Clear the Snow—Not Your Bank Account

    The latest snow blower Ratings from Consumer Reports

    Published: December 2012

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    You can spend $2,500 or more for the biggest, beefiest snow blowers. But our tests of almost 50 models confirm that the most capable machines can power away 18 inches or more of heavy snow—and the icy plow pile that blocks your driveway—for less than $700.

    We test snow blowers in snowy upstate New York and at our Yonkers headquarters, where, in the off season, we use a special mixture of wet sawdust to reliably mimic the wettest, heaviest conditions. Along with the bargains, we found some big-name disappointments. Here are the details:

    Best for most. All snow blowers use a spinning auger to scoop up snow. Compact two-stage machines feature the driven wheels and snow-slinging impeller of larger, typically pricier models in widths of 24 inches or less. Fast clearing and the ability to tear through dense plow piles put the 24-inch Craftsman 88173, a CR Best Buy at $680, at the top of the pack. But skip the Yard Machines 31A-32AD, $500; its subpar throwing distance means you may have to move the same snow twice to get it off your driveway.

    For bigger jobs. Full-sized snow blowers are faster and clear a wide swath, good for larger driveways. The 30-inch Craftsman 88396, $1,200, worked almost as well as the Cub Cadet 930SWE 31AH95SU and costs $600 less. A thumb-controlled joystick moves the Craftsman's chute without the usual crank or lever, and triggers disengage either drive wheel for easy steering. A larger impeller, however, helped give the Cub Cadet the edge.

    If you're clearing a deck. Smaller, single-stage snow blowers rely on a rubber-tipped auger to pick up snow, throw it, and help propel the machine, saving weight and bulk. You can lift them onto a deck or porch, but they also require pushing in deep snow—unlike two-stage machines, which have driven wheels. And even top models such as the 21-inch Toro Power Clear 621 38458, $650, cost almost as much as a compact two-stage snow blower without performing as well. One model to avoid: The Poulan Pro PR621ES, $450, which proved wimpier than even some electrics.

    We also tested smaller corded-electric models such as the Toro 1500 Power Curve. But we recommend sticking with gas for most jobs.

    How to choose

    Where two-foot storms are common, you'll probably want the largest, widest snow blower. Otherwise, a smaller two-stage model should be more than adequate. Here's what else to remember when shopping:

    Look for easy steering. Two-stage models typically have handlebar triggers that let you disengage either drive wheel for easier steering. That improves traction but also boosts the price. Many models 28-inch or wider have freewheel steering, which disengages the transmission from the wheels more cheaply than a differential.

    Check the drive system. Most two-stage snow blowers have multiple ground speeds. The Honda HS928K1WA, $2,500, has a hydrostatic transmission, which lets you vary speeds smoothly without the usual shifts and jerks. But pushing this machine into the garage or shed with its engine off takes some serious muscle.

    Consider other work-savers. Most gas-powered snow blowers offer optional plug-in electric starting for use near an outlet—much easier than yanking a pull cord in cold weather. A headlight lets you work more safely after dark or early in the morning.

    Features that matter
    The right features make all the difference in how much your snow blower works with you to finish the job as soon and effortlessly as possible. Here's what to consider:

    Controls. Wherever you shop, check out floor samples. Be sure you're comfortable with the height of the handle and with the chute adjustment, which you'll be using frequently. Look for a dead man control—a critical safety feature that stops the spinning auger or impeller when you release the handlebar grips. A long handle on single-stage models or a joystick on two-stage models are among controls that let you quickly change the height and direction of the snow thrown from the discharge chute. A handlebar-mounted trigger release on two-stage models often eases steering by disengaging power to either or both drive wheels.

    Speeds. Most two-stage snow blowers have five or six forward speeds (and one or two reverse) 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. Some machines offer as many as seven speeds, but we think that's overkill.

    Electric starting. Most gas-powered models now come with plug-in electric starting for use near an outlet for the initial cold start, which is much easier than yanking a pull cord in cold weather. Once the engine is warmed up it will start much more easily with the pull cord.

    Clearing tool. 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.

    Headlight. This feature on many two-stage machines lets you work after dark, of particular importance if you didn't get to inspect the grounds for stray items before a storm hit.

    Snow blower maintenance: Keep it ready to go

    A broken snow blower is the final indignity the morning after a blizzard. Here's how to avoid being left out in the cold:

    Change the spark plug. This is what ignites the fuel so the engine can start and run reliably. Replace it once a year before winter or as often as the owner's manual recommends. Coat the plug's threads with anti-seize compound so the plug is easy to remove next year.

    Check and change the engine oil. Today's snow blowers have a separate oil reservoir like the ones in cars. Check the level before each snow-blowing session. And change the oil after winter before putting the machine away; your owner's manual will list the proper type and grade to use.

    Preserve the fuel. Gasoline can oxidize in as little as a month, preventing the engine from starting and leaving deposits that clog carburetors and fuel passages. Adding a stabilizer to the fuel can keep it fresh for up to a year; some also promise to keep the ethanol from separating out and damaging seals and other parts. But we recommend that you not leave any fuel in the snow blower over the summer.

    Keep the right parts handy. Two-stage snow blowers have shear pins that protect the engine and transmission by breaking if the auger hits something too hard. Have extras on hand and resist the urge to swap in an ordinary bolt and nut. Also keep extra drive belts—you'll typically need one for single-stage machines and two for two-stage models.

    Keep fasteners tight. Periodically tighten nuts and bolts, especially on control linkages, which tend to loosen as a snow blower vibrates. And adjust the auger's scraper and skid shoes on two-stage models so the metal auger comes close to the surface without contacting it.

    Check the tires. Snow blowers get the best traction with the right amount of air in their tires; owner's manuals typically recommend 15 to 20 pounds per square inch (psi). You'll find the precise spec for your machine in the manual and on the side of the tire. Be sure to check tire pressures even on a new snow blower, since many are shipped with over-inflated tires to reduce the chance of damage on the way to the store.

    Take any batteries indoors. If you have a cordless-electric model, take special care with its batteries and follow manufacturer recommendations (check the owner's manual) to be sure they'll last as long as possible.

    Don’t become a statistic: Use your snow blower safely

    Snow blowers also have a dark side: These labor-saving machines have been involved in nearly 6,000 emergency room visits each year and some 20 deaths since 1992, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Two of the victims died after becoming caught in the machine, while five died of carbon-monoxide poisoning after running the engine in an enclosed area.

    The number one cause of injuries: Users who came in contact with the auger or the impeller inside the discharge chute after trying to clear a jam with their hands. A handlebar control that stops the auger and—on two-stage snow blowers—the impeller when released addresses some of that risk. Many snow blowers also include a clearing tool mounted on the machine within easy reach. And on some machines, including Toro's two-stage models, an extended-length chute makes it harder to reach the impeller.

    While a snow-blower owner's manual may not be scintillating reading, it's the first step to safer snow clearing. Here are other tips that will help keep you and your family out of harm's way this winter:

    • Before the snow hits, remove doormats, sleds, boards, wires, newspapers, and anything else from the area you'll clear to avoid clogs and damage to the machine.

    • Don't let kids operate a snow blower. And keep people and pets far away from the area you're clearing.

    • Turn off the engine on a gas snow blower or unplug the motor on an electric model before clearing a clog at the auger or discharge chute. Then use the clearing tool or a broom handle to clear the clog—never your hands or feet. And remember that a stationary auger and impeller are often under enough belt tension to harm hands and feet, even with the engine or electric motor off.

    • Protect yourself from carbon-monoxide poisoning by starting and running gas-powered snow blowers outside, never in a garage, shed, or other enclosed area—even if the door is open.

    • Never wear loose pants, jackets, or scarves, which can get tangled in a snow blower's moving parts and pull you in with them.

    • Wear earplugs or other hearing protection, especially with gas-powered models, which are typically above the 85 decibels at which hearing damage can occur.

    • Wait until a gas model's engine is cool before refueling to avoid igniting the gasoline.

    • For electric models, use an outdoor extension cord and an outlet with ground-fault-circuit-interrupting protection (GFCI). Then be sure to keep the cord safely away from the spinning auger while working.

    Need more advice?
    For more information, read our snow blower buying advice which details the types of snow blowers and snow blower features to consider. To find the right size snow blower for your property, use our interactive, below.

    For more help in buying a snow blowers, use our interactive buying guide (click on the word "Interactive," in the image at right). To view the interactive, your computer or other device requires Flash.

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