Snow removal: the right tools for the job

Odds are that Mondays are when you’ll feel happiest about having bought the right tools to tackle snow-clearing around your home—according to Environment Canada, snow accumulations exceeding 10 centimetres (4 inches) are twice as likely on this day as on any other day of the week!

The statistic may be fun, but the work it takes to clear that much snow sure isn’t. When lifting an average shovelful of snow every 5 seconds, after only 17 minutes you’ll have shifted a load of 1,000 kilograms (2,205 pounds)! So you’d better be sure you have the right tools and technique for the job!

Get your hands on the right shovel
You want your snow shovel to be light, with a handle long enough that you don’t bend too much while you work, a blade that’s not too wide, and a plastic or wooden handle (a metal handle will conduct the cold). The Canadian Physiotherapy Association (CPA) says the ideal shovel should weigh about 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds). The handle is the right length if you bend forward at an angle of 10 degrees or less when you set the blade on the ground and have both hands on the handle.

If you opt for a model with a curved handle, often called an ergonomic shovel, your back will bend even less and cardiac effort will be reduced. With a sleigh shovel, you’ll push the snow rather than lift it, which is the preferred technique. This larger model is a must for anyone who has a driveway to clear but doesn’t own a snow blower. Finally, an electric shovel can be a healthy alternative for people who are not in the best of shape. It is designed for light-duty work and does a good job on paths, steps and balconies covered in a thin amount of powdery snow.

How to shovel without doing harm to your back
According to the CPA, shovelling snow requires as much energy as running at 15 kilometres an hour. Shovelling for 15 minutes at a reasonable pace can have exercise benefits if you have a healthy heart.

Unfortunately, it can also do serious harm to your back. The following factors make up the worst-case scenario: a sizable accumulation of wet snow, a large area to clear, working hard without stopping, using a wide shovel with a handle that’s too short, repeatedly lifting too much snow at a time, and throwing the snow over your shoulder or twisting. Avoid all of them!

Selecting a snow blower
If you have a very large area to clean or there is a lot of snow on the ground, you’re better off with a gas-powered snow blower. You’ll want to choose one with the right capacity—determined by its engine power, which ranges from 3 to 13 horsepower.

The smallest snow blowers on the market are equipped with two-stroke engines that burn a mix of oil and gas, and develop between 3 and 5 horsepower. They have a single-stage mechanism, including an auger with curved blades that touch the ground. As they rotate, the blades move the snow blower forward while picking up and throwing out the snow. These models aren’t equipped with a transmission, so they can’t back up. They are best for short and narrow driveways covered in less than 15 centimetres (6 inches) of snow.

Two-stage snow blowers are much more powerful, featuring a four-stroke engine with up to 13 horsepower, and able to clear a channel of snow up to approximately 1 metre (36 inches) wide. An impeller pushes the snow picked up by the blades up and out the chute.

Note: A snow blower equipped with serrated blades and a track drive rather than wheels will do a better job getting through hard-packed or icy snow.

Clearing and de-icing exit points
For safety’s sake, it is very important to ensure all your home’s exits are always kept clear—this includes all outside doors and basement windows, as well as porches or balconies.

Once the snow has been removed, slippery surfaces may require further attention. Generally, spreading sand or gravel (recoverable for re-use) will suffice.  If de-icing is required, however, a better choice is magnesium chloride, calcium chloride or potassium chloride, which are much less environmentally harmful than salt, and more effective.  When applied as directed by the manufacturer, these products are unlikely to damage vegetation or concrete that is more than two years old and in good condition. These de-icing products are marketed under various names, often with reference to their “environmentally friendly” characteristics. For more detailed information on the various de-icers and advice on how to use them, read our article “De-icers: plants and concrete need moderation.