What to look for in a snow blower

Single-stage? Two-stage? Three?  Electric? Gas? Here's how to pick

Living in Alberta means you must plan for snow removal for anywhere from four to six months of the year. Shovelling works just fine. Sometimes, however, a snow blower is a necessity.

But what kind of snow blower? With all the options on the market, techlifetoday spoke with Continuing Education small engine repair instructor Mark Gratzfeld (Marine Service Technician ’90) on what to think about when considering power-assisted snow removal.

“Living in a residential community with standard double-car driveway pads and sidewalks is going to have much different needs than if you live on an acreage and need to clear a driveway that can run quite long,” he says.

Here’s what you need to know to make your choice.

Do you need to clear a small to medium-sized area?

house in winter

A single-stage snow blower has one auger that both pulls in the snow and sends it out the blower. (Technically, because of that one motion that covers grabbing and chucking, this style is known as a snow thrower.) It can throw light snow nine to 12 metres (30 to 40 feet), less so when dealing with heavier snow.

“This style is great for small to medium residential clearing of driveways and sidewalks,” says Gratzfeld. “Given that the auger is typically made of rubber, these models are more forgiving on more delicate surfaces such as patios and decks.”

You’ll need to push single-stage snow blowers like you would a lawnmower. The trade-off is that they are generally lighter and more compact – around 50 to 55 centimetres (20 to 22 inches) wide.

Do you need to clear a large area?

house with long driveway cleared of snow

A bigger area will mean stepping up to a two-stage snow blower that uses one auger to pull in the snow and another to throw. This allows it to throw more and heavier snow – roughly 15% to 20% further than a single-stage model, says Gratzfeld.

In some cases, this might be required for smaller areas as well. “If your driveway is exposed to the elements, like wind, it can cause drifting which leads to larger, deeper, uneven piles of snow.”

Two-stage snow blowers are also useful for different surfaces, as the auger blades are adjustable.

“This is great for those gravel surfaces that many people on acreages have,” says Gratzfeld. “You can set the blade higher so you’re not pulling up and throwing out gravel that will accumulate on your lawn in the spring when the snow melts.”

These models are generally heavier and bulkier, he points out, as most have a drive mechanism to propel them forward and backward. They range in width from 60 to 115 cm (24 to 45 inches).

For serious snow blowing, three-stage models come with, you guessed it, three augers: one to pull in the snow, one to chop up some of the bigger material the blower can pick up, and one to throw. Generally, these are much larger machines than an average homeowner would need, says Gratzfeld.

Should you go with gas or electric?

man using gas-powered snow blower to clear sidewalk

For two- and especially three-stage snow blowers, gas-powered will often be the only way to go, says Gratzfeld. With single-stage models, however, consumers have choices.

These lightweight blowers can run on gas, and have two- or four-stroke engines. Two-stroke engines will require mixing oil with gas to lubricate the engine.

Corded and cordless electric models are also available. Knowing which to buy is a matter of knowing the distance and size of the lot you need to clear, says Gratzfeld. The length of your extension cord will determine your range – but not just any cord. These are electricity-hungry machines.

“You’re going to need a fairly heavy-gauge wire to have enough power flow from the outlet through the cord to your machine,” says Gratzfeld. “If you use a standard extension cord you’ll end up blowing a breaker and risk wearing the snow blower motor out.”

If you want to save on the price of a good cord or are looking for more freedom to move, cordless is an option. Gratzfeld suggests trying to match the brand with that of another cordless tool you may have, so that the batteries are interchangeable.

Be warned, he adds: in time, the batteries will hold less of a charge, and replacements are expensive.

Should you buy new or used?

old snow blower covered in snow

Unless you’re mechanically inclined, Gratzfeld suggests buying new. If you can’t tune it up yourself, the cost of having a second-hand unit serviced by a professional may offset any savings.

Also, he wouldn’t recommend buying a used electric model, especially cordless. The battery will likely be significantly weaker than a new one, and replacement parts on both types can be hard to find.

Seasonal maintenance required

man changing oil on snow blower

Once you’ve decided on the best snow blower for you, Gratzfeld suggests consulting the owner’s manual for information on how to ensure it runs for many seasons to come.

Each year before use, check for wear on the belts that turn the augers. Expect to change them every five years or so. An annual oil change will be needed for all units with four-stroke engines. This will include all two-stage blowers and some single-stage. If your model has an air filter, check its condition as well. Single-stage blowers will also require regular inspection of the auger rotor blades for wear and replacement.

Gratzfeld notes that fuel isn’t meant to sit unused. The quality of gasoline deteriorates over time, which can cause damage to the carburetor or require a trip to the repair shop for fuel system maintenance.

Banner image by JPecha/istockphoto.com

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