Larger storms are spawning bigger, brawnier snow blowers. But you needn't buy the largest, widest model to get competent clearing. You'll find smaller, easier-handling machines for smaller driveways, and midsized models that can handle the occasional heavy storm. Large or hilly driveways and consistently deep snow, however, demand a larger snow blower with power-driven wheels. Use this snow-blower guide to find the right model for your needs.
Don't fall for sales pitches
Some manufacturers and retailers push big-name engines at the expense of other brands. But we've found that performance has more to do with the design of the snow blower itself than the engine that powers it.
Don't go by size alone
Manufacturers and retailers also push bigger engines--typically expressed in cubic centimeters of piston displacement, or cc--and wider clearing swaths. But as our Ratings show, size isn't everything when it comes to snow blowers. Some smaller machines, while usually not as fast, can out-clear and out-throw the big boys for less money.
How to stay safe
Snow blowers cause thousands of finger injuries each year, including amputations, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Don't ever clear a clogged discharge chute or auger housing with your hand. Most machines now come with a plastic clearing tool, but a broom handle will do.
Besides snow, a snow blower--particularly a small, single-stage model--can pick up and throw ice, gravel, and other objects. Keep people and pets away when you're working. Wear hearing protection with gas-powered machines. Wait until a gas model's engine is cool before refueling. For electric models, use an outdoor extension cord with a ground-fault-circuit-interrupting feature, and keep the cord away from the spinning auger.
Heavy exertion and cold temperatures can also be a dangerous combination. Take frequent breaks to avoid overexertion. Seniors and people with hypertension, heart disease, or diabetes should consult a doctor before using a snow blower. If your driveway is especially long and two or more cars wide, consider having it plowed.
You can spend as little as $200 for a snow blower that can handle a light dusting, and well over $1,000 for a heavy-duty model. The type of snow blower you buy depends on the area you need clear along with the storage space available to house the machine when you're not using it.
These small snow blowers have a plastic auger that pulls in the snow and throws it out the chute in one step. They're best for short, level driveways, decks, and walks with snow levels of four inches or less. About the size of a small walk-behind mower, single-stage electrics are also the lightest, smallest, quietest, and easiest to handle, and their electric motor frees you from fueling and engine maintenance. But their auger can pick up and throw gravel, and their narrow swaths (under 20 inches) typically mean clearing requires multiple passes. Their modest pulling power is no match for steep slopes and might make the machine pull sideways. What's more, the power cord naturally limits range and maneuverability.
These small-to-midsize models snow blowers also don't have driven wheels. Instead, the rubber-tipped auger that picks up and throws the snow also helps propel the machine. Typically more powerful than electric versions, these models are a good choice for level, midsized paved driveways and walks with typical or expected snow levels of less than eight inches. They're still fairly light and easy to handle and take up about as much storage space as a mower, but these machines free you from a cord. They also clear a larger swath (typically 20 to 22 inches) and offer electric starting. Their gas engines are also now all four-cycle, requiring only straight gasoline. But like the electrics, they're a poor choice for gravel driveways. Their auger provides only modest pulling power, and they tend to pull sideways on steep slopes. They also require regular maintenance.
Like single-stage gas snow blowers, two-stage models begin by using the auger to pick up and throw snow. Unlike the smaller machines, they add a fan-like impeller behind the auger to help throw snow out the chute--the "second" stage in their name--and are propelled by engine-driven wheels. (A few newer models from MTD add a second impeller, in front of the auger, for breaking up packed snow.) These larger, more powerful models are best for long, wide driveways with snow levels higher than eight inches. Some models clear a swath 28 to 30 inches wide, and their driven wheels can handle steeper inclines. Two-stage snow blowers are also a must on gravel, since the auger doesn't touch the ground. On the downside, they're relatively heavy and expensive, and they can take up as much storage space as a lawn tractor. Their gas engine also requires regular maintenance.
A good snow blower blends competent cleaning with smooth, single-lever chute control. These snow blower features can make some machines easier and more pleasant to use.
Independent dealers and even big-box stores typically have floor samples you can check out. Be sure you're comfortable with the height of the handle and with the chute adjustment, which you'll be using frequently. All the snow blowers we tested have a dead-man control--a critical safety feature that stops the spinning auger and impeller when you release the handlebar grips. A long handle on single-stage models or a joystick on two-stage models lets you quickly change the height and direction of the snow thrown from the discharge chute. On two-stage models, a drive/auger control lets you work the drive wheels and auger with one hand while leaving the other hand free to control the chute. A handlebar-mounted trigger release on two-stage models eases steering by disengaging power to either or both drive wheels.
Typically it is a plastic stick used for safely clearing clogs in the discharge chute or auger housing. Use a wooden broom handle, never hands or feet, on models without the tool.
Most gas-powered models now offer plug-in electric starting for use near an outlet, which is much easier than yanking a pull cord in cold weather. They also prolong the life of the pull cord, your only means of starting a model without electric start.
This feature on many two-stage machines lets you work after dark.
Most two-stage snow blowers have four to six forward speeds for the drive wheels compared with just one on single-stage models. A choice of speeds can help prevent clogs while you slog through heavy snow.
You'll find snow blowers for sale at big box stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot and at Sears and outdoor power equipment dealers. Use these brand profiles to compare snow blowers by brand.
Ariens' snow blowers are available at outdoor power equipment dealers and Home Depot. It's a leading marketer whose model line consists of single- and two-stage gas models with available electric start and snow clearing widths of 22 to 26 inches.
Another market leader in snow-blower sales, Craftsman markets single- and two-stage gas models with snow clearing widths of 20 to 28 inches and available electric start. In addition, the Craftsman Professional line features models with snow clearing widths up to 45 inches. Craftsman is made for and sold by Sears and models can be purchased online and in Sears and Kmart retail stores.
One of the market leaders in snow-blower sales, Toro sells a variety of electric models in addition to single- and two-stage gas models at outdoor power equipment dealers and Home Depot. It markets the electric models under the Power Curve and Power Shovel line names and the gas models under the Power Shift and Power Max line names. Electric modelshave snow clearing widths of 12 to 18 inches. Gas models have snow clearing widths of 16 to 28 inches and available electric start.
Troy Bilt is the MTD-made brand sold in Lowes. Troy Bilt gas-powered snow blowers feature single- and two-stage four-cycle engines, a mix of electric and recoil starters, and snow clearing widths of 21 to 45 inches.
Yard Machines snow blowers are manufactured by the Cleveland-based company MTD and sold in the mass channel. Its gas-powered snow blowers feature single- and two-stage four-cycle engines, a mix of electric and recoil starters, and snow clearing widths of 21 to 30 inches. Yard Machines markets a low-cost electric model with a snow clearing width of 15 inches. Yard Machines are widely available at Home Depot, Lowes, Wal-Mart, and hardware stores.
Most emergency-room-treated injuries associated with snow blowers involve injuries to the hand or finger, including amputation. The typical cause? Users tried to clear a clogged auger or discharge chute with their hands.
Manufacturers have addressed that problem with a handlebar dead-man control that stops the auger and, on two-stage models, the auger and impeller when released.
Many models now include a clearing tool for clogs. Because the tool is stored within easy reach on the machine, it's a strong incentive for safe clearing. A chute-covering guard is another safety measure. While the guard keeps hands out, it makes clearing clogs more difficult.
Whichever snow blower you use this winter, a few basic steps will help keep you from becoming a statistic:
Turn off the engine on a gas machine or unplug the motor on an electric model before clearing a clog at the auger or discharge chute. Then use the clearing tool, never hands or feet, to remove the clog.
Protect yourself from carbon-monoxide poisoning by starting and running gasoline-powered snow blowers outside, rather than in your garage or shed.
Don't wear loose pants, jackets, or scarves, which can get tangled in a snow blower's moving parts.
Wear ear plugs or other hearing protection, especially with gas-powered models.
Wait until a gas model's engine is cool before refueling.
For electric models, use an outdoor extension cord and an outlet with ground-fault-circuit-interrupting protection. Then be sure to keep the cord safely away from the spinning auger while you're working.
For gas-powered machines, follow the recommendations in the owner's manual for changing the spark plug and the engine oil. Most recommend changing both at least once each year.
Follow the recommendations for adding oil. Too little oil can damage the engine; too much creates added exhaust emissions and can hamper starting by fouling the spark plug.
Add a fuel stabilizer to preserve the fuel between storms and clearing seasons. Stabilizers can keep fuel from degrading for up to one year to help prevent gum and varnish deposits from clogging the carburetor and fuel passages.
For two-stage machines, have some spare auger shear bolts on hand. The bolts are designed to protect the gearbox by breaking if the auger hits a hard object. And keep an extra belt on hand for one- as well as two-stage models.
For all machines, periodically tighten nuts and bolts, especially on control linkages, which tend to loosen as a snow blower vibrates.
Adjust the auger's scraper and skid shoes if applicable, as suggested in the owner's manual. Doing so helps keep the auger closer to the surface, leaving less snow behind, while keeping the bottom of the auger housing from scraping and rusting.