Shoveling vs. Snowblowing vs. Snowplowing for Snow Removal

Image of man using gas snowblower in Damariscotta, Maine.

Scott B. Smith Photography / Photolibrary / Getty Images

When you need to remove snow from a residential driveway, at most you have five basic choices:

  1. Snowblowing
  2. Shoveling the snow
  3. Finding someone else to shovel your snow
  4. Hiring snowplow contractors
  5. Installing a heated driveway

Of these, snowblowing and shoveling are the two DIY methods to remove snow, while the other options require hiring someone or tackling a major improvement project. You may already know how to shovel snow and its pros and cons. There are also advantages and disadvantages to snowblowing, and it may not be worthwhile to buy a snowblower. While some people need a snowblower as shoveling is too physically demanding, others may find shoveling takes less time for the typical driveway. Still more may prefer hiring someone, either to shovel for you or to drive a snowplow for you. While installing a heated driveway is an option, it's a pricey one—and not one you can implement once the snow has already fallen.

When It Makes Sense to Shovel

To shovel a driveway, all you have to do is to grab the shovel and have at it. Compare the simplicity of that process with what's involved in using an electric snowblower:

  • Take it out of storage.
  • Locate an extension cord.
  • Move any cars parked in your driveway.
  • Plug in the electric snowblower (perhaps first shoveling a path to the electrical outlet).
  • Do your snowblowing.
  • Unplug the electric snowblower.
  • Clean it off.
  • Store the unit and the extension cord away once again.
  • Return your vehicles to their parking spaces.
  • Repair the electric snowblower as needed.

Moving the automobiles takes extra time and effort on your part. When shoveling, you can easily remove snow around any cars parked in your driveway; shoveling boasts the advantage of maneuverability. But snowblowing forces you into one method—it is best done in long, straight sweeps, for which you'll need an unobstructed path. So you will most likely have to move parked cars when using a snowblower.

Consider also that when you're snowblowing, you have less control over where the snow will be deposited than when you're shoveling. For example, say there's a shrub planted along your driveway that you don't want to heap snow upon. When shoveling, it's easy enough to avoid covering the bush. But when you're removing snow with a snowblower, it's not so easy. You have to adjust your angle so that the snow will be blown either to the left or to the right of the shrub (even then, the wind may thwart your good intentions). That's a real pain, especially if it's not just a matter of a single bush.

Taking all this into account, you probably could shovel your driveway in one-third of the time it takes to clear it with an electric snowblower. Even more time may be needed if you have to wait for the wind to be right for snowblowing so the snow doesn't blow back into your face.

When It Makes Sense to Buy a Snowblower

Of course, one size does not fit all. You may have physical difficulty shoveling snow, in which case a snowblower is a great solution (assuming you can get it to start). Having the right machine can make the difference between enjoying self-reliance versus having to depend on someone else for snow removal.

If you're thinking of buying a snowblower, the issue then becomes gas snowblower versus an electric snowblower. It's important to get this decision right because the two have distinct pros and cons.​

If you have a long driveway and your health isn't too bad, buy a gas-powered model. You don't want to be dragging a cord along for a great distance.

But for smaller spaces, electric snowblowers are ideal. They're easy to move around (being lightweight), easy to store (being compact), and easy to maintain (no need for oil and gas). Furthermore, they are the best choice for people who are trying to avoid physical strain, precisely because they are lightweight.

If you're in reasonably good health but remain unconvinced of the virtues of shoveling, look into ergonomic snow shovels and aluminum snow shovels, which might be the right tools for you.

When It Makes Sense to Hire a Roaming Snowplow

You may be all too familiar with this snow-removal method. It entails standing in a snowbank up to your thighs at the front of your driveway, a sullen look on your face and a banged-up shovel slung over a shoulder, waiting for drivers in pickup trucks with snowplows to drive by and make you an offer.

The drawback here is obvious: If you need to get your car out onto the roads in a hurry, then this method just won't do. But if time isn't a concern for you, then you can find some cheap snowplowing rates this way. Truck drivers with snowplows who are on their way home (after taking care of regular customers) are sometimes not averse to picking up a few extra bucks, as long as you're willing to keep the snowplowing requirements simple.

When It Makes Sense to Formally Hire a Snowplow Service

If hiring a snowplow in this off-the-cuff manner isn't your style, there's a more reliable way of obtaining snowplowing help. You can simply take this snow-removal method to the next level: Strike a deal with a local snowplowing contractor to pay for snowplowing after each snowstorm, as part of a regular route.

But be careful: Some of these snowplowing contractors like to conduct business on an informal level. If you're going to enter into verbal agreements with snowplowing contractors, then specify firmly and in great detail what you want done, and make sure you're convinced that the snowplowing contractor seems responsive to what you're saying.

There are some considerations to be mindful of that may not be immediately apparent. For instance, if the entry to your garage parallels the run of your driveway, ensure the snowplow won't leave a snowbank piled up in front of your garage door after making its pass. The rest of your driveway would be cleared, but your car would remain barricaded within the garage (or, at the very least, the approach to your garage would be left a wet, slippery mess).

To eliminate such potential problems, it's best to make a habit of taking the name "snowplowing contractor" seriously. After all, if snow-removal is to be done by a snowplowing contractor to your satisfaction, with no surprises, there should be a written snow-removal contract. The snowplowing 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 snowplowing 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 dearly for it. Time is money.
  • 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 for 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 snowplowing 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 afterwards.
  • 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.

Clearing Snow off Uneven Surfaces

Shoveling, snowblowing, and snowplowing all have their place for clearing smooth surfaces, but none of them offers a solution to removing snow completely from surfaces where objects are sticking up. For example, you may have a walkway made out of cobblestones or out of natural stones that are not all of the same height.

If you have gravel or a sensitive pavers for your driveway, you can request that plow operators lower the skid plates. Normally they raise the skid plates until the cutting edge of the plow contacts the surface. Lowering the skid plates will leave less than an inch of snow behind, but it will protect your driveway from damage.

Or you can just blow the snow off with a leaf blower.