Snow blowers make fast work of clearing snow
Snow blowers take the place of shoveling snow, clearing your porch, sidewalk and driveway in less time and with less effort. Using an auger mounted in front of the machine, a snow blower scoops up snow as you walk and fires it through a chute to collect in your yard (or wherever you aim). Snowy conditions create enough problems for traction and maneuvering, but wrestling a cumbersome snow blower shouldn't be one of them. Experts say buying a machine that's easy to handle, has glove-friendly controls and starts on demand is key to owner satisfaction. It's also important to select the type best suited to your region's winter. If you wind up with a blower -- also called snow thrower -- that's too small to tackle your typical snowstorm, the underpowered machine will bog down under the strain.
Shopping with these features in mind is more important than focusing on price alone, according to professionals. Snow blowers can cost $1,000 or more, though a leading consumer organization says that plenty of well-built throwers are available for less than $700. Ariens, Toro and Craftsman are some of the leading and most reliable brands of snow blowers, though not all of their models are good buys. Snow blowers are divided into four basic categories depending on how they are powered -- gas engine or electric motor -- and how they move the snow -- single-stage or two-stage.
Electric snow blowers. The easiest type to own and operate, most electric snow blowers weigh less than 40 pounds and are compact for uncomplicated driving and storage. Their electric motors are fume-free, quieter than gas engines and don't require regular servicing. The most powerful electric snow blowers can move about eight inches of powder, and half that if the snow is packed or wet. These are the least expensive type of thrower: Expect to pay $100 to $300, but don't forget to add in the cost of a separate heavy-duty extension cord. Most are single-stage machines.
Single-stage gas snow blowers. In a single-stage snow blower, the auger scoops up the snow with enough force to blow it out the chute. With no extension cord tethering them, single-stage gas snow blowers have a longer range than electric models. They are also more powerful, throwing snow farther, clearing heavy snowfall faster and breaking up packed berms left by the snowplow. Gas engines require more time and money to maintain, but many users say it's worth it for the added power. Most single-stage gas snow blowers weigh between 60 and 90 pounds and cost about $300 to $800.
Two-stage gas snow blowers. These are the beasts of the group: bigger, heavier and able to move more snow than single-stage throwers. Two-stage snow blowers add an extra component; after the auger shovels the snow into the chute, a corkscrew-like impeller shoots the snow as far as 40 feet away. Because augers on two-stage machines don't brush against the ground, this is the best option for clearing snow off gravel. Compact versions have a smaller body for easier storage but are still beefy enough to clear snow up to 20 inches high. Expect to pay at least $600 for a well-built compact two-stage gas snow blower and close to $2,000 for a full-sized one.
We use a combination of expert tests and owner feedback to select the top snow blowers. Unfortunately, ConsumerReports.org is the only professional source that conducts a side-by-side comparison. Their report applies ratings in seven categories (speed, power, clearing, noise, handling, controls and throwing distance) to about 90 snow blowers. Another helpful source, Paul Sikkema, editor of snow blower website MovingSnow.com, uses his experience and hands-on testing to review a handful of models. Hundreds of owner reviews, mainly from retail websites, provide additional insight into handling, performance, durability and overall satisfaction.