John A. Allin, snow-removal consultant and author of Managing Snow & Ice and founder of the Snow & Ice Management Association. Formerly, he ran Snow Management Group in Erie, Pennsylvania, one of the largest snow-removal contractors in North America, and conducted all the snow and ice management at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. JohnAllin.com
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Here come the snow and ice! Keeping your driveway, walkways and steps clear and safe is one of winter’s biggest challenges. Choosing the right tools for the job—the appropriate kinds of shovel, deicer, snowblower and even sand—and using them effectively can make a big difference to your safety and peace of mind. But home owners often make mistakes that complicate the effort or even backfire. Here are four common mistakes that home owners make when trying to prevent and clear snow and ice—and what to do instead…
MISTAKE: Using the wrong products to melt ice on driveways and walkways. Different deicers have varying advantages and drawbacks, depending on temperatures and other factors. Pure rock salt, which is sodium chloride, is very cheap and is most effective around 27°F. But rock salt, which works by lowering the freezing point of water, can take hours to work at 15°F or colder. Also, on concrete, the salt water can easily get into pores and then refreeze, cracking the concrete. And the runoff from excessive amounts of salt can do great damage to grass and flower beds.
Better deicer: Both calcium chloride and magnesium chloride give off heat when they come in contact with ice and snow. Calcium chloride works well to –25°F but can cause irritation if it comes into contact with your skin or eyes. I prefer magnesium chloride, which works well to –15°F and is less irritating to skin and eyes.
Master tip: Pure calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are two or more times more expensive than rock salt. It is more cost-effective to use one or the other chemical in a blend with rock salt. The calcium chloride or magnesium chloride melts the ice and snow…then the rock salt slows refreezing so that you don’t have to reapply the mixture as often. Premixed blends are available at home-improvement stores.
Helpful: Buy calcium or magnesium chloride in granules shaped like pellets rather than flakes. Pellets penetrate the ice faster and more efficiently. If you apply the pellets by hand, toss them in a way that they spread along the ground, which disperses them more uniformly than dropping them straight down.
Caution for pet owners: Chloride deicing products can be toxic to cats, dogs and any other pets that might swallow them either as crystals or in melted pools of water. If this is a danger, consider buying a product containing propylene glycol and urea instead, even though it is less effective and far more expensive. One safe alternative is Safe Paw Ice Melter, available at home-improvement and pet stores.
MISTAKE: Using the wrong kind of sand to improve traction on slippery surfaces. Sand can be effective in the short term. But unlike what many people think, you should not use “all-purpose” or masonry sand. These are the most inexpensive types—but they are not as gritty as playground or sandbox sand, and grittiness is what you need for biting into ice and providing traction on your shoes. Reapply sand often—it works only if it is directly on the surface of the ice and not buried under snow or dispersed by feet or tires.
Do not use kitty litter or sawdust, both of which absorb water and actually can make ice more slippery…and do not use leftover fertilizer, as some people do. Fertilizer is not very effective for traction, and fertilizers containing nitrate and ammonium sulfate can eat away at concrete.
MISTAKE: Using just one shovel. Home owners should have at least three types of shovels to deal with different kinds of ice and various snow situations…
• Ergonomic, multipurpose shovel for clearing snow on steps and narrow walkways. It should have an S-curved shaft, which cuts down on the need to keep bending over. Look for a blade 18 inches wide—any larger is hard to maneuver in small spaces—and a protective, reinforced strip along the bottom edge to prevent nicks, dings and cracking. Example: True Temper 18-inch Ergonomic Aluminum Snow Shovel is a tough, lightweight shovel that reduces back strain and hand fatigue.
• Snow pusher. This is a shovel with a wide, C-shaped blade (like a scooper) and a long, straight handle. A snow pusher functions as a miniature snowplow in open spaces such as driveways. Examples: True Temper 24-inch Steel Snow Pusher has a 24-inch-wide blade and is 52 inches long for good leverage as you push. Dakota SnoBlade is 36 inches wide and has wheels, which help you push larger amounts of snow.
• Round-point steel-blade shovel for chipping hardpacked snow and light ice on walkways. This is not specifically a snow shovel, but the kind of shovel that many people use to dig holes. Its front-blade edge is slightly pointed and curved to help it bite into whatever you are striking. Example: Truper Tru-Pro Round Point Shovel has a hardwood handle and a 14-gauge steel blade.
No matter what shovel you are using, lift snow as little as possible and move it just short distances. To do this in open spaces, push the shovel along the ground like a plow and then use your momentum to shove the collected snow off the walkway or driveway.
On a driveway, start by clearing a strip lengthwise down the middle. Then push the snow to either side of this cleared strip past the edges of the driveway.
Smart: Before it snows, place tall, brightly colored fiberglass stakes (available at home-improvement stores) along the edge of your driveway to mark the perimeter. If the ground is too frozen, drill holes for the markers using a masonry bit.
MISTAKE: Buying the wrong snowblower. Think about three major factors before you buy a snowblower—the size and length of your driveway and walkways…the maximum number of inches of snow that you are likely to get during storms…and the steepness of the terrain.
• For short, level driveways, decks and walks that receive light snowfalls, rarely more than three inches: Don’t buy a snowblower at all. Use the shovels and techniques mentioned above. Avoid electric snowblowers, which are slow, clear paths only one foot wide requiring multiple passes to get the job done and require a long power cord, which limits your range and maneuverability and poses a tripping hazard.
• For driveways up to 50 feet or sidewalks up to 150 feet and/or maximum snowfalls as much as six inches: Use a single-stage gas snowblower, which has a rotating, spiral-shaped rubber blade known as an auger to pick up and throw the snow. These machines typically have five-horsepower engines, powerful enough to throw snow up to 25 feet, and they come in widths that clear paths ranging from 18 to 22 inches wide. Although the wheels aren’t engine-driven, the auger contacts the surface, providing forward-drive action, and these machines are lightweight and easy to maneuver. Example: The Toro Power Clear 721 E has an adequate four-cycle engine and a strong auger to lift compacted snow, and it clears a 21-inch path.
• For large driveways and/or steep terrain and/or heavy, regular snowfalls of more than six inches: Get a two-stage gas snowblower. These typically have 10-horsepower engines and come in widths that can clear paths 24 to 36 inches wide. A steel auger chops up the snow and then feeds it into the second stage, a high-speed impeller that shoots it out a discharge chute.
These snowblowers can throw snow up to 45 feet and cut through drifts as much as two to three feet deep. Unlike single-stage snowblowers, they have engine-propelled wheels that operate at three or more speeds, allowing you to move much faster. Example: Troy-Bilt Storm Tracker 2690 XP has six forward speeds and clears a 26-inch-wide path. It has a push-button electric start, which is handy if you don’t have the strength or inclination to wrestle with a pull-start, as well as a headlight, which is a big help if you plan to clear snow in the dark.