Shoveling vs. Snowblowing vs. Snowplowing: Pros and Cons

Image of man using gas snowblower in Damariscotta, Maine.

Scott B. Smith Photography / Photolibrary / Getty Images

If you live in a cold-winter region where snow removal is a fact of life, you have several options for how to clean your sidewalks, steps, and driveways. If your budget is very comfortable you might be able to install a heated driveway system that melts and evaporates snow without any effort on your part, but most of us will need to find some method of manual snow removal. The three main options are manual shoveling, snow blowing by machine, and hired plowing. Each of these methods has pros and cons that you'll need to consider when choosing.

Here's what to consider when choosing a snow removal method for your driveway and sidewalks.

Snow Shoveling

Shoveling snow by hand is a very inexpensive option, and it can be the best one if you are healthy and enjoy exercise. It is the most flexible method and detailed method, allowing you to jump into action whenever you want without prior preparation, and letting you clear snow right down to the pavement and into whatever nooks and crannies there are. And you can put the shoveled snow wherever you want—unlike snow-blowing or plowing, which have an unfortunate tendency to pile up snow where you least want it.

But the pleasant winter exercise offered by snow shoveling can become less appealing in winters with frequent heavy snowfalls, or as you begin to age and it becomes harder on the body. You may no longer have the help of your teenage children who once did shoveling or that of a friendly neighbor. It's quite likely that shoveling snow yourself will, at some point, give way to other methods—especially if you live in one of these climates where snow falls regularly.

Still, even if you end up buying a snow-blower or hiring a snow removal contractor, it's likely you'll keep at least one trusty snow shovel on hand to do the detail work or take care of those light dustings where there's no point in getting out the snow plower or calling the plow company.

 Pros  Cons
Very inexpensive options Hard work
Good exercise Removal is a slow process
Great for detailed removal Not practical for large areas
Most practical method for light snowfalls Can pose health risks for some people
Easy to control where snow goes

Hiring Snow Shoveling

It is entirely possible to hire others to do your snow shoveling. If you live in a neighborhood with reliable teenagers, for example, an energetic young person can shovel your driveways and walkways for less money than you pay for a babysitter. Some commercial lawn care services also will offer snow shoveling during the winter season, though this is considerably more expensive than hiring an informal helper. Paying $25 to $50 on a case-by-case basis to have your neighbor's teenage daughter or son do your shoveling is not a bad deal.

Snow Blowing

In regions with snowy winters, a surprising number or residential homes will have a gas-powered, electric, or battery-powered snowblower. A snowblower is a very practical machine to own in regions that see regular winter snowfall—in some regions, they may be as common as lawnmowers.

Costs for a snowblower start at about $200 for small single-stage machines suitable for sidewalks and small driveways, but you can easily spend $3,000 to $4,000 or more on a self-propelled two-stage snowblower suitable for clearing long driveways. Such machines approach the level of small garden tractors in their complexity and cost. Still, considering the cost of commercial plowing services, you can recoup the cost of a high-end snowblower in just a few seasons.

Typically, small corded electric or battery-operated snowblowers are fine for short sidewalks and small driveway pads where snowfalls are generally 6 inches or less, but for anything larger, a gas-powered snowblower is preferable. If you have physical limitations of any kind, you'll greatly appreciate the way a self-propelled machine simplifies your work.

What Is the Difference Between Single-Stage and Two-Stage Snowblowers

Single-stage snow blowers have a single mechanical auger that churns up the snow and blows it up and out of the chute with one action. Two-stage snowblowers have two mechanical components—an auger to pick up and pulverize the snow, and a second impeller that spews the snow with great force through the angled chute at the top of the snowblower. Two-stage snowblowers are considerably more expensive, but do a better job with heavy, deep snow and long driveways.

 Pros  Cons
Less physically demanding than shoveling Machines can be costly
Quick snow removal Not practical for steps, detailed work
Good choice for regions with regular light to medium winter snowfalls Machines require maintenance and upkeep
Can be used whenever you want; no waiting for a contractor Can be cumbersome to maintain and store
Ideal for long, straight sidewalks Hard to control where the snow goes, especially in windy conditions

Hiring Snow Blowing

In regions with snowy winters, the same companies that perform commercial lawn care in the summer may offer snow removal in the winter. The workers generally arrive with shovels and snowblowers on a trailer or in a truck, and in a matter of a few minutes to one hour, can remove all snow down to the pavement.

Nationally, the average cost of an annual contract to have snow removed by a commercial service is about $114, though in snowy regions, annual costs of $450 to $1,000 per winter are common. This can be a bargain if the winter happens to have many snowfalls, but the per-snow cost can be quite high if the winter turns out to be dry. If you have snow removed on a case-by-case basis, expect to pay $30 to $95 or more per snowfall for a professional service. Snow-removal contractors may also remove snow from your roof for an additional fee.

Snow Plowing

Finally, you can hire a commercial firm to come and plow out your driveway or garage pad after each snowfall. These workers typically work with a snow-blade blade attached to a pickup truck or small tractor to make quick work of clearing your driving areas of snow—often completing the job in a matter of minutes. Professional snow plowers can charge as much bas $180 per hour, or anywhere from $350 to $450 for a season-long contract depending on how large the area is. But remember that these professionals will only clear your driveway and parking pad—not the sidewalks and other areas. If you go this route, you'll still be left with clearing your sidewalk and steps by other methods.

Some snow removal firms may offer plowing as well as snow-blowing and snow-shoveling services. But you can expect to pay a premium price for such all-in-one service.

 Pros  Cons
Makes quick work of snow removal Can be expensive during snowy winters
Good for long driveways Service may be delayed when the contractor is busy
Good choice if you commute by car and can't afford to be snowed in Additional shoveling may be needed to clear snow down to the pavement
  Does not clear sidewalks, other areas

Contracting With a Snow-Removal Service

In any kind of professional arrangement beyond hiring a local teenager to shovel your sidewalk and driveway, it's important to be clear on what you're expecting from a snow-removal service and how much you're paying. Some snow removal contractors like to conduct business on an informal level. If you're going to enter into verbal agreements with contractors, then specify firmly and in great detail what you want done. For instance, if the entry to your garage parallels the run of your driveway, make sure the snowplow won't leave a snowbank piled up in front of your garage door after making its pass.

To eliminate such potential problems, it's best to make a habit of taking the name "snow removal contractor" seriously. There should be a written snow-removal contract. The contractor should come to your property to scope it out, sit down and talk with you about your snow-removal needs, and put it all in writing.

Beyond that, consider the following tips when interviewing people for the job of snow removal:

  • Ask for an estimate from each snow removal contractor you interview, since the bill for snow removal can vary greatly.
  • In addition to having the driveway snowplowed, some homeowners may need paths and stairs cleared. This is the time to talk about it. Such work can be more time-consuming than the snowplowing itself, so expect to pay for it.
  • The snow-removal contract should spell out whether there's a flat rate or the bill is calculated based on the size of the snowstorm.
  • If the snowplowing contractor has to dig you out twice from a big snowstorm, find out if there's an additional bill.
  • Get the total bill that you can expect to be charged for dealing with a snowstorm so that you have something solid on which to base your comparisons. If one contractor's estimate is higher than another's, you just might find out that it's due to honesty: Perhaps the cost for salt and sand has been included in the bill, whereas the "cheaper" service is simply keeping quiet about it, waiting to nail you with a hidden cost afterward.
  • The snow-removal contract should show evidence that the service has insurance against damage caused by snow removal. A snowplow can easily damage driveways, outbuildings, fences, etc.
  • Before you sign a snow-removal contract, find out the conditions for terminating it, should the need arise.
  • As always when hiring to have work done, ask for references and check them out. Snow-removal services who do good work won't have anything to hide; word of mouth is their best advertisement.
Article Sources
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  1. Sauter, Thomas et al. The snow, the men, the shovel, the risk? ER admissions after snow shovelling: 13 winters in Bern. Swiss Med Weekly, vol. 145, no. 0304. 2015. doi:smw.2015.14104

  2. A Contract Guide for Snow Plowing and Sanding. Vermont School Boards Insurance Trust.