The Best Snow Blowers
After researching all the new snow blowers for 2015, we’re convinced for the second year in a row that the best one for most people is the Craftsman Quiet 208cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower. It’s the ideal machine for a two car driveway (up to about 80 feet in length) and snowfalls that are consistently in the 6- to 12-inch range. We came to this conclusion after more than 75 hours of research, which included interviews with two snow blower manufacturers as well Paul Sikkema of MovingSnow, who has personally reviewed more than 350 snow blowers. We also relied on Consumer Reports’ big snow blower comparison, user reviews and other details from several sites including Snow Blowers Direct, and my own decades of experience using snow blowers as a lifelong New Englander. We also have picks for smaller and larger snowfalls.
The Craftsman is not a cheap machine, but it comes with premium features that you usually only find on competing products that cost hundreds more. No other blower has this unique combination of features at such an excellent price. First, the Craftsmanis extremely easy to use. Power steering, a feature usually reserved for blowers north of $1,000, gives you effortless turning in tight corners or wide arcs. It’s also self-propelled, so you don’t have to push it. You can change the direction and distance of the thrown snow while it’s running using a simple dash-mounted joystick to adjust the four-way chute control. An electric start eliminates the need for a pull cord. It has no-mar skid shoes that let it work on a deck or patio without gouging the surface. These features can definitely be found on other (usually more expensive) blowers. But one more detail really sets the Craftsman apart: an engine so quiet that both Consumer Reports and Sikkema say it requires no hearing protection, which is convenient for you and courteous to your neighbors.
For some, the price tag of the Craftsman (around $900) may seem like too much money to spend, but if you’ve never shopped for a snow blower before, you’ll find that they’re surprisingly expensive. Sorry. To get a quality one with nice features, expect to pay at least $800—you can go cheaper, but not by much, and if you do you’ll lose key features we feel are worth the extra couple hundred dollars. Or you can spend more to get a bigger, faster machine, but it won’t have the Craftsman’s quiet engine. With this in mind, we chose a snow blower that you can confidently think of as a long-term investment. A well-cared-for, quality blower should last 10-plus years, easy. If there are issues, Craftsman blowers have a 2-year warranty, which is pretty standard, but they also offer 3- or 5-year service plans that cover wear-and-tear issues. Craftsman is also known for supporting discontinued models, so if they ever stop selling this one, parts will still be available.
Popular snow blowers sell out each season, so if the Craftsman is not available, we suggest going with the 24-inch Cub Cadet 2X 24″. It’s very similar to the Craftsman (and is actually manufactured by the same company, MTD), but it’s a little bit smaller and has a regular engine, not a quiet one. We feel these upgrades are worth the extra $100 or so for the Craftsman, but the Cub Cadet still offers power steering and four-way chute control, as well as an electric start and no-mar skid shoes.
If you regularly get only 6 inches of snow or less and you need to clear a small, flat paved driveway at an urban home or townhouse, we recommend the Toro Power Clear 721 E. Our main pick and runner-up are called two-stage blowers, but some people can get by with a less-powerful single-stage blower like this one. It can toss snow about 15 feet, and it has a convenient electric start—not a standard feature on blowers this size. But the big drawback of any single-stage is that it’ll also throw gravel, so it’s really only suited for smooth surfaces. Toro single-stage blowers sit at the top spot in Consumer Reports’ testing, the customer feedback is very good, and our research could not uncover any serious challengers to the brand.
Since the 2014 season, our pick for larger driveways and deeper snows, the Craftsman 30-Inch 357cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower has had off-and-on availability and is now no longer stocked in Sears mall stores (but it is currently at select Sears Hometown stores and Sears Hardware Stores). So for 2015, we’re recommending the 30-Inch Troy-Bilt Storm 3090XP. This is also an MTD-made blower, and it is basically identical to last year’s Craftsman. This larger machine is ideal for those who regularly experience snows of 15 or more inches, have a driveway that’s 100 feet or longer, or just want to spend as little time snow blowing as possible. It has the same durability, reliability, and many of the best features as our main pick, but it can get the big jobs done in half the time. (But again, the Troy-Bilt is almost identical to last year’s Craftsman 30-inch, so if that one is more convenient for you to purchase, we stand behind it as well.)
Finally, the biggest news for snow blowers in 2015 is the release of the Toro SnowMaster. This is an unusual blower in that it is technically a single-stage machine, but it self-propels like a two-stage with Toro’s unique Personal Pace control set-up (which is found on their popular line of lawnmowers). Because this is such a unique and new blower, no reviewers have actually spent time moving snow with it. We have just gotten our hands on one, and as soon as we get some snow to test it with, we’ll update this guide accordingly.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- Should you buy a snow blower?
- How big a blower do you need?
- But why are they so expensive?
- Our pick
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Long-term test notes
Why you should trust us
Snow blowers are complicated, feature-laden machines, so to help wade through the morass, we got the input of a number of experts with years of experience between them. An invaluable source was Paul Sikkema of MovingSnow, an independent site dedicated to all things snow blower. Sikkema has been using blowers for the past 50 years. Since starting MovingSnow in 2008, he has written more than 350 snow blower reviews. Here’s some more info about Sikkema’s site and his interest in snow blowers.
We also spoke with Christine Cheng, marketing manager at Toro, and Megan Peth, brand marketing director at Troy-Bilt, two leading manufacturers of snow blowers.
Beyond these interviews, we read everything we could about snow blowers, focusing our attention on the epic Consumer Reports run-down (subscription required), which has been updated regularly for years. After speaking to Sikkema, we spent hours and hours reading all of his reviews of currently available snow blowers at MovingSnow, along with a lot of user reviews at Home Depot. Snow Blowers Direct, a snow blower retailer, was also useful for gaining information on particular models.
As for personal qualifications, I’m a lifelong New Englander, growing up in Vermont and now living in New Hampshire. I’ve spent countless hours running snow blowers—both when clearing my own property and while cleaning up construction sites during my time as a general contractor.
Since arriving at our pick in February 2015, we’ve purchased the Craftsman Quiet 208cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower at retail and have used it for the latter half of a Buffalo winter. We will continue using it for long-term test notes for the upcoming winter and will update the guide accordingly.
Should you buy a snow blower?
A snow blower is a big investment that not everyone needs to make. If you have a small driveway, only see infrequent snowfalls of less than 6 inches, and enjoy a physical workout, you would be happier with a snow shovel, pusher, or a sleigh. We’ve researched them thoroughly and have several recommendations in our guide.
That said, a lot of people do need a snow blower. They’re faster and better for deep snows, and also very easy on the body, causing minimal muscle and back strain. The better models are equipped with electric start, power steering, and a four-way chute control. (All three of our two-stage picks come with these features.) Getting started only takes the push of a button, and turning just requires pulling a handle trigger—no pushing, pulling, leaning, or tugging. A dash-mounted four-way chute control gives full, on-the-fly adjustment of both the direction and distance of the blown snow. Inexpensive blowers, in contrast, have a hand crank that controls the left/right motion, and the snow throwing distance has to be manually set. If you have an old snow blower, an upgrade to a new machine with these features could be worth it.
As expensive as snow blowers are, over time they’re cheaper than hiring a plow—in New England, local guys charge $50-$75 each time they show up, and sometimes it’s more than once during a big storm. With even a half-dozen snowfalls per winter, it quickly adds up to the cost of a nice snow blower that should last at least 10 years.
The downsides? Maintenance and storage. Maintenance is mostly just oil changes and belt tightening, but not everyone wants to deal with that, and ignoring it will reduce the machine’s lifespan. As for storage, a two-stage snow blower takes up as much space as a very bulky lawnmower, so plan for it to take up a corner of the garage in the offseason.
How big a blower do you need?
When you start shopping, the first thing you’ll decide is whether you need a single-stage or two-stage machine. The reviews at MovingSnow indicate that a two-stage blower that’s 24 to 26 inches wide will be the best snow blower for handling about six to 12 inches of snow in a two-car driveway up to about 80 feet long. For the best selection of features (like power steering and a four-way chute control), the price range will be around $800 and up. Single-stage blowers are less expensive, but they’re less powerful and have other limitations. Sikkema’s opinion is that “people buy single-stage snow throwers because of the price, not because it is the right snow blower for them.”
Two-stage blowers have an auger that feeds snow into the machine and a second impeller that tosses it out of the chute. Because of this design, they can launch a plume of snow, in some cases, up to 50 feet. Two-stage blowers are also heavy, but as Troy-Bilt’s Megan Peth told us, they “have engine-driven wheels that can handle uneven terrain and reduce the amount of effort it takes to remove snow.” The best ones have six forward speeds and two reverse speeds.
With all of these limitations, Sikkema told us, “if you get three snowfalls a year greater than 6 inches, you should move up to a two-stage.”
On the other end of the spectrum, for consistent snows in the 15-to-20-inch range, or for anyone with a very big, long driveway, it’s going to be worth it to step up to a two-stage 28-to-30-inch blower. Even using a 30-inch blower on a smaller driveway will significantly reduce your blowing time. Sikkema said it will do the job in half the time of a 24-inch model.
But why are they so expensive?
On pricing, Sikkema strongly warns about blowers under $500. In general, they offer a combination of short throwing chutes, small wheels with little traction, the bare minimum of controls with no power steering, minimal service support, and mediocre reviews. Some don’t even have a reverse gear, so you have to literally pull the machine backwards. All of the units in that range appear in the bottom 25% of the Consumer Reports ratings (subscription required). Overall, we feel you’re making a better investment in a machine that will be more satisfying to use for a longer amount of time. Sikkema told us, “you can’t imagine all of the people who write me and the first thing they say is ‘I don’t want to spend more than $500, but I also want it to last 20 years like my old one.” Unfortunately, that’s not realistic.
The price step above that, the $600-$700 range, has some quality blowers, but they’re all very stripped down. We found that the best of those models are close enough in price to the full-featured blowers ($800+) that it was worth the additional investment for the premium machines.
However much you spend, look at the warranty (or lack thereof). Sikkema stressed to us that, “it’s really, really important for a buyer to understand how to get parts and service before they buy their snowblower.” All quality blowers that we looked at have at least two-year warranties. Some also have extended service plans available for purchase which offer in-home service and cover wear and tear on the machine—Craftsman offers this kind of protection, which is one reason that brand is among our picks. You also should make sure that you’re purchasing from a service-oriented retailer. Sikkema says that, “Menards, WalMart, Target, Sam’s Club, and Costco will all sell you a snowblower, but if you have any problems with it, you’re on your own.”2
Last, one important fact a shopper should understand is that there are really only a few manufacturers. A company called MTD makes Craftsman, Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and Remington snow blowers. The Husqvarna company makes units under the Husqvarna, Poulan Pro, and Jonsered brands. Ariens makes Ariens and Sno-Tek. In many cases, these brands indicate quality differences (Ariens, for example, is a step up over the budget Sno-Tek). But in other instances, the distinctions are less clear—Troy-Bilt and Craftsman have many blowers that are nearly identical but just sold at different retailers. We’ve done our best to sort it all out for you.
The best snow blower for most people
If you regularly get six inches to a foot of snowfall, and you have to clear a two-car driveway up to about 80 feet long, we recommend the Craftsman 88694 Quiet 208cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower ($900). No other blower on the market combines this unique combination of features at such an excellent price. We know that the price tag (about $900) is pretty steep, but if you truly need this machine, it’s actually a great investment—and this blower gives you premium features that you usually only find on competing products that cost hundreds more.
The 88694 has power steering, a four-way chute control, and a unique new engine design that, according to the manufacturer, is 45% quieter than the previous Craftsman model, so you won’t wake up the neighborhood when you’re clearing snow before work. Like all quality blowers, the Craftsman has an electric start and no-mar skid shoes—these make it easy to get running and safe to use on a deck or patio without leaving scratches. Finally, the blower has a great rating at Consumer Reports (subscription required) and Sikkema’s review at MovingSnow is extremely positive, saying that, “this snow blower is so easy to use [that] if you can walk behind this unit, you can use it.”
It’s the power steering that makes this blower so manageable. A small trigger at each handle stops the corresponding wheel from moving. With one wheel stopped, the snow blower turns on a dime (or a slow arc, if you’re just intermittently tapping the trigger). My own blower, which I’ve owned for five winters (30-inch Troy-Bilt 3090 Storm) has power steering; it’s by far the best feature. Once you use power steering, there’s no going back to the days of wrestling the blower around at the end of the driveway. Even if all you’re doing is blowing a path around the house, power steering is essential for traveling in a constant arc.
In fact, power steering is a major reason this Craftsman is special: Many other high-end blowers have power steering, but most of them cost over $1,000. Anything under $800, even in the smaller 24-inch size, doesn’t have power steering. According to Sikkema, “This is the best value snow blower on the market with this feature.”
Another feature unique to only this and one other Craftsman blower is the new quiet engine, which the manufacturer claims is 45% quieter than their previous models3. We ran our own tests and, during operation, the blower averaged a decibel rating in the low 80s—a noise level similar to that of a garbage disposal. Sikkema writes that “if you need to blow snow at all hours of the day or night right next to your neighbor’s bedroom window and you want a snow blower that’s easy to use – this is the one for you.” He adds that the blower “now gives you a lot less noise but doesn’t lower the power.” Consumer Reports confirmed that it operates below the level that OSHA requires wearing ear protection (85 dB). Sikkema also mentioned that a side benefit of this muffler redesign is that “the fuel tank is also relocated and is larger than the old version.” Because winter days are so short and a lot of snow blowing is done before and after work, a quiet blower is a nice courtesy for the neighbors, not to mention yourself.
Consumer Reports notes that “the single-lever chute control speeds up changing the discharge direction.” A joystick up at the dash controls the side to side of the chute as well as the up and down of the deflector cap. Best of all, the 88694 lets you do it all on the fly as the blower is moving—invaluable when blowing, say, the area between a house and garage, or any other tight space where you have to continually move the chute and cap to put the snow right where you want it. If you have to stop and turn a hand crank or manually adjust the deflector every time you need a direction change, it becomes a painfully tedious process. Even with the simple snow blowing pattern of a small driveway, this quick chute control will save time. Sikkema has a video of how that works and the proper way to use it here.
With the with the addition of the four-way chute joystick and the power steering controls, the operation of the Craftsman 88694 may seem a little overwhelming at first; if you’ve never used these premium features on a blower before, they will take a little getting used to. My blower has similar controls and I experienced this when I started using it. But after two or three good snowfalls, the operation of the machine became completely automatic. Now I don’t even think about what my hands are doing as I’m moving snow.
Like all other quality blowers, the Craftsman 88694 has electric start, so you only need an outlet and an extension cord to get the machine going. It’s a very simple process. Located on the blower engine is a reverse plug (the male end). You hook it up to an extension cord, plug that to an outlet, press the primer bulb a few times, push a start button, and the gas engine fires up and takes over. No more fighting with a pull cord. Sikkema told us that you have to go really cheap to get a blower without electric start.
No-Mar skid shoes are another standard feature found on the Craftsman. These are the adjustable feet to each side of the front opening. They set the height of the auger off the ground. The ones on the 88694 are made of a tough poly that are designed not to gouge up your wood deck or leave scratches on your bluestone patio.
The blower is covered by a two-year limited warranty and a limited lifetime warranty on the chute. Beyond that, Sears offers a couple of different longterm protection plans. Available in both three- and five-year lengths, these plans offer either in-home or shop repair and cover nearly everything. They range in price from $160 to $300, and they’ll cover fuel-related issues, which are a concern with the amount of ethanol in today’s gas. Sikkema has written about these Craftsman service plans and found that they’re usually worth the cost—to put it in context, he writes, “for less than the cost of one carburetor repair, you can have five years of protection that includes wear and tear.” In more general terms, Sikkema applauds Sears (Craftsman’s primary retailer) for, “taking care of the complete sale including service after the sale, warranty, parts, and an optional protection plan that covers more than the warranty.”
Finally, Sears and Craftsman have a great reputation for supporting products long after they’ve been discontinued. So if this model is ever updated or discontinued, Sears will still have the parts needed to keep it running—another reason you can feel confident about such a big investment.4
Looking at reviews on it elsewhere, we found that at Consumer Reports, the 88694 is the highest ranked 26-inch two-stage blower. They call it out for having excellent handling, removal speed, and plow pile removal and say that it is so quiet that the operator doesn’t even need ear protection.
Sikkema also has a very positive review of the blower, giving it his “best buy” designation and writing, “This snow blower has been sold now for at least 4 years and has a proven track record of being a very reliable and capable machine. This snow blower is one of the best Craftsman has ever sold.”5 He goes on to call out the engine for being “one of the most dependable on the market today,” and he sums things up with, “In the Good, Better, Best rating system this snow blower rates a “Best” for ease of use, durability and long life.” In 2015, it’s his #1 pick for a residential 26-inch model with power steering.
Craftsman also offers a few other blowers with the quiet engine. The 26-inch 88972 is identical to the recommended blower, except that it does not have power steering. The pages at the Sears website for these two units are very difficult to tell apart, so if you’re considering a purchase of the recommended 88694, make sure that you’re looking at the model with power steering (in the image you can see the small red steering triggers under the handles).
In 2015, they also added the 28-inch 88394 which has a headlight, a larger engine, and cuts a slightly wider path. In all other ways, it’s basically the same blower. According to Sikkema, 28-inch models are a good fit for two car driveways up to about 150 feet in length. Sikkema has this model as his #1 choice for a residential blower in the 27-28-inch size range. This model costs about $1000, compared to about $900 for our main pick.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The 88694 doesn’t have a headlight. This is especially confounding because the quiet engine lends the machine to being used early in the morning and later in the evening. But the reality is that even if the blower did have a headlight, it probably wouldn’t be a very good one. The Craftsman 88694 is manufactured by MTD, and for the most part, they place their lights in the center of the dash (all of the comparably sized Troy-Bilts and Cub Cadets have it in that location). This means that much of the light gets blocked by the chute. My MTD 30-inch Troy-Bilt has the center mounted headlight, and it’s so unimpressive that the bulb blew years ago and I’ve never bothered to replace it. I’ve found that good headlamp is much better for snow blowing because it lets you put light anywhere you want, and not just in front of the blower. Sometimes it’s more important to see where the snow is being blown, and a headlight can’t help with that.
Long-term test notes and how to prepare for the offseason
In early February 2015, Buffalo resident and Sweethome writer Kevin Purdy began testing out the Craftsman Quiet Blower for us. Since then, he has cleared heavy, wet snow from his 50-foot long two-car driveway four times and also spent a session helping out his neighbors with their sidewalks. Purdy is familiar with snowblowers, but the Craftsman is the first one he has used with power steering and four-way chute control.
According to Purdy, getting used to these controls was “mentally engaging,” but he also said that “when you learn what you’re doing, they make sense.” At this point, he says that he feels about 80 percent automatic with the power steering, but with the chute control, he “is now a pro who can adjust on the fly as I pass cars, close bushes, and the like.”
Purdy also likes the overall convenience of the Craftsman. It’s “much quieter than my neighbors’ beasts” and also very easy to start. He has used both the electric start and the pull cord, and was successful with both. When using the pull cord, he “can generally get it in three or four pulls.”
As for power, Purdy’s says that the Craftsman can “really fling snow” but did note that it really struggled with the “ice-salt-hard-freeze stuff that collects at the base of the driveway.” He added that “no snow blower can do that job,” and made the sound point that “a snowblower is not the magical end of one’s driveway problems.”
The one annoyance that Purdy has with the Craftsman is that there is some slippage in the chute control. As the machine vibrates, the joystick slowly works its way down, “which means the chute gradually points higher and higher, so you’re throwing snow in a higher arc.” He told us that it is “more noticeable when going uphill…or when the machine is really vibrating.”
Now that he has reached a point of comfort with the controls, he sees this as a manageable issue where occasionally he’ll just have to readjust the chute control.
Once the snow was gone, Purdy performed the annual shut-down procedure as outlined in the Craftsman manual. This entailed draining the gas tank, draining the oil, and cleaning off the spark plug.
Emptying the gas tank was a bit of an issue. Craftsman specifically says to run the engine out of gas and to “not attempt to drain gas from the blower.” Since Purdy had an almost-full tank in the machine, this process took over four hours.
We asked Craftsman about this and they have concerns with each of these methods. First, with a siphon pump, they “don’t want the customer dealing with gas spills, or issues with the transfer of gasoline to another container.” They also make the point that stored gas could go bad in the container and cause problems later on (disposal of gas is not easy, either). As for using stabilizer, they told us that improper use of the stabilizer, whether not using the right amount or not correctly mixing it with the gas, will lead to poor results. So Craftsman is really advocating the most fail-safe method of storing a snow blower, the one with the least chance of “human error.”
Sikkema told us that his preferred method is to simply leave properly stabilized gas in the tank. He uses two tablespoons of Sea Foam per gallon of gas (he mixes it in the storage can, not the blower tank) and once it’s in the machine, he makes sure to run the engine for 5 to 10 minutes. “That way, the treated fuel will get into the carb and be good until next fall.” He said that he had an older snow blower stored in a shed for two years and “dug it out last fall and it started on the second pull.” He said to just make sure that the stabilizer has a moisture absorber. Sea Foam, Stabil Marine, Stabil Storage, and Briggs & Stratton Fuel Treatment and Stabilizer are the brands he says he trusts.
For those who feel more comfortable draining the tank, he has written a post describing some of the different fuel pumps that he’s used.
So when prepping your blower for the offseason, remember it comes down to what you’re comfortable with. Using a gas pump or stabilizing your gas takes more caution, know-how, and comfort with risk. If you don’t want to deal with any of those things, just run the tank dry like Craftsman says.
A runner-up pick
If the Craftsman is not available, we recommend the Cub Cadet 2X 24″. It’s very similar to our main pick, but it’s not as wide and does not have the Craftsman’s quiet engine. Like the Craftsman, it’s manufactured by MTD, so it has the same power steering, four-way chute control, and non-marking skids. All great features. It also has an excellent review from Sikkema and rates highly at Consumer Reports. Ultimately, we feel that if you’re already spending around $800, adding an additional $100 or so for the wider, quieter Craftsman 88694 is going to be worth it. But still, the Cub Cadet is a high quality blower that offers a lot of features at a good price.
In his review at MovingSnow, Sikkema called it “the easiest 24-inch blower to use.” Consumer Reports also likes the 2X 24″, ranking it as the top two-stage 24-inch blower, tied with the Craftsman 88173 (which costs about $700 and has no power steering). The customer feedback at Home Depot is solid with 104 reviewers giving it 4.5 stars.
If a problem arises with the blower, Cub Cadet has a three-year limited warranty that covers manufacturer defects. There is no extended plan (like Sears has) to cover wear and tear or provide in-home service.
One final touch worth noting is the owners manual. According to Sikkema, it’s excellent and has very clear instructions for maintenance. We spent many, many hours reading snow blower reviews at Sikkema’s site and this was the only instance we saw when he called out the owner’s manual, leading us to believe that it really shines against the competition.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As we said above, the Cub Cadet does not have a quiet engine, so ear protection is an absolute must. It also means that you might not be the most popular person in the neighborhood when you’re snow blowing first thing in the morning or after you get home from the late shift.
The snow blower for smaller properties and less snow
If most of your snowfalls don’t exceed 4 to 6 inches and you’re only blowing snow off of a hard, flat surface like pavement or concrete, you can get by with a single-stage blower. For this, it’s tough to beat the Toro Power Clear 721 E. This blower has the top spot in the Consumer Reports single-stage testing, solid customer feedback, and a reputation, confirmed in Sikkema’s writings, as the gold standard of single-stage blowers.
Single-stage blowers are much lighter than two-stage counterparts, so they can be hauled up onto a deck. Because the front auger propels the machine forward, a slight tip back stops it from moving and a quick pivot can be made. They even have bail control like an old school mower, where you have to hold the metal bar against the handle for it to go.
The 721 E comes with a 212cc engine, which is among the most powerful that we found on any single-stage blower. According to Toro, it can launch snow up to 35 feet. This is likely only under ideal conditions. As this video shows, the majority of the snow seems to be landing in the 10 to 15 foot range. Still, this is a blower meant for a driveway, so as long as the majority of the snow can reach the edge of the driveway, it’s fine.
In the comments section of this MovingSnow article, Sikkema writes that he is a “a huge fan of the Toro 721 series.” Consumer Reports writes that it, “has raised the bar for [single-stage blowers] with impressive speed and power for plow piles.” Our pick, the 721 E, has an electric start. This is not a standard option in single-stage blowers like it is in two-stage machines. The 721 R, an otherwise identical Toro blower, only has the recoil start and costs about $500.
The customer feedback on Home Depot’s site for the Toro 721 series is very good. The 721 E has a 4.5 rating with 281 reviews and 96 percent of the commenters recommending the blower. The nearly identical 721 R has 4.6 stars with 93 reviews and 97 percent recommending the blower.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The major flaws with the Toro go back to the simple fact that it’s a single-stage blower. Because of the way the paddle pulls it forward, it shouldn’t be used on gravel or grass, as it can pick up and throw loose stones. Single-stage blowers usually can’t handle heavy snows over six inches. Compared to more powerful blowers, this doesn’t throw snow very far—the manufacturer claims it can throw for over 20 feet, but in reality you should expect 15 feet max. And this Toro does not have a headlight, but there are very few single-stage blowers that do. Bottom line: While this is the perfect choice for some, for others, it will lead to nothing but frustration.
The snow blower for the biggest jobs
If your driveway is over 100 feet long or you’re constantly getting hit with 15-20-inch snowfalls, we recommend you either move somewhere else or get the Troy-Bilt Storm 3090 XP 357cc Two-Stage Snow Blower. This is a new pick for December 2015 and replaces the Craftsman 30-Inch 357cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower, which has had off-and-on availability this year. Both machines are manufactured by MTD, and the truth is that they’re nearly identical. Like the Craftsman 30-inch, the Troy-Bilt has a massive engine, trigger-operated power steering, and a cool electronic chute control that uses a small thumb-operated joystick. It also has heated handles, which the Craftsman doesn’t have. Sikkema refers to the Troy-Bilt as “one of the most reliable snow blowers on the market” and in the Consumer Reports ratings, it is among the top of the 30-inch class and priced lower than most.
The electric chute control is a relatively new feature from MTD that appears on their high end blowers sold by Craftsman and Troy-Bilt. Instead of the full-sized, arcade game joystick control, the chute is maneuvered by a much smaller thumb joystick located near the operator’s right hand. The larger joystick works well, but to use it, you need to let go of the blower’s handles, which can be a little tricky if you’re on a curve and are using the power steering feature. With the electronic control, you can redirect the chute while keeping both hands on the handles. Troy-Bilt has a video of it here.
We also like the heated handles. It may sound a little extravagant, but during long snow moving sessions on very cold days, it will be appreciated. The handles don’t get hot, but they do manage to keep the bone-chilling cold away from gloved fingers.
The Troy-Bilt snowblower comes with a three-year limited warranty. Troy-Bilt does not do the work themselves, but directs owners to authorized service centers in the area. If the blower is purchased from Lowe’s, there is the option of a more comprehensive three or four year protection plan. According to Lowe’s, for items over $800, like this blower, they will “pick up, repair, and return the product.” I will say, though, that in the almost six years I’ve had my Troy Bilt 3090 XP, I’ve never had any issues with it. Also, keep in mind that Sikkema writes that the Troy-Bilt is “designed to be as maintenance free as you can get with a mechanical device.”
His review centers around the unit’s overall dependability and value. He writes that the Troy-Bilt “will last 15 years or longer if you just do a few simple maintenance tasks once a year.”
Consumer Reports, in discussing the nearly identical Craftsman 88396 (last year’s pick) wrote, “We especially liked its electric chute control, a joystick-like switch activated by thumb for quick, precise adjustment of the discharge chute.”
Personally, I’m on my fifth winter with an older version of the Troy-Bilt Storm 3090 XP (mine doesn’t have the electronic chute control). Even though I’m a little lax with seasonal maintenance, it has always started immediately and has been able to handle 30-plus inches of snow on occasion. I’ve really had no complaints with it at all.
We also must note that Troy-Bilt has two models under the Storm 3090 XP name (as well as a third one with just the Storm 3090 name). The one that we’re recommending has the electronic chute control; the other 3090 XP has the older manual joystick style of control and is roughly $100 cheaper. The one marked 3090 (with no XP) has the hand-cranked chute control. Make sure you get the right one if you decide to buy.
Finally, as we said at the start, the Troy-Bilt is nearly identical to last year’s pick, the Craftsman 30-Inch 357cc Dual-Stage Snow Blower. The only real difference is that the Craftsman doesn’t have heated handles. Sears, Craftsman’s primary retailer, offers a longer service plan (5 years) than Lowe’s, which is a good thing, but my own Troy-Bilt 30-inch is heading into its sixth winter without ever having experience any issues at all. This directly reflects Sikkema’s strong opinion on the machine’s reliability. But basically, if for any reason, the Craftsman is more convenient to purchase, you’ll be just as satisfied with that blower as with the Troy-Bilt.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
As Sikkema points out about all 30-inch blowers, the Troy-Bilt will have a hard time going through a standard door. It will make it through a 34-inch door, but just barely. If you have a back patio that you like to keep clear of snow and the only way to get there is through the rear door of the garage, this blower may not be able to get there.
It also has a regular engine, so it’s a loud machine. Blowers operate around 90 dB, which is about the same as a lawn mower, so ear protection is a must.
Other types of blowers
We didn’t focus on electric or cordless blowers. While they offer the significant benefits of eliminating the need for a smelly engine or gas storage, they each pose significant drawbacks to anyone with a decent-sized driveway or medium to large amounts of snow. Corded models need to be tethered to an outlet, and cordless ones have batteries that may only last 30 to 40 minutes before needing a 2-3 hour recharge. According to Sikkema, “cordless electric is going to be worth looking at in the next couple years, but not quite yet.” We’ll keep our eyes on those developments.
Tracked blowers are also available. They are like regular two-stage machines, but with tank tracks instead of wheels. Some manufacturers, like Craftsman, don’t even offer them. Other companies have them, but you have to go to a specialty retailer, like Snowblowersdirect, to get them. Tracked machines are really on the periphery of the snow blowing world, as Sikkema told us, they’re helpful for steep driveways or “large areas of gravel or turf,” but that in the end “most people don’t need tracks.”
Let’s talk about some general characteristics of the competition, other blower types, and alternate brands before going into the reasons we didn’t choose specific models.
Cub Cadet, Troy-Bilt, and the new Craftsman professional line all have units referred to as “three stage” blowers (all manufactured by MTD). A third impeller is located at the center of the front auger that feeds snow very quickly into the throwing impeller. They’re great for moving massive amounts of snow quickly, but with smaller snowfalls, Sikkema told us, they “throw snow out the front all over the place.” The Home Depot customer feedback on these models isn’t as good as with the traditional two-stage blowers. Last, you should know that Consumer Reports ranks them as the best blowers, but it appears that they’re looking at raw snow throwing power, and also combining several blowers of different sizes into an overall list. Respectfully, we think price is a major factor, too, and we’ve chosen a 26-inch tool that can meet the needs of most buyers, offer premium features that you usually only find on those top models, and has a quieter engine than anything else.
As far as two-stage blowers go, products by Troy-Bilt, Cub Cadet, and Craftsman tend to be very similar (again, all three are made by MTD). The similarities are so strong that Consumer Reports will test a Craftsman and project the results to a comparable Troy-Bilt. But the Craftsman blowers, as of now, are the only ones that come with the quiet engines.
Also in Craftsman’s 2015 pro lineup are models with wider widths (33-inches and 45-inches). These are priced closer to $2000 and are going to be overkill for most.
Ariens is a very highly regarded manufacturer of blowers. For residential use, they have a compact line and a deluxe line. The two-stage Ariens Compact 24 is priced just slightly less than our main pick (and the same cost as our runner-up), but it does not come with power steering. Instead, it has what’s called a pin lock system, which lets you manually disengage one of the wheels from the engine. You can’t make the switch on the fly, so before you start snow blowing, you need to decide if you’re going to be talking right turns or left turns. It can make maneuvering easier, but with one wheel taken out of the equation, it results in a loss of traction.
The Deluxe Ariens line of two-stage blowers (ranging in width from 24 to 30 inches) have solid customer feedback and feature Ariens’ auto-turn technology, their version of power steering. With the auto-turn, once the operator starts to maneuver the blower, the machine senses the motion and slows down one of the wheels. Depending on how the operator is handling the blower, it may even put one wheel into reverse, giving the it the ability to make a true zero-radius turn, pivoting on the blower’s centerpoint. Sikkema is a fan of the system, but we ran across a number of commenters who were less impressed, such as the guy in this video.8
We believe Sikkema when he says that the auto-turn is a good system, but there does appear to be a learning curve with it as well as the potential for a tricky calibration process (Sikkema has written about the issues here).
Many of Toro’s two-stage blowers have very positive reviews, but at Consumer Reports, none of them scored higher than our picks in their given width category. Their 26-inch Power Max 826 OTE is ranked lower (and is more expensive), than our 26-inch Craftman recommendation. Sikkema seems to particularly like the 24-inch Power Max 724OE, but for the same price and width of the Cub Cadet 2X 24″, it doesn’t come with power steering.
Sikkema also likes the recently redesigned Husqvarna two-stage blowers, specifically the 24-inch ST224P with power steering (released in 2015). Consumer Reports has yet to rate this model, but they have the 27-inch Husqvarna ST227P, with power steering, ranked considerably lower than our 26-inch pick, the Craftsman 88694. This leads us to believe that they’d rank the narrower ST224P even lower.
For 30-inch models, the Husqvarna ST230P has a nice looking control panel and adjustable handlebars, but it also scored low in the Consumer Reports testing, and Sikkema chose the Troy-Bilt Storm 3090 XP over it in his run down of the year’s blowers.
The Craftsman 88172 is about $250 less than the main pick, and lacks the key features found on the recommended Craftsman or the Cub Cadet—there’s no power steering or four-way chute control here. The 88172 also has a smaller engine and smaller tires than our main pick, so it will be slower at moving snow and it might struggle on inclines. It has a short chute with a hand crank adjustment that is nowhere near as convenient as the joystick control of our recommended blowers. The deflector cap piece, which controls the distance and arc of the snow, needs to be adjusted manually. The 88172 is very similar to other MTD made blowers in the same price range. The Troy-Bilt Sorm 2410 and Yard Machines are all nearly identical—and they’re all perfect examples of tools that are plenty expensive, but missing the major details we feel it’s worth an additional few hundred dollars to have.
The Craftsman 88173 is a very highly regarded blower that Sikkema told us is his “base model of 24-inch blowers.” It has the engine and chute length of the recommended Craftsman and Cub Cadet, but nothing else. At about $700, it’s only around $100 away from a model with power steering and a four-way chute control (the Cub Cadet 2X 24″) and about $200 away from one with both of these features and a quiet engine.
The Daye DS24E is another stripped-down blower in the $700 range. Daye is a company that, according to Sikkema, is well established in Europe and is now making inroads in the United States. Sikkema vouches for their service network, but the fact that the company doesn’t have anything in the way of an official US presence yet (no website) makes us wary of the brand. This blower also doesn’t offer power steering or four way chute control, but it does have the pin lock system.
As we said earlier, we avoided any blowers under the $500 price range, so we didn’t spend much time on the lesser brands like Poulan Pro, Yard Machines, and Murray, all of which were at the bottom of the pile in the Consumer Reports run down. Sikkema has actually given Power Smart and Snow Devil a “do not buy” designation, saying, “If you want the cheapest snow blower, if you don’t care if you can easily get it repaired, if you don’t care how long it will last. This is the snow blower for you.”
Sno-Tek, the Ariens budget brand, offers some very basic models. Like the inexpensive Craftsman blowers, the better ones are close enough in price to the recommended models that it’s worth investing the additional $100-$150 for the premium features.
Jonsered also sells snow blowers, but they’re made by Husqvarna and only sold at Tractor Supply, so we concentrated on the more widely available Husqvarna brand for those machines.
For a single-stage blower, Sikkema likes the Ariens Path Pro SS21EC, but it performed poorly in the Consumer Reports testing and is about $100 more than the Toro.
The Husqvarna single-stage blowers look very good as well and Sikkema seems to place them on equal footing with the recommended Toro. The Husqvarnas have headlights, which is a nice touch, but in general, they’re more expensive and the Amazon user feedback isn’t as roundly positive as with the Toro. In fact, seven of the 25 reviews for the ST121 E report issues with the lights going out.. They also ranked quite low in the Consumer Reports ratings.
The Toro 721 QZE is nearly the same as the 721 E, but it comes with a chute controller mounted on the handle bar. This single-stage is so expensive that it makes sense just to step up to our main recommendation or even our runner up, which is only about $30 more.
Care and maintenance
After spending over $800 on a snow blower, it’s a smart idea to take care of it. First, check the manual for a home maintenance plan, because (as with lawn mowers) not following this plan can void your warranty. For other questions, Sikkema at MovingSnow has a very good maintenance article, and there are more at Bobvila.com, repairclinic.com, and Jackssmallengines.com.
It’s also imperative to use some sort of gas stabilizer, even during the snow season. Gas starts to go bad after about 30 days and can be harmful to your snow blower. I’ve always used Sta-Bil and have never had any problems. Sikkema writes that he uses Sea Foam brand.
Last, if you get a two-stage blower, keep a supply of shear pins on hand. The shear pins hold the auger blades to the auger axle and they’re designed to break if the auger gets jammed, preventing damage to the blades or engine. The blower will likely come with a few extras, but check the owner’s manual for a part number so you can order some more.
Originally published: February 14, 2015