Snow Blowers - The Ultimate Buyers Guide

snow blower workingSnow blowers (aka snow throwers) can be a huge timesaver if you have to remove a lot of snow! Buying the right snow blower for your terrain, typical snowfall amount and type, and your budget can mean the difference between struggling to clear driveways and paths or being done in a flash and indoors sipping hot cocoa before you know it.

How Does a Snow Blower Work?

All snow blowers have four common elements which work together to remove snow and throw it a  distance from the area you are clearing:

  • Intake – The section on the front of the snowblower where the snow is collected. The dimensions of the intake area play a major role in determining how much snow the machine can handle in a given amount of time. Higher intakes are useful for deeper snow, while wider intakes reduce the number of passes it takes to finish the job. Although they finish the work faster, units with a larger intake can be more difficult to maneuver.

  • Engine – The engine is the heart of your snowblower. The more powerful the motor, the faster you will be able to remove the snow. Low-end snow blowers can be powered by gas, electric, or a rechargeable battery. The mid-level, high-end and professional models run on 4-stroke gas-powered engines.
    Corded and Cordless (Battery) snow throwers are convenient, easy to start and use, and fine for small flat areas and light snowfall. Larger areas and more challenging terrain are better left to larger gas-powered engines.
    Electric snow blower engines range in power from 10-15 amp. Cordless models use either a 40 or 80 volt Lithium-Ion battery. Gas engine sizes range from 99cc for single-stage entry level models to around 420cc for professional two and three stage snow blowers.
  • Auger – A corkscrew-shaped part located inside of the intake. The auger, powered by the snowblower’s motor, is the part which actually picks up the snow. Augers can be plastic or steel, smooth or serrated. A serrated auger is more efficient at removing icy, packed snow, as its “teeth” help break up the ice. Some high-end machines have dual augers.

  • Chute – After the snow is picked up and processed by the auger, the chute throws the snow clear of the machine. While working, you will periodically need to change the direction of the chute to send the snow where you want it to go. This can be done via a mechanical crank, a joystick, or a remote.

How Much Snow Can It Handle?

The amount of snow you can remove in one pass and the speed at which it can be removed is mainly determined by the intake height (the maximum depth of snow it can take in) the intake width (how wide a path it can clear) and the power of the engine (how quickly the machine can process the snow)

Types of Snow Blowers

There are 3 different types of snow blowers.

Single Stage Snow Blower:

Best for: Budget conscious. Snowfall 8-10" or less. Flat, paved driveways and walkways.
Pros: Less expensive, lighter, simple to maintain and use, corded and cordless electric models available..
Cons: Not well suited to larger snowfall amounts. Won't clear snow as quickly as a 2-stage snow blower. Not recommended for gravel driveways or uneven / unpaved areas as they can dig up gravel, rocks and dirt.
Price Range: Starting at around $160.

Perfect for light snowfall or a tight budget, most single stage snow blowers are simple “entry level” snow throwers - relying on just a collection intake, an auger and a chute to get the job done. Most are powered by a rechargeable battery or an electric cord and the intake tends to be smaller so that the amount of snow being processed doesn’t overtax the small engine. They lack “bells and whistles” like automatic steering or auto-drive, and may or may not have a light to help you clear your driveway on a dark winter evening. The auger on a single stage snow thrower touches the ground, providing some assistance in propelling the machine forward.

Single stage gas powered snow blowers have a little more power than their electric and cordless cousins, and can be considered inexpensive mid-level or even professional tools. Landscapers often rely on higher-end single stage blowers because they are light enough to be easily be taken in and out of the back of a pickup truck.

Dual Stage (Two-Stage) Snow Blower

Best for: Medium to heavy snowfall, hills, gravel driveways, clearing uneven terrain or unpaved areas.
Pros: Versatile, rugged and powerful. Remove snow much faster than single-stage snow blowers. Capable of throwing the snow 20-40'. Two-stage blowers run the gamut from mid-level and better entry-level models to full-fledged professional machines.
Cons: Heavy, more costly than single-stage snow blowers, can be more difficult to maneuver, noisy, higher maintenance gas engines.
Price Range: Starting at around $500, but can run into the thousands, depending on power, size and additional features.

For more challenging tasks, you may prefer to use a 2-stage snow blower. The dual stage blower has an impeller fan which sits between the auger and the chute.  Instead of the auger sending snow directly to the chute, the auger on these machines feeds snow to the impeller, which then sends it out of the chute. This arrangement enables 2-stage snow blowers to process more snow faster and deposit it at much greater distances than a single stage machine. The larger the impeller (in diameter), the more snow it can process.

Another factor in the efficiency of a two-stage snow thrower is the impeller clearance – the distance from the augur to the impeller. The smaller the clearance distance, the more efficient the impeller will be at collecting snow from the auger.  Larger clearances are easier to manufacture and generally found on less expensive machines. Impeller clearances are not usually displayed in the basic machine specs, but it should be listed in the manufacturer’s documentation.

The auger in a 2-stage snowblower does not touch the ground, which makes them a good choice not only for removing snow from paved areas, but for clearing gravel driveways and uneven or unpaved areas.g

[Compare single stage vs two stage snowblowers]

Three Stage Snow Blower

Pros: Can handle the heaviest and iciest snow accumulations. Faster and cleaner results than a two-stage snow blower. Excellent at handling snow which has been packed down or driven over.
Cons: Costly, heavy and more difficult to use, large size requires more storage space and adequate doorway widths. harder to find, not as many purchasing options.
Price Range :Prices for a three stage snowblower start at around $1200-$1500. Three-stage snow thrower attachments that can be added on to a tractor or mower are slightly less.

Three stage snow blowers are professional workhorses, used to clear mall parking lots, arenas, municipal areas, estates and the like, in regions with serious snowfall. A three stage snow blower can remove drifts in one pass which would take a two-stage machine several passes to complete, and throw the snow up to 50’ away!

The third stage of a 3-stage snow blower is an accelerator. The accelerator chops up the snow and ice collected by the auger before passing it to the impeller fan.

Options and Features:

So now that we’ve covered the basics, what are some of the available options and additional features you might want to look for?

  • Electric start / Key start – An electric or key start feature spares you the aggravation of dealing with manual recoil starters. This is a standard feature on most professional grade snow blowers.
  • Speed Control - Lets you adjust the speed of the augur, forward and reverse. Some high-end models have several reverse speeds.
  • Power steering – You probably wouldn’t want to drive a large truck or SUV without power steering.  Likewise, power steering is a big plus in maneuvering a large snowblower that weighs 200 lbs or more, and standard on larger mid-range and professional machines.
  • Oversized / Dual Tires – Grip the snow better and provide better traction.
  • Track Drive or Treads  - For the best traction, consider a snowblower with track drive. Like the track on a tank, track drive enables the machine to handle a greater variety of terrain, including uneven ground and hills.
  • Heated Handles / Hand Warmers - Like heated seats in your car? You'll love a snowblower with heated handles ! While not a substitute for a good pair of waterproof gloves, they help keep your hands toasty warm if you’re out in the cold for extended periods of time.
  • Drift cutters – Available on some larger snowblowers, drift cutters make the task go faster by feeding more snow into the auger.
  • Deflection extension or extended chute – It’s no fun getting a faceful of snow while you're working. A deflector extension or an extended chute helps minimize blowback. Most professional and some mid-range models also feature Remote Deflector Control  – a huge timesaver because you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to adjust the deflector.
  • Interlocking Controls – Interlocking controls allow you to operate your snowblower with one hand, leaving the other free to reposition the chute or deflector.
  • Halogen headlights – Give you high quality light for working after dark.
  • Chute control options -  Chutes can be controlled by a manual handle on the chute, by a crank, lever or electric control, or by a proprietary system like Ariens’ “Quick Turn” or Toro’s “Quick Stick” sytems.
  • Tire Chains – A useful “add on” purchase for entry-level snow blowers, whose tires may not have adequate tread to deal with more challenging weather conditions.