Pathfinders: Next-Generation Snowthrowers

Snowthrower technology has stormed in like a lion, but snowthrower prices have reacted like a lamb.

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There’s something calming about waking up, looking out the window and seeing 10 inches of freshly fallen snow. However, soon after, you realize that the 10 inches of wonderland that you’re admiring also covers the driveway, and you have to be at work.

Moving snow is a chore. Fortunately, our investigation of the segment found that today’s snowthrowers are a better value than ever before.

MORE VALUE. Since we last reported on snowthrowers, pricing on models has remained relatively unchanged. You still can buy a basic single-stage snowthrower that has 22 inches of clearing space and enough engine power to clear a 75-foot driveway for around $400. However, single-stage snowthrowers might not be around for much longer. Ariens, Craftsman, Husqvarna and Toro now make only two or three single-stage models.

Two-stage snowthrowers throw snow farther and can cut through a snow drift much more easily than a single-stage model can. Single-stage snowthrowers use an auger to chop and throw snow; two-stage models have an auger and an impeller, the latter of which gathers the snow that’s chopped by the auger and tosses it. The strongest two-stage snowthrowers can hurl snow 60 feet; but most can throw snow 40 feet. The range of even the strongest single-stage snowthrower is 35 feet only. According to snowthrower manufacturers, this all depends on the engine displacement and torque, how cold it is outside (the colder it is, the lighter the snow) and the speed of wind conditions that cause resistance. A driveway that might take 1 hour to clear with a single-stage snowthrower might be cleared in a half-hour with a two-stage model.

Today, more two-stage models that have power steering can be found on sales floors. Since two-stage snowthrowers use a solid axle, they can be difficult to maneuver, especially for someone who has a smaller build. A snowthrower that has power steering mitigates the problem greatly. Today, you can get power steering on a two-stage snowthrower starting at around $800. Six years ago, that same snowthrower would have cost $800 more.

Three fourths of two-stage snowthrower models across all price ranges now come with plug-in electric start as standard. Four-stroke overhead-valve  engines that use 10 percent to 30 percent less gasoline and allegedly leave fewer carbon deposits, which can wear down an engine over time, are the rule of the day. (The manufacturers that we contacted cited numerous variables that they say prevents them from telling us how many fewer carbon deposits that a four-stroke snowthrower engine emits when compared to a snowthrower that has a two-stroke engine, which minimized their claim to us that carbon deposits have been significantly reduced in four-stroke overhead-valve engine models.) Six years ago, all two-stroke engine snowthrower models that were produced by manufacturers had Tecumseh engines, which was the primary engine manufacturer at the time that eventually decided to stop manufacturing engines for the snowthrower category.

Those snowthrowers that once were powered by Tecumseh engines were replaced with four-stroke-engine snowthrower models in part because of new Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards and the need for manufacturers to produce their own engines. Before this change, only two-stage snowthrowers had four-stroke engines; after EPA initiated its new standards, two-stroke engines that were in single-stage models were replaced with four-stroke engines. The four-stroke engine also runs quieter and cleaner than does a two-stroke engine. According to Ariens, the four-stroke overhead-valve engine has a higher compression rate that delivers increased performance compared with the usual side-valve engine.

Increasingly more high-end machines include an infinitely variable hydrostatic drive. This makes a snowthrower easier to maneuver, because you can adjust the speed through an infinite speed control, which means that you have more options and levels for speed control. Unlike with a snowthrower that has a conventional transmission, you can adjust the speed on a model that has an infinitely variable hydrostatic drive while in motion and without having to stop disengage the clutch paddle. You can slow down and speed up in smoother increments and without lurching or jerking. Snowthrowers that have this drive offer virtually maintenance-free operation, because they don’t have wearable rubber components like a typical transmission has. These models require 10W-40 synthetic oil, which means that they can take on higher loads and are more durable and have better performance than do snowthrowers that run on conventional oils.

The fully enclosed design of the system means that less moisture reaches the engine components than in a conventional snowthrower.

Husqvarna was the first to add LED lighting to all of its snowthrowers. By all accounts, these lights are brighter than incandescent headlights are, and they’re immune to the engine vibration that would shorten the life of incandescent headlights.

Meanwhile, some new skid shoes, which lift and glide the snowthrower’s auger housing across the ground when it passes over a snow-free sidewalk or driveway—which also makes turning easier and prevents the snowthrower from picking up rocks and gravel—are made of a hard, polymer-based plastic. This means that the skid shoes won’t scratch or leave rust marks on your driveway, which is a common problem with steel shoes. Various third-party sources confirm that the new skid shoes are as durable as steel. Further, most are reversible, which provides twice the life compared with steel versions.

Tool-less drift cutters and four-way electric chute controls now are available on midrange and premium models. Models exist today that come with tool-less drift cutters that are attached to the auger housing. Tool-less drift cutters look like windshield wipers; they’re attached to each side of the auger housing and are fully extendable to cut through high drifts of snow. The term “tool-less” means that they come with knobs to tighten them onto the auger housing without the use of a wrench or other tool to tighten them to the housing.

Four-way electronic chute controls that are in the form of a joystick can be controlled with one hand and allow the operator to adjust the direction and pitch of the snow that’s being thrown. Also, these controls don’t freeze like traditional cable-system chute controls. This feature once existed only on premium models, but it has migrated to midrange models.

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