require you to mix gasoline and oil.

Single-stage electric, $100 to $300
A single-stage electric model is best if you have a short, flat driveway or deck and walk(s), and the typical snowfall in your area is 4 inches or less. Single-stage electric models are the lightest, smallest, and easiest snow blowers to handle and store. They’re also less noisy than gas-powered models, and their electric motors free you from fueling and other engine maintenance.

But they’re unsuited to a gravel driveway for the same reason as single-stage gas models. Among their other downsides: The small clearing, only 11 to 18 inches, slows clearing, and you need to use a long power cord.

Two-stage gas, $600 to $2,000-plus (shown)
This type of snow blower is best if you have long, wide, or hilly driveway and the typical snowfall in your area exceeds 8 inches. If you have a gravel driveway, you’ll want a two-stage model, since its auger won’t contact the ground. All two-stage blowers offer electric starting and have driven wheels, an auger that gathers snow, and an impeller to throw it. Some clear a wide swath 24 to 32 inches wide.

Some drawbacks exist. Two-stage machines are relatively heavy, take up as much space as some lawn tractors, and require regular engine maintenance. Look for a model with trigger drive releases—they’re easier to maneuver—as well as one with a single joystick lever, which lets you quickly change the direction and height of thrown snow. (Read How to Choose and Features That Count, below.)

HOW TO CHOOSE
Try the controls. Independent dealers and even big-box stores typically have floor models for you to check put. Along with trigger releases on two-stage models, look for electric starting. Also be sure you're comfortable with the handle height and the chute adjustment, which you'll use frequently.

Be wary of power claims. As with other outdoor power equipment, avoid buying more muscle than you need. A single-stage snow thrower should be enough for most homes, and it will cost less and take up less space in your garage than a two-stage model. In past tests, we’ve found that throwers with bigger engines don’t necessarily perform better than less-powerful models.

Don't be dazzled by drive speeds. Most two-stage machines have five or six forward speeds, useful for going slowly through heavy snow or moving quickly when returning to the garage. Some machines have more forward speeds or even a continuously variable hydrostatic drive but as we found in past tests, neither is a real plus.

FEATURES THAT COUNT
The following features help make snow throwers safer and more convenient to use.

1. One-handed drive/auger (on two-stage models). Most models let you engage the drive-wheel and auger-control levers with one hand, leaving the other free to control the chute.

2. Easy chute adjustment. The best type of chute adjustment lets you quickly change the direction and height of thrown snow with a single-lever joystick (on two-stage machines) or a long, accessible handle (on single-stage models). Most two-stage machines have separate controls for direction and height, while single-stage units often have stiff, awkward handles on the discharge chute.

3. Headlights. Many snow blowers have headlights, handy when you need to clear the driveway in the early morning or evening.    

4. Easy starting. All electric models turn on with a switch. Most gas-powered models include plug-in starting—handy if you’re near an outlet.

5. Drive disengagement (two-stage models). Some machines use triggers that ease steering by letting you quickly disconnect either or both wheels from the transmission on the fly, rather than having to move a pin or lever at a wheel.

6. Dead-man control. This critical safety feature stops the spinning auger and, on two-stage models, the impeller when you release the handlebar-grip controls.

7. Clean-out device. To keep you from reaching with your hands into the impeller to clear any jams that occur, most blowers now come with a stick to eliminate any blockages. The device is usually mounted on the chassis for easy access.

   

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