Snow Removal Equipment: Choices for Homeowners

Shovels, Snowblowers, Snowplow Trucks, and More

Man using gas snowblower in Damariscotta, Maine.

Scott B. Smith Photography/Getty Images

The matter of choosing snow-removal equipment is nothing less than a quality-of-life issue for someone who dwells in a part of the country where a snowstorm is possible at any time from November to April. There are a number of different options for homeowners snowed in, and each has its own pros and cons. Your mind will be more at ease during winter once you choose between the various options and find the one that's just right for you.

The Old-Fashioned Method: Shoveling

You can, of course, use snow shovels as your snow-removal equipment. If you're looking for a winter workout, shoveling may still be your best option. In fact, to remove snow in areas such as around dryer vents, you almost have to shovel.

  • But this method of snow removal may not be an option for those with weak backs.
  • Nor is it as easy as it once was to find someone to shovel snow for you (that eager kid with a shovel in the neighborhood who will take care of snow removal in your yard in exchange for a reasonable pay).
  • One alternative worth exploring for those who can shovel but who wish to exercise caution about their health is the ergonomic shovel. Just be sure that you're shoveling snow smarter, not harder.

Buying a Snowblower is Not a No-Brainer

Or you can blow the snow away, using a snowblower as your snow-removal equipment. Indeed, in this highly technological age, buying a snowblower may be the first option that occurs to you. These machines surely have their merits, especially for those with little desire for a wintertime workout, but don't automatically assume that they represent a better option than shoveling.

  • Snowblowers take a bite out of your pay, and they require maintenance. It can be really irksome to have to work at getting a gas-powered snowblower to start up before you can even begin to clear snow away. Snowblowers also require storage space. For those without garages, this may be a tough requirement to meet. Ditto for those who do own garages, but who never have much space in them because they can never stand to throw anything away.
  • Remember also that there's a reason this beast is named a "snowblower": It blows snow, not slush or ice. Many people who pay for a snowblower thinking that they're purchasing a device that will solve all of the problems caused by winter precipitation fail to take into account that not every winter storm serves up powdery snow. Stickier, slushier, or crustier snowfalls may pose problems for your machine.

If you don't have the storage space to house a snowblower, one alternative is to enter into a sharing agreement with neighbors.

  • In an article appearing in "The Wall Street Journal Online" ("Choosing Your Weapons For the Winter Season," filed January 29, 2002), Jeff Zaslow reported on the phenomenon of "plowsharing" (using a community snowblower to serve the snow-removal needs of a number of homes at once). Zaslow noted the complaints of snowplow truck drivers that business had dropped 15% to 20% because more people were taking snow removal into their own hands again.
  • Sharing a snowblower is a great tip if your neighbors are pals of yours; otherwise, difficulties can arise here, too.

Another option that takes advantage of technology that you can have handy on your own property in the event of a snowstorm is the heated driveway. It's a built-in system you have installed under your driveway to melt the snow. But heated driveways come with a heftier price tag than snowblowers.

If snowblowers aren't your cup of tea, and if you have a truck, you should consider buying your own snowplow and attaching it to your truck. Then you could have your own snowplow truck. But for those who don't have a truck, consider whether you could afford the monthly bills to pay for a truck. Most people prefer to hire out for their snowplowing needs, so let's take a closer look at this option.

Hiring Snowplows on the Fly

Some of 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 drooping 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.

Hiring Snowplows the Reliable Way

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 whom 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. As long as the snow is fluffy, the solution here is to blow the snow off with a leaf blower.