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Say goodbye to backaches with a new snow blower

While Canadians are all too familiar with winter weather, snow still has a funny way of catching us off guard. Consider January 1999, when Toronto mayor Mel Lastman called in the army to help dig the city out from under 118 cm of snow that fell in two weeks. Or more recently in Atlantic Canada, Prince Edward Island received almost 200 centimetres of snow and Moncton, N.B., was buried under two-thirds that amount during the first two months of winter.

Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that an iPod Nanos and Nintendo Wiis weren't the only must-haves topping people's Christmas lists this year. Snow blowers were flying off shelves like hot cakes, and the empty store shelves across the country prove it.

"We sold out around Christmastime," says Larry Williams, assistant manager at a Canadian Tire in Moncton. "There's nothing available until next fall. Nobody has any in town."

If your back aches just thinking about picking up a shovel, you might want to consider buying a snow blower. According to Statistics Canada, in 2006 just over 20 percent of households owned one.

To avoid being left out in the cold (or under a foot of snow), the best time to buy is when you're least likely to be thinking about Old Man Winter. You're also more likely to strike a bargain when the showroom is full than when the whole town is snowed in. "People will laugh, but the time to buy is September," says Mark Ypelaar, general manager for Luke's Mower and Machine Ltd. in Mississauga, Ont. "That's when the customer has the best choice of equipment. As you get closer to Christmas, stock dwindles. If there's a storm, you're left taking whatever models are available or not being able to get anything at all."

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How to choose
Before you step foot inside a store, you need to evaluate your snow blowing needs: how much space do you need to clear? Is the area paved or covered in gravel? How much snow can you expect in an average year?

The lightest, smallest, cheapest and easiest to handle blowers are the electric ones (also known as electric shovels) that typically have a narrow clearing width of 27 cm to 45 cm (the wider the width, the faster it clears). These are best for short, flat driveways, decks and walkways and about 10 cm of light, fluffy snow. While you're free from fueling needs, you're restricted by the length of the cord.

The next size up is the single-stage gas snow blower, with clearing widths of between 30 cm and 55 cm -- good for a larger surface area and about 20 cm of snow. These blowers feature an auger made of metal and plastic or hard rubber that spins at a high speed to break away the ice and snow before propelling it out of a discharge chute. Because the auger contacts the surface area directly, it's best for smooth, paved areas.

For deeper snow and larger clearing areas, you'll need a two-stage gas snow blower. Besides the auger, these machines also feature an impeller that collects the snow and pushes it out the discharge chute at a much greater speed. Because the auger doesn't come into direct contact with the ground, these machines are necessary if you have a gravel-topped driveway.

These machines clear areas between 50 cm and 90 cm wide and can throw snow up to 14 metres. Two-stage blowers range in size from five to 13 horsepower, or hp. Five to seven hp is good for a four-car driveway while anything larger needs more muscle. "The increase in power gives you the ability to process greater volumes of snow faster," says Ypelaar.

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-- Posted: Jan. 30, 2008
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