Inside CR Test Labs: Snow-Blower Workouts

Consumer Reports News: January 20, 2009 12:09 AM

While Mother Nature has dumped a decent amount of snow on the Consumer Reports headquarters this winter (as you can see in the video, right), early on in the testing cycle for snow blowers, the white stuff was limited.

In mid-December, testers began preliminary work using wet sawdust, since it can simulate the consistency of snow, feels like snow, and acts like snow when it meets a snow blower. Project leader Peter Sawchuk and technician Bill Taylor directed the machines through a lane covered with 6 inches of wet sawdust then measured how far the sawdust traveled.

In another test, Sawchuk cleared what he called a "plow pile," an 18-inch-high x 30-inch-deep mound that simulates what municipal plows push up against the edge of your driveway when they clear the streets. The dense pile represents the toughest challenge a snow blower faces—fail to deal with this snow-and-ice heap and it could linger until spring—and performance here is a good measure of how well a snow blower works.

Other initial tests for the snow blowers included workouts at a local skating rink, whose Zamboni produces lots of ground-up ice when it resurfaces the skating surface.

The testing crew also brought the snow blowers to a private airstrip in upstate New York. They ran the machines through their paces on a 30-foot-wide airstrip and had the more capable models clear a 220-yard-long path from a county road to the airstrip itself. While we won't publish our full report until next fall, here's what we can tell you so far:

Two-stage models are more powerful—and pricier. On these machines, a fast-spinning impeller behind the auger (which cuts into the snow and channels it up through the chute; every snow blower has an auger) adds more height and distance to the throw. The wider the impeller, the better a snow blower can tackle a heavy snowfall.

Promising models in preliminary testing have been the 30-inch Troy-Bilt Storm 3090, $1,100, which has a wide impeller, and the 27-inch Ariens Deluxe Track Sno-Thro 927 LET, $1,000. The Troy-Bilt (shown with Sawchuk blowing sawdust) has a joystick with which you control the snow-throwing direction and angle. This feature can be helpful, though we're finding cranks to be more precise. Both models have four-cycle engines that are less likely to stall out when the blower ingests too much snow at once.

"The Ariens is built heavier than the Troy-Bilt, but that makes it more difficult to maneuver," notes Sawchuk. "The Troy-Bilt's maneuverability, plus the way it dug under compacted snow, has made all the difference for us." He adds that the 28-inch Toro PowerMax 828 also being tested shows promise, though at $1,700 it is expensive.

Other impressive models so far include the 26-inch Yard Machines 31AM63EF700, $700, and 24-inch Craftsman 88955, $580, both four-cycle, two-stage models made by MTD. (The Yard Machines 31A62EE729 and Troy-Bilt Storm 2410 Snow Thrower are virtually identical to the Craftsman.) These have performed nearly as well as the Troy-Bilt and Ariens models and are less expensive.

Toro Power Clear 221Q 38583 For smaller driveways, the 16-inch, two-cycle, single-stage Toro Power Clear 221Q 38583, $680 (shown), and the 20-inch, four-cycle, single-stage Honda HS520AS, $800, have been impressive. The two-cycle-engine Toro has the edge in power.

We're also testing corded electric models, which so far we don't recommend unless snowfall in your area is typically a couple of inches or less and you need to clear only a deck or walk.—Ed Perratore

Essential information: Read our report on snow blowers and use our interactive feature "Snow Blowers: Which Is Right for You?" to find the best snow blower for your home.

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