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Sizing a Snowblower

General snowblower considerations:

   Most people  have a general idea about snowblowers from seeing them in use but do not know much detail.  The information below covers many aspects of snowblowers and using them that might be helpful when considering a snowblower.

Toro Single Stage Ariens 5hp 20 Simplicity 7hp 22 Snapper 8.5hp 26 Ariens 11.5 28
Walkways, small areas, and cleanup. Small to average areas Average areas Average to large areas Clear large areas
2 cycle mix oil 4 cycle oil reservoir 4 cycle oil reservoir 4 cycle oil reservoir 4 cycle oil reservoir

Quick overview of the big picture (detail below).

Your clearing area Size up just what you have to clear:  Driveway, front walk and paths.  One, two or three car wide driveway.  Does it fan out at the far end with a garage?  Can you throw snow to both sides of your clearing area or one side?  Are there places where you have to make long throws?  
End of the driveway pile (EOD) This is a special consideration area.  The buildup from the plow is highly compacted unlike what falls on your driveway.  Its being high is not the factor it's the density, chunks and often wet. Do you have a one, two or three car wide driveway?  Do you clear sidewalks with plow buildup?  Some streets have a lot of salt.  Will you be tossing it onto your lawn or flower bed?
How much snow? Inside of route 495 (eastern Massachusetts) gets about 3-7 light snows a year and a few big snows.  Most of the time you'll be clearing 1-4 inches and a few times a year 6-10 inches.  Buy for the average snow not the killer storm.  A smaller snowblower will clear bigger storms with a little more effort and more passes.  You don't want to use a 9 to 11 horsepower machine to clear 1-3 inches.  The north part of the north shore gets more snow than the south shore and a bit dryer.     
Snowblower size Consider horsepower, clearing cut width and intake housing height. Smaller snowblowers get the job done but require more passes and time. Depending on your clearing area that might be insignificant.  If you want to get clearing done quickly go for more horsepower and wider intake housing.. More below in individual sections.
Horsepower Small area 4 -7hp, medium/average driveway 5-8hp, big area 6-11hp.  Intake housing width, small area 20-24 inches, medium/average driveway 22-26 inches, big area 24-28 inches.  You have to have a pretty big area to have a machine over 11hp and 28 inches or larger.  Remember that even if required to get the job done for a big storm you'll be running the snowblower mostly for lesser snows.
Snowblower model designations Common names which indicate horsepower and cutting width are:  521 5hp 21 inch wide cut. 622 6hp 22 inch wide cut, 824 8hp 24 inch wide cut. 

Snowblowers have marketing names. Toro XL, Toro Powershifter, Ariens SnoThro, YardMachine. The model names are used over many years and do not specifically identify a snowblower. For example a Toro 521 general model has been made with changes for over 20 years. 

Factory model designations.  Every snowblower has a factory model number which specifically identifies a particular make and features.  This model name (always numbers) is used to order parts and manuals. The factory model number is usually on a tag on the back lower base of the machine.

OHV vs L-head Tecumseh L-heads have been the standard winter engine for over 40 years and fantastic motors.  Overhead valves are the trend and a good one.  OHV's use less gas, wear better, quieter, and have a little more torque per similar L-head horse power rating.  There is no overall big disadvantage to an L-head but an OHV is nice.  Tecumseh is now out of business but parts readily available so not a problem.  Briggs and Stratton and Chinese L-head and OHV engines are now on most snowblowers.  Both are fine.  
Single or Two stage A single stage has one intake blade set that throws snow directly to a chute.  A two stage collects snow and passes it to an impeller that throws the snow.A single stage works well for smaller snows but can't clear big snows.  A two stage can do both.A single stage is self propelled by the blades lightly touching the ground i.e. no wheel drive.  Two stages generally have driven wheels. .Single stages are mostly two stroke engines.  Two stages are four stroke engines.  Most single stages were two stroke but manufacturers are moving to four stroke engines.
Two and four stroke engines A two stroke has gas and oil mixed together.  No oil changes.  A four stroke has an oil reservoir.  Requires oil changes.  For the oil change there's a spout at the engine base and easy to change - one quart.
Chains Not required for most areas.  Older snowblowers had small tires with poor grip except Toro.  Newer snowblowers don't need chains on flat ground or mild inclines. They have good tread patterns that grip well.    
Electric Starter Mostly not used even by people that have them.  When properly maintained a snowblower starts on the first or second pull but electric start is a good backup.  Electric starters are plug-in so require a line cord.  It's usually more trouble to get the cord than pull the rope a few times.  More below. 
Maintenance Snowblower maintenance is fairly easy and must be done to avoid early failures and problems.  If you don't do basic lawnmower maintenance you probably should not buy a snowblower.  See separate page on maintenance.

Click below for topic specific information:

Second hand considerations Quality Maintenance

Snowblower makers

How a snowblower works

 Throwing distance

 

Rebuilds and remakes

Single stage, two stage

General considerations below:

Making a rational purchase Match your need. Most snows each year are one to four inches and only a few deeper snows per season. 

A snowblower may be used a few times for a couple of years and many times in a bad year.  Sizing for the average conditions is most practical.  Snowblowers only get used a few times a year and making extra passes with a small snowblower for a big storm does not add much overall time to clearing for most clearing areas. 

 A small machine will be less expensive, easier to use, and to store.  A big machine is overkill to drag around for a 1 to 4 inch snowfall but nice for a 10 inch storm.  If you hate being out there then bigger is better and faster.

 There are many possible features for snowblowers.  Hand warmers and lights are unnecessary additions for some and indispensable for others. An apple peeler is a great gadget for a person who needs it.  Wheel differential is not needed for most people, see section below.  Electric chute options and hand triggers add failure points but can be useful if you have a clearing area where they would be used a lot.  Most people don't have a clearing area where they would be helpful.  Most clearing areas don't require a lot of chute manipulation so any simple hand crank is fine.  

Your area to clear:

 

A long thin driveway does not require a snowblower capable of great distance.  You'll be throwing from the center to the sides which is a very short distance.  For a three car wide driveway with no throw areas on the sides you would want a bigger machine to toss up into collection areas or throw up the driveway requiring a double throw.  A double throw is difficult but not because it's twice as much.  It's difficult because it's compacted.

Where will that snow go when you clear?.  Moving snow to a corner of the property or between the house and garage might be ok for a few storms but after three or four snows it's full, frozen and may become an unplanned barrier.  You may require a bigger machine to get around tossing restrictions

How long and wide is each area to clear?  It makes a difference how far you will need to throw the snow and the power requirement of the snowblower.  

Is your area flat, a hilly, or have many sharp bumps and crevasses?   What is your driveway surface:  dirt, tar, cement, pebbles, cobblestones, bricks?    

How much turning will you have to do for your area?  A long thin driveway is easy to clear.  It's up and back with few turns or backing up.  A complex driveway with nooks or side areas requires much more chute turning, backing up and turning.  

How much snow What are the average snowstorms like in a given year where you live?  There's a difference for areas close to Boston versus around  the 495 belt.  The average depth is different and the average dryness or wetness of the snow is different.  It makes a big difference if your blowing loose light snow versus sticky wet snow. 

A small snowblower will do the work of a large snowblower but require more passes.  That's not a big deal for most of your clearing area.  The end of the driveway pile is the tough spot.  If you have a one car driveway then it's only a little more effort to clear that with a small snowblower versus a big snowblower. For some areas a smaller snowblower is more practical.  For others it's not.

Year on year there the big storms get remembered but overall the yearly average is the thing to consider. 

The perfect snowblower A perfect snowblower is one that matches your needs at a cost that is within your budget.  Getting a snowblower to cover all your requirements is a matter of tradeoffs.   The throwing requirements change with the storms.  

Why buy a 10 horse power to throw 45 feet for a small section when you could double throw small areas with a smaller machine at a minor inconvenience?  Why get a 32 inch bucket when a 24 would do the job well enough and you won't have to store a monster machine?  A 25 inch high bucket works better on the EOD pile and drifts but with a few extra passes you could get away with a smaller size that matches most of your area most of the time.

The consideration is don't let a few special considerations drive your decision.  Think about getting by with a little more difficulty for special spots and have a snowblower that matches your average conditions that are what you'll be clearing the majority of the time.

Snowblower sizes Snowblowers vary in horse power, intake chute width, intake height, low and high center of gravity,  narrow and wide spaced wheels, big and small diameter wheels, wide and thin wheels.  

Common configurations:

Average to a bit bigger driveway.

5hp 20 to 24 inch intake width 12 to 18 inch intake height.

6hp 20 to 24 inch intake width, 12 to 18 inch intake height.

7hp 22 to 26 inch intake width, 14 to 20 inch intake height.

8hp 24 to 32 inch intake width, 16 to 22 inch intake height.

Pretty big driveway or two driveways with both being average to bigger.

9hp 26 to 36 inch intake width, 20 to 24 inch intake height.

>hp 26 to 36 inch intake width 20 to 24 inch intake height

Intake width Snow blower intakes housings go from 16 inches to 36 inches.  Do you have a long thin driveway 1 car wide, two wide?  How many passes would you make with a 20 inch housing versus a 26 inch housing?  Is one or two more passes for your area a big deal for you?  The size of the housing will determine if you have to make two passes on walkways or one.
Intake height The height of the bucket makes a difference.  Low bucket of 12 to 16 inches will work in most areas but can't eat a large end of driveway (EOD) buildup easily.  There will be spillover and require a few more passes.  That might might not be an issue of you don't have a wide entrance to your driveway or a lot of high drifts.

A 16 to 22 inch bucket will go into piles more easily and capture most of the pile.  How big are the drifts and EOD piles in your clearing area?  Do you clear a one car entrance or a three car entrance?

Impeller (two stage) The impeller consists of blades around the auger drive shaft.  The snow gets pushed into the impeller by the augers.  The impellers rotate at about 1200 rpm.  They usually have 3 to 4 blades of varying shapes.  The diameter of the impeller varies from 10 to14 inches.   

There are usually 3 to 4 blades and of various shapes. Some are like flat paddles and others are long strips. 

In general there is no advantage to shape or number of blades.  Each company designs to maximum efficiency for their shape of blade versus number of impeller blades and diameter.  There is usually an advantage to having a larger diameter impeller.  

Larger horsepower snowblowers have larger diameter impellers with three to four blades. Very large blowers generally have 4 blades.

Impeller (single stage) There is no separate impeller on a single stage like on a two stage.  

A single stage has a thin metal auger only for attaching rubber auger tips.  The auger on a single stage throws the snow directly out to the chute so an impeller is not needed.  The shape near the center of the auger is flat for throwing the snow into the chute.  

The auger speed on a single stage is faster than a two stage in order to get the momentum of the snow higher so it can be tossed without the need of for an impeller.

A single stage has no wheel drive.  The rubber tips touch the ground and pull the snowblower along.  They bounce around quite a bit on non-flat driveways from hitting high spots.

Augers blades  Types: Two stage: The auger blades attach to a sleeve is which mounted on and rotated by the auger drive shaft.  Some, like Toro, attach to a large cylinder that is attached to the auger drive shaft. The big drum is meant to hinder clogging.

Single Stage: On a single stage the center part of the auger functions as the impeller.

Single sages have rubber auger blades and attach to a metal auger similar to two stage augers.  Two stage blades deliver snow into the impeller and do not run completely across the intake housing.  

A single stage runs across the full intake housing and has a flattened section near the center under the chute which propels the snow up into the chute.  

Engine size, power How much raw power do you need?  How far do you have to throw snow for your area?  Do you have a long thin driveway versus a short wide area?  Can you throw to both sides of all the areas you'll be clearing?

There is not a great difference in throwing distance between 5 and 8 horsepower.  If you don't have to toss far then a lower horsepower will move snow 10 to 20 feet.  An 8 horsepower will toss 15 to 25. 

A great deal depends on the condition of the snow.  The early and late season snows are wet, heavier and more compact.  The cold day snows are loose, light and toss the furthest.  If you live to the south near the coast then your average snow is less but wet and heavier than inland.and to the north.

Motors wear and loose compression over the years.  An old machine won't toss to factory specification like it did when new.  The tossing distance of a 1970's motor many be fine for some people (probably most).  Some machines get lightly used over their life and retain much of their original power.  Others are worn out and barely toss snow.  

There is no easy way to evaluate a second hand motor.  You can't tell by sound.  You can't guess by the feel of the start cord resistance, it's unreliable.  A compression test will not work on most motors because of compression release for easy starting..  The best test is with a leakdown tester.  It's not very convenient to bring a tester with you to perform a test when evaluating a machine.  

If you can clear your driveway from the center and can throw to both sides then you don't need a snowblower with great distance capability unless your driveway is ultra wide.

OHV vs L-head Most snowblowers come with L-head (flat head) engines but the trend is to over head valves (OHV).  Engines are to much to get into and the differences not significant enough to list.  For the average home machine either is fine. 
Electric start Easy to start. If you have trouble pulling the starter rope or a hard starring machine an electric start can be great.  

They are nice but the reality is most people don't use their electric start.  It's usually more trouble to get out and put away the cord than just pulling a few times.  If your machine does not start in the first 5 pulls something is probably wrong and should be addressed.  But if a problem crops up with the carb choke or primer then and electric start will often muscle through that saving the day.  A problem may crop up on a snowy night and no one wants to hassle with a fussy motor.

Snowblowers are designed to start in cold weather and should be easy to start.  If you stay on top of maintenance your snowblower will start easily and stay that way for many seasons.   

Pull Start Some background: A snowblower does not have an air filter.  The carburetor throat is open to the air.  It's not needed because there is no dust and dirt blowing around like with a lawnmower.  Snowblowers come with primers and chokes to insure gas gets into the carburetor for easy starting.  

If your careful about clean gas a snowblower should start within the first 1 to 3 pulls.  With minimal care and maintenance a snowblower will stay easy to start over many years.

Tossing distance Each manufacturer lists a specification on how far their machine will throw snow.  The specifications are generally based on perfect conditions that don't happen much each year.  

The main factor in throwing distance other than snow condition which is very important is raw power.  There is horse power and torque and torque is the important one but for discussion purposes we'll consider that there is more torque with greater horsepower.  

A new snowblower is in peak shape and a 5hp will get very close to the distance of an 8hp.  Depending on your removal requirements it might not make much of a difference how far the max distance is.  For some there are sections of their clearing requirement where distance becomes an issue.  

In some cases you may be able to live with less distance by taking a smaller cut or double throwing a section of your clearing area.  For example a good tossing 5hp which can come close to an 8hp under certain conditions won't be able to match the 8 chewing through a drift or EOD and keep the distance.  By taking a smaller cut possibly you can easily live with a 5.  

Bigger snowblowers have more horsepower (torque) an bigger radious impellers.  That gets a higher rotational speed for greater distance.  The range is 10 to 16 inches diameter for impellers. 

Ease of handling Some snowblowers have short compact tractor sections and engines.  They are low to the ground.  How they are centered over the wheels partly determines how they will handle and dig into snow.  

Width of handles and height of the handles makes a difference. 

How often will you turn the snowblower as you make passes up and down a driveway?  If it's long and thin then not many.  If it's short and wide then many more.  Consider all the areas you'll clear and how much turning you'll be doing and factor that into your consideration.  Making a moving turn is fairly easy but making a U turn may require lifting up on the handles to slide the wheels around.  If you have trouble lifting the snowblower for this type of turn then make a driving turn in a slightly larger area to avoid lifting.  You might have clear a small area at the end of your first pass to make a turning area for yourself.  That's easy, quick to do and once you learn to do a driving turn most machines are easy to handle. 

Turning can be aided by wheel locks and differentials (see below) but often no matter how easy your snowblower is to turn what's to the sides often limits easy turning.  For example if you start on one side of the driveway and make passes to the center then turning into the center is turning into snow, possibly high snow.  No matter what you have for features turning into snow is not aided by wheel features.  For some areas it might be more desirable to have both wheels locked for more drive into drifts and EOD.  If you have a wheel lock differential then you'll have to hand change the wheel locking pin every time you want to turn easy versus have both turning for more grip. People with pin lock set it one way and never change it.

Your area to clear will determine which setting is better for you and probably be left there sacrificing the easy of the other setting as it too inconvenient to change during clearing. Having both wheels turn together for better traction is generally more useful than having the wheels set for easy turning. Ultimately it depends on your own physical condition and the conditions for your clearing area.  

Wheel size and spacing Large, widely spaced tires can make turning and handling easier.  They raise the height of the tractor section and can make intake housing ride up sooner.  Low wheels, close to the housing can be harder to turn but generally hold well and drive well into piles.  Because the smaller wheels are not very wide chains general help out.  Wide wheels with a good tread pattern are nice.
Chute control Turing radius, ease of use low high are considerations.  If you have a lot of chute movement while clearing your area a top dash mounted control is convenient.  If not then a lower side mount is easy enough to use.

Remote top chute controls can be nice if they don't stick or freeze up.  They require a little care but can be and inconvenience when sticking.  Electronic chute controls are cool but a point of failure.  Turning a crank during clearing is not so difficult. 

Two snowblowers Some people have two snowblowers.  A larger main snowblower and a lighter backup.  Some get a main two stage and a smaller single stage for backup, slush, and light snows.  Having a small single stage around is simply fantastic.  
Weight or overall heft Snowblowers are generally heavy, going roughly 150 to 250 pounds.  Their weight can be an advantage and disadvantage.  Going in high heavy snow a beefy machine will dig in well and the weight help traction. In light snow their overkill and moving it around can be difficult.  

A light weight intake housing will ride up when heavily loaded. A big heavy solid steel bucket will keep digging in longer to EOD and drifts.  Some snowblowers are balanced evenly on the wheels and handle easily, some balanced forward.  Toro has a back wheel shift positioning mechanism that shifts all the machine weight forward.  It does a great job of hugging the pavement but puts a lot of wear on the machine.  It's overkill and tough of parts.  You can get around the need by taking a lesser cut and you'll be abusing your machine less.

Size and heft are a tradeoff for your clearing area.  Keep in mind most of the time the snow level will be small and the EOD fairly easy to clear.  It's a trade to manage with a machine that does well in most storms and struggle a little in bad snows which have a more difficult EOD to remove.  

Chains Not just for grip on slopes.  They help the tractor drive into a heavy pile.  Useful where required.  The new modern tires are big, have knobby tread patterns and dig in very will mostly eliminating the need for chains.  If you have mostly flat areas to clear you probably don't need chains.  They can be noisy and dig into a tar driveway or lawn.   Snowblowers have multiple speeds and often dropping a speed setting will get grip back without chains where with chains a faster speed can be used and maintain grip.  If you have an area to clear without large buildup then chains might not be that helpful.  At times when you loose wheel grip with a 24 inch bucket you can use a less wide cut to maintain grip.  For your clearing area this might not be an important factor.
Side skids Skids are the shoes of a snowblower.  They are on the bottom of the snowblower intake housing and height adjustable by two bolts.  When they are extended the snowblower intake housing rides high.  When raised the snowblower intake housing will touch the ground.  Actually there is a replaceable plate on the bottom of the intake housing called the scraper bar which will touch the round.  It and the skids are meant to take the wear and be replaced. .  

Adjustments: For a gravel or dirt driveway setting the skids so the housing is up an inch prevents rocks and gravel from being picked up by the scraper and augers.  Rocks will jam the augers and scrape the paint off the intake housing and impeller.  Setting the skids too high will leave a thin trail of snow as the scraper and augers will be riding high.  If you have a flat smooth area to clear then most people adjust the skids so the scraper just touches the cement or pavement.  This will leave very little snow on the ground which will be removed by later by the sun.  The skid bolts rust so brushing the off after clearing snow helps along with a drop of oil during the season. 

Where to throw & salt Salt is a consideration.  If you live on a street that is heavily salted and clear a long EOD section and possibly some sidewalks then where that snow goes might be a consideration.  Just say you have a flower boarder on your front lawn and toss to your front lawn.  You'll be putting lots of salt on your flower bed.  

When you throw to one place it might be fine for two storms but as winter goes on and the buildup does not melt you might have created a situation where continued throwing to that area will make a pile that will last all winter, for example a heavily shaded area. 

Can you throw the driveway snow to both sides of the driveway?  Do you have to start at one side and throw across one care or two car lengths?  Can you start in the middle and throw to either side?  What's the longest throwing distance you'll need for average conditions?  You may want to go with a smaller size blower and throw the snow twice at times rather than have a bigger blower and need the extra power only a few times each year.  

Tracks vs wheels Tracks are like tank tracks.  They are great on hills and slopes but tough to U turn.  Some track snowblowers have tracks that can be individually disengaged to turn the snowblower under power (MTD machines).  MTD track machines are robust and last for many years.  Track machines are tough to get used to but are great even for flat areas.  They are not good for areas requiring a lot of tight turning with backing up.  The exception is MTD which is very easy to handle. 
Wheel locking and differentials Wheeled snowblowers have drives that move both wheels at the same time. Most wheeled snowblowers have two types of wheel control. 

Wheel Lock: A mechanical system that unlocks one wheel from the drive shaft.  The locking is done with a pin through the hub and drive shaft.  When the pin goes through the hub and the drive shaft the wheel turns with the drive shaft.  When the pin is placed on the drive shaft only the wheel turns freely.  With having one drive wheel and one free the snowblower is fairly easy to turn.  Pins are too difficult to change when blowing snow so usually left in one setting for the season.

Wheel Differential: WD allows either wheel to be disengaged for easy turning.  Some differentials of this type are automatic, others are controlled by triggers on under the handle bars.  Either wheel can be slipped from the drive to make turning easier.  Full differential like on Ariens machines is wonderful.  It's also easy to change while snow blowing with gloves on.  Lock in or out with handle bar triggers is becoming more common and nice but an expensive feature and not so necessary after you learn how to control your snowblower especially if you already have full differential.  

 Handle controls Usually there are auger engagement and tractor drive levers on the handles.  There are usually safety shutoffs if the auger control is lifted without the drive lever being lifted.  Most newer models have auger lever locking with the drive lever which leaves one hand free to use the chute control.   
Chute controls Position of the chute control can be a sore spot for some situations.  Some handles are low and to the side.  Some on the top dash.  If you have lots of turning or turning on the move then a top dash might be best.  If you don't have much changes and long runs then a lower control is not a factor.  Feel and type of control.  Many snowblowers (Murray and MTD makes) have a spiral at the end of the control rod that mates to notches in the chute.  These controls are inexpensive, a bit sloppy but work and last a long time.  Fully mechanical gears and moving linkages are more positive in movement and generally give a better feel.  They also usually move less under vibration which snowblowers have a lot of.  As a note the MTD and Murray chute worms are cheap and simple but don't fail and last for years. 

Most blowers have a top chute handle so the up down direction of the snow can be directed easily.  Some blowers have a remote top chute on the dash that's convenient if it's oiled occasionally.  Some have an electric chute control (few).  Remote top hood control is nice if you need it.

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