Snowy Solutions

By the Mother Earth News editors
December/January 2003
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Up to your ears in fluff?
Dig your way out with these handy tools.

By Lindsey Hodel Illustrations by Brian Orr

For many of us, the season for snow shoveling has arrived. Although shoveling the white stuff by hand is always the greener choice, it may not be practical for people with large spaces to clear. Similarly, folks who are older or who have physical limitations also may need some help clearing their sidewalks and driveways safely. If you're a homeowner for whom a snowblower makes sense, keep the following points in mind when you buy.

SNOWBLOWERS 101

Most snowblowers are powered with a gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine. As you begin shopping, you'll find two engine options: single stage and two stage.

Single-stage models are ideal for homeowners with limited spaces to clear. They are smaller, lighter and less expensive than two-stage blowers. Single-stage models have an auger that makes contact with the ground as it rotates, pitching snow up and out through a rear chute. Single-stage blowers can be partly self-propelled, but you may have to lift the handle to tilt the machine (so the auger touches the ground) to help draw the blower forward and scrape snow off the ground. Single-stage blowers work well at clearing snowfalls up to about a foot deep.

Two-stage snowblowers also have augers that move snow to a discharge chute, but they are more heavy-duty and generally have full transmissions with multiple speeds and reverse. Two-stage units are better for breaking up hardened ice and snow than single-stage machines. In addition, two-stage models include a highspeed rotary fan that increases the machine's snow-throwing power. The auger in a two-stage blower doesn't come in contact with the ground, so a scraper bar on the bottom pushes the snow up into the auger. For this reason, single-stage units generally clean a smooth surface such as pavement better, but two-stage blowers are more effective on uneven surfaces such as gravel.

Path width for most snowblowers is about 21 inches for single-stage units and up to 32 inches for full-sized, two-stage machines. If you have a 26-inch path and get 6 inches of snow, single passes with a snowblower will reveal the ground. Heavier or deeper snow requires more passes, so take your region's typical snowfall into consideration when you buy.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Single-stage models can range from $110 to $600, while two-stage models can cost $350 to $2,600. Snowblowers are seasonal items, so you often can save money by buying one in the off-season. Before you buy, have the dealer start the model up for you so you can hear how loud it runs, and check out the manufacturer's warranties.

One way to cut the cost of a snowblower is to organize a community or neighborhood sharing program. One snowblower potentially could serve several neighbors, and using this group approach could save you and your neighbors big bucks.

CLEARING THE AIR

Even though snowblowers can help you avoid backaches and strains from shoveling, small gas engines like the ones on snowblowers are significant contributors to air pollution. Only you can make the decision whether you get enough snowfall to justify buying a snowblower.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adopted its first round of emission standards for snowblowers and other small, off-road vehicles in 1997. (California has its own emission standards, which the EPA has tried to match to make requirements more uniform for engine manufacturers.) The main emission concerns with snowblowers' small engines are hydrocarbons from unburned fuel and carbon monoxide from partly burned fuel, says Nigel Clark, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at West Virginia University. In older snow blowers, Clark says, up to one-third of the fuel doesn't get burned.

According to the EPA, a snowblower sends almost a pound of carbon monoxide into the air each hour it runs. As a comparison, you would have to drive about 70 miles to match the emissions produced in one hour by a snowblower.

To minimize pollution, Clark suggests looking for a newer blower instead of a used machine. Models made after 1997 meet EPA standards. Buy one with a four-stroke engine — they emit one-tenth of the pollutants a two-stroke engine emits — and keep it maintained. Clark says any poorly tuned engine can pollute. Four-stroke engines cost more and are heavier, but they traditionally last longer, too.

Some manufacturers also offer electric snowblowers, a much more environmentally friendly choice. Electric blowers are greener because they produce essentially no pollution from exhaust emissions or through fuel evaporation, according to the EPA. But keep in mind that the power plant supplying your electricity does produce pollution, although the plants are required to control emissions.

If you buy any size of gasoline-powered snowblower, do your part to keep the emissions down. Avoid gasoline spills when refueling by using a gasoline container with an automatic top-up device. Even small spills evaporate, polluting the air. Keep your engine tuned, change the oil, replace air filters regularly and use the recommended fuel/oil mixture from the manufacturer.

Besides the weather and your pocketbook, your health is a factor in deciding whether to buy a snowblower. Shoveling can be too strenuous for some, but for others, it's a great workout. You know your body best and whether you can handle the snowfalls in your region. For safer shoveling tips, see "Get the Scoop," below.

If you're shopping around for a snowblower, look for one that fits your needs and produces minimum emissions.

Get the Scoop

Shoveling snow can get your heart pumping and give you a great workout if you do it properly. But shoveling is a repetitive activity that can strain muscles or cause injuries. Follow these tips from the American Physical Therapy Association to save yourself shoveling strain and pain this winter:

• If possible, wait until the afternoon to shovel. Many disc injuries happen in the morning when discs have maximum fluid pressure.
• Take frequent breaks. Stand up straight and walk around to extend the lower back.
• Use a shovel with a shaft that lets you keep your back straight. A short shaft will cause you to bend more; a shovel that's too long makes weight at the end heavier.
• Avoid twisting and forward bending. The spine cannot tolerate twisting as well as it can other movements. Step in the direction you throw to prevent twisting.
• Lift small loads of snow. Bend your knees and lift with your legs.
• Do standing extension exercises: Stand straight, place your hands on the back of your hips and bend backwards slightly for several seconds.

"Smarter" shovels are easier to use than traditional straight-handled scoops, saving strain on your back. Here are some options:

Snowmaster Snowscoop (800) 544-7669; www.snowmaster.com
Ergonomic shovels and handles Biggs Corp. Manufacturing (877) 246-3746; www.biggscorp.com
Back-Saver ergonomic shovel (800) 6876575; www.countryhomeproducts.com
Ergo snow shovel Corner Hardware www.cornerhardware.com

Where to Buy One Listed below are some major snowblower manufacturers. Those with stars offer more efficient electric or four-stroke engine models.

• Ariens (920) 756-4688; www.ariens.com
• Honda (770) 497-6400; www.hondapowerequipment.com/sno.htm
• Simplicity (262) 284-8669 www.simplicitymfg.com
• Toro (800) 348-2424; www.toro.com
• Yard-Man (800) 345-8746; www.yardman.com

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