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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pros And Cons Of Buying A Snowblower

As mentioned in this earlier post, I have been doing some research on snowblowers to see if it is worth getting one for myself. In the past, I have cleared my driveway of snow using a snow shovel. Though it gets pretty cold where I live, it is not very snowy, so I usually end up having to shovel my driveway only 3 or 4 times every winter.

My driveway is 80 feet long and 20 feet wide. It is a full-length 2-car driveway. It is quite a lot of area to clear with a snow shovel. I have gotten better at it since I started doing this several years back. It used to take me about 2 hours to clear the driveway of snow using a snow shovel. Then, I improved my technique, and discovered some tricks (such as coating both sides of my snow shovel blades with a silicone lubricant to prevent snow from sticking to them), so now it takes me about 45 to 60 minutes to fully clean my driveway after a 4 to 6-inch snowfall (of light, powdery snow).

There are some advantages and disadvantages of relying on human power for snow-clearing. The main advantage is that it gives me exercise. The one hour it takes to clear the driveway is one hour of good aerobic exercise. There is not much heavy weight lifting involved because of the snow-shoveling technique I use, but it is all good exercise. Moreover, it is completely reliable. I have never run out of gas or oil, or required a tune-up at the most inopportune moments! My wife thinks I am pretty high-maintenance, but none of that maintenance is directly attributable to snow-removal!! It is also very inexpensive, given that I spent probably all of $10 each on two snow-shovels.

But there are some disadvantages to the approach. The main problem is the amount of time it takes to clear the snow off the driveway. Because I know how long it will take to do the job, I avoid doing the job as much as I can. While many of my neighbors clear the snow off their driveways after any snowfall over a couple of inches, I don’t bother clearing the snow off my driveway unless it is deep enough to prevent me from driving out of my garage. Usually, the limiting factor is not the actual amount of snow that fell on the driveway, but the snow piled up at the end of the driveway by plows clearing the streets of snow. In fact, that is one of the main reasons why I have ended up shoveling snow off my driveway only 3 or 4 times each winter for the past couple of seasons.

Sometimes, I have underestimated the depth of the snow at the end of the driveway. Sometimes, I have overestimated what my car is capable of doing. And sometimes, I have made stupid driving errors at the end of the driveway (the key to clearing the deep snow at the end of the driveway is to drive over it at high speed and turn only when the front wheel is in the street. The driving errors have mostly involved slowing down or turning prematurely). In each of these cases, I have been stuck at the end of the driveway, requiring a lot of effort to free up my car and continue my journey. Not to mention the embarrassment and the extra strain on the car’s engine, transmission and axles caused by such mishaps.

One hour is not a big issue when the snow needs to be removed over a weekend or in the evening. But the weather is not always that accommodating. Sometimes, it snows overnight, making it necessary to get the snow off the driveway before I can drive to work the next morning. Then, it becomes a scramble against time since I have to get out of bed an hour earlier than usual and shovel snow so that I can get to work on time.

Getting to work at a fixed time everyday is not a requirement of my job, but sometimes it does become necessary because of meetings and such. And with the kids needing to get to school by a certain time, it has become necessary to watch the forecast carefully, and plan for an early jump out of bed if the conditions call for it.

So, if the snowfall overnight is unexpected (or unexpectedly heavy), it can cause quite a few problems. I remember once when that happened, I simply cleared two one-foot wide tracks in the driveway leading from my garage to the end of the street. The tracks were spaced apart by the width of my car. With my wife guiding me carefully, I drove in these cleared tracks all the way from the garage to the street without getting snagged in the deep snow on either side of the tracks!

Moreover, even if timing is not an issue, the quality of snow removal is not the same when you work with a shovel as opposed to a snowblower. I find it very hard to get the absolutely clean driveway that my neighbors can achieve with a snowblower. It is possible, but it is a case of the 80-20 rule (in this case, the 90-10 rule): I can clear 90% of the snow off my driveway in one hour of using the shovel. To get that last 10% would require me to spend an additional hour or longer. So, I don’t usually bother with it. Nobody has any problems walking or driving over this last 10%, but it just looks “unclean”.

I have a corner lot with over 500 feet of 3-foot wide sidewalks on two sides of the house. You can imagine how long it would take to clear all of that of snow when my driveway alone takes me an hour. The area covered by the sidewalks is the same as that covered by the driveway except it is in the form of a longer, narrower strip than my driveway. My solution to the problem has always been to just clear my driveway. I don’t bother with the sidewalks at all. My neighbors with snowthrowers do clear their sidewalks, but I don’t. Luckily, I do have some company in my neighborhood, with a few homeowners not choosing to clear their sidewalks. People tend to take it in stride and either walk through the snow or walk on the street when the sidewalk is not cleared of snow. But once again, it looks sloppy.

That got me thinking about other options for the chore of getting rid of the snow. I did some research into contractors who clear snow for a price. From talking to various friends and neighbors who actually employ somebody to take care of the snow for them, there are two models of how the pay-to-clear works.

One of my friends pays a contractor a fixed amount per month for 4 months of each year. The period covered is from November 15th of one year to March 15th of the next year. The flat amount ($70 per month) ensures snow clearance from their driveway and sidewalks during that entire 4-month period anytime there is more than 2 inches of snow fall. The amount is not variable, and you get a really good deal if you have a really wet, sloppy winter. You might not get your money’s worth if it turns out to be a dry winter.

Some other friends pay on a per-snowfall basis. The contractor comes and clears the snow off their driveway and sidewalks every time there is snowfall of over 2 inches. He then charges them anywhere between $20 and $30 for this service depending on the contractor. Here your expenditure depends on how wet the winter turns out to be. In some cases, you might end up spending more than my friend who plays a flat rate per month, in other cases, you might wind up ahead. I am sure a careful analysis of historical weather records can actually let you calculate the expected value of the expenditure per winter under this pay-per-occurrence scheme, and you can then make a rational choice between that and the flat-rate scheme (there goes the nerd in me again, salivating at the prospect of doing this. Hey, maybe I should do this on a zip-code by zip-code basis and sell the information to consumers as well as contractors!).

The advantage with these options is that you don’t have to spend your time or effort doing anything when it snows. Somebody else comes to your house and does all the necessary work for you. You don’t have to pony up a lot of cash up front either. The total amount you are likely to spend in any given winter is quite modest and affordable. Moreover, you get your entire property (including sidewalks) cleared of snow, not just the driveway. But apart from the payments agreed to, you don’t have to pay for anything else (maintenance of the equipment, gas to operate it, etc.).

The disadvantage is that your contractor may be unreliable. Or he may have a lot of clients and a fixed route, and the timing may not work out for you. Also, I know of no way to get any of these contractors to adjust the thresholds of when their services will be rendered. For instance, you can not tell your contractor to clear the snow for you only if it snows over 4 inches, not 2 inches. Their prices are set based on the 2-inch threshold, and that is what you get. You can not ask them to rework their entire business plan to suit your needs. Moreover, the snow removal happens whether you are home or out on vacation (if you are gone for very long periods of time, you might be able to get the contractor to let you off the hook for the period of your absence, but it is not going to happen for week-long vacations). So, you might end up paying for a lot of snow-removal that you think was totally unnecessary.

The third option is to buy your own snowblower (or snowthrower. As far as I can tell there is no difference between the two terms, and they are interchangeable). Snowblowers can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars. In general, the more expensive snowblowers are bigger, more capable, seem to be more reliable and last longer. The cheaper ones are lighter, but are less capable, and reviews suggest that they don’t tend to last as long.

The advantage of getting your own snowblower is that you don’t have to rely on a contractor’s schedule to have your driveway cleared of snow. And you don’t have to expend much effort and time at the task either. Most snowblowers can handle an 80 foot by 20 foot driveway in about half the time it takes to clear it with a snow shovel. You can then devote the extra time you get to clearing the sidewalks, or you can add it to your free time!

Also, snowblowers clear the snow much more cleanly than a snow shovel. With very little effort, you can have your driveway cleared right down to the concrete such that you can’t even tell that it snowed just by looking at the driveway.

But there are disadvantages to this approach also. You need a lot of upfront investment to buy a good snowblower. You then have to create space somewhere on your property (most probably inside the garage) to store the snowblower. You have to spend money on an ongoing basis to operate the snowblower. If you buy a gas snowblower, you have to buy gas and oil for it. You have to maintain it according to the manufacturer’s specifications. This might include changing the oil on a regular basis, cleaning out the fuel pipes, carburetor, etc., getting tune-ups on a regular basis, etc. If you don’t know how to do all this yourself (or you don’t want to do it yourself), you have to have a vehicle that can transport the snowblower to a maintenance shop for someone else to do all this for you (this is a non-trivial challenge since some of the more capable snowblowers can be very heavy and large). If you buy an electrically operated snowblower, you have to pay for the electricity to operate it. You have to buy (and occasionally replace) the electrical cords and other paraphernalia that may be required also.

As always, now that I have listed the advantages and disadvantages of each of these options, I am no closer to a final decision than I was a couple of weeks back. Every person has their own likes and dislikes, and the advantages and disadvantages will appear larger or smaller depending on their likes and dislikes, prior experiences, etc. A wise man once said that you can only have two out of good, cheap and quick. You can not get all three. Unfortunately, I want all three! And I can’t decide which of the three I am willing to give up!!

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