Consumer Reports: Snowblower Buying Guide

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Bigger, better, and friendlier are the terms that best describe the latest snowblowers, also called snow throwers. The new models feature easier steering and more convenient chute controls. And prices are down, thanks to pressure from major retailers such as Home Depot, Lowe's and Sears, which account for the majority of sales.


GETTING STARTED

You needn't buy the biggest snowblower to get competent clearing. Manufacturers offer small, easy-handling machines for homeowners with small driveways. But for large or hilly areas or deep snow, choose a larger model with power-driven wheels. Use this snowblower guide to make your buying decision.Don't Fall for Sales Pitches

Some manufacturers and retailers have been pushing Briggs & Stratton engines and disparaging others. But the other engines on most of the machines we tested performed well.

Don't Count Horses

The big snowblowers might promise 11 horsepower or more, but some less-powerful machines clear snow just as well.

Stay Safe

Snow blowers cause 3,000 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 snowblower -- 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 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 snowblower. If your driveway is especially long and two or more cars wide, consider having it plowed.

[Snowblower Buying Guide continues below.]

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TYPES OF SNOWBLOWERS

You can spend as little as $100 for a snowblower that can handle moderate snow conditions, and well over $1,000 for a heavy-duty model. The type of snowblower you buy depends on the area that you need to clear as well as the space available to store it.

Single-Stage Electrics

These small snowblowers don't have driven wheels. Instead, the rubber-tipped auger that picks up and throws the snow also helps propel the machine. They're best for short, level driveways, decks, and walks with snow levels of four inches or less. About the size of a walk-behind mower, single-stage electrics are also lightest, smallest, quietest and easiest to handle, and the machine's electric motor frees you from fueling and engine maintenance.

But an electric's rubber-edged auger can pick up and throw gravel, and its narrow, 11-to-18-inch swaths typically mean that clearing requires multiple passes. What's more, the modest pulling power is no match for steep slopes and might make the machine pull sideways. And, of course, the power cord limits range and maneuverability.

Single-Stage Gas

These small-to-midsize models are typically more powerful than electric versions and are a good choice for level, midsize 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 free you from a cord. They also clear a larger, 20- to 22-inch swath and offer electric starting.

But like the electrics, they're a poor choice for gravel driveways. The machine's auger provides only modest pulling power, and it tends to pull sideways on steep slopes. And their gas engines are often two-cycle (which need oil to mix with the gasoline) and require regular maintenance.

Two-Stage Gas

Like single-stage gas snowblowers, two-stage models begin by using the auger to pick up and throw snow. Unlike the smaller machines, they add a fan-like impeller above the auger to help throw snow out the chute -- the "second" stage in their name -- and are propelled by engine-driven wheels. 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 snowblowers are also a must on gravel, since the auger doesn't touch the ground. On the downside, they're relatively heavy and expensive, and can take up as much storage space as a lawn tractor. Their gas engine also requires regular maintenance.


SNOWBLOWER FEATURES

A good snowblower blends competent cleaning with smooth, single-lever chute control. These snowblower features can make some machines easier and more pleasant to use.

Controls

Independent dealers and even big-box stores typically have floor samples that 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 snowblowers we tested have 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, 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.

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.

Electric Starting

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.

Headlight

This feature on many two-stage machines lets you work after dark.

Speeds

Most two-stage snowblowers have five or 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. Some machines offer as many as seven speeds, but we think that's overkill.


SNOWBLOWER BRANDS

You'll find snowblowers for sale at big box stores such as Lowe's and Home Depot, and at Sears and outdoor power equipment dealers. Use these profiles to compare snowblowers by brand.

Ariens

Ariens' snowblowers 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.

Craftsman

Another market leader in snowblower 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 of 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.

Toro

One of the market leaders in snowblower 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 models have 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

Troy-Bilt is the MTD-made brand sold in Lowes. Troy Bilt gas-powered snowblowers 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

Yard Machines snowblowers are manufactured by the Cleveland-based company MTD and sold in the mass channel. Its gas-powered snowblowers 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.

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