First, let's discuss power in relation to intake size. The ideal ratio of power to intake size on a full-sized snow blower with a 20- to 21-inch intake height is 8 HP to 24-inches in width. As the augur box (sometimes called the snow box) widens, the engine capacity should rise accordingly. So, adequate combinations include 24- to 26-inches and 7 to 8 HP, 27- to 30-inches and 9 to 10 HP, and 32- to 36-inches and 11 to 12 HP. Now, because many brands, in particular Sears, overstated power on their products, and because torque, which closely relates to engine size, is a better indicator of power, the FTC now requires that makers of snow blowers and riding mowers quote torque and engine size instead of arbitrary HP ratings. I generally refer to engine size as a guide. For flat-head engines, 300 cc to 320 cc equates to about 7 to 8 HP, 340 cc to 360 cc equates to 9 to 10 HP, and 380 cc to 400 cc equates to 11 to 12 HP. Since Overhead Valve (OHV) engines put out more power per cc, one can subtract 40 cc to 50 cc from these figures to arrive at corresponding power values.
With this information in hand, here is our assessment. Barring very old equipment, really there are only 3 brands of snow blowers that have sufficient quality and durability to get our recommendation. The first is Simplicity's Signature Pro Professional Series of snow blowers. These are true commercial-grade machines that are rather expensive. Their construction and performance are unsurpassed from every vantage point. Referring to the first photo below, notice the heavy-gauge steel construction of the augur box and impeller barrel, along with the cast-iron handles, and C-channel steel handlebar supports. This kind of quality runs through the entire snow blower from the heavy ribbon-steel augurs and 4-blade impeller to the heavy-duty traction drive.
Simplicity's Heavy-Duty snow blowers are also a good choice and would rank closely with our other two brands' offerings outlined below. Referring to the second photo below, it is apparent that these use a traction drive (drive box with handlebars and controls) manufactured by Murray combined with the Simplicity Signature Pro snow box (front end with chute, impeller, augurs, and augur gearcase). These currently employ engines that are reasonably powerful and roughly 50cc smaller than those found in the Signature Pro modelsThis is a good quality choice that would rank closely with our other two brand choices cited below.
Lastly among Simplicity's offerings, the Medium-Duty snow blowers are entirely manufactured by Murray. These correspond closely with their Murray counterparts, also offered under the Briggs and Stratton brand, Altogether, these are less durable with smaller and lighter components, including the augurs (by 2-inches), augur gearbox, impeller, and snow box. Overall, they are constructed with lighter-gauge steel. Further, these employ engines that are rather marginal in power and are roughly another 50cc (100cc altogether) smaller than those found in the Signature Pro models. We do not consider these to be in the same league as any of our choices outlined herein.
The second brand is Ariens. We prefer the 924-Series (the model number begins with '924') full-size snow blowers made from the 1980s through the 1990s. These are identified by their square-shaped or rectilinear front augur box and black handlebar assembly with front flat panel. We also include the unique 1979 ST824 (not shown), which features the same rectilinear front augur box linked to a transitional tractor drive. This drive is distinguished by its commercial-type controls flanked by black bezels that are attached to a white panel (with Ariens label) set between white handlebars. All 924-Series ST824s came with Tecumseh 8 hp, 318cc, flat-head engines. Later ST824 models are more likely to be in good shape. Here's a breakdown.
- ST824 models from the early-1980s have a low-set black panel and a low, wide, large-capacity chute that is less likely to clog.
- Models from the latter half of the 1980s have the low-set black panel and a slightly taller, but still wide chute.
- Early-1990s models have a new high-set black panel and large flat dash with black decal set between the augur and drive handles, and a somewhat taller, but still wide chute. At this point, Ariens moved from a 5-speed to a 6-speed transmission and added Sno-Hog tires that do not require tire chains.
- Models dating from the late-1990s have a high-set black panel with an integrated light, flat dash, now with a blue decal, and a tall narrow chute. Also, Ariens introduced serrated augurs that were somewhat smaller and shorter in relation to the height of the snow box, perhaps to balance snow intake to capacity. These were the last 924-Series snow blowers made.
- The early-2000s 932-Series replaced the 924-Series. The 824 Classic picked up where the last ST824 models left off, even adopting the square snow box, dash panel assembly with light and blue decal, and tall, narrow chute.
- A bit later in the early- to mid-2000s, the 932-Series models, such as the Ariens 8526LE, followed with a return to the black dash decal. More importantly, this series introduced a new taller, sloped snow box. As the 2000s progressed this series moved to Tecumseh's OHV engines.
- In the late-2000s, the 921-Series, like the Deluxe 827, replaced the 932-Series full-size models. Comparable to its 932-Series predecessors in general layout and quality, it brought the introduction of Briggs and Stratton OHV engines and more aggressive X-trac tires.
- More recently, Ariens returned to a slightly larger, cast-iron, worm-and-roller, augur gear box presumably with somewhat larger internals for durability.
When looking at the different generations of 924-Series ST824 models, there are various considerations to take into account. The augurs are thicker and the steel construction is heavier on the older models. Some of the early 924-Series came with a cast-iron augur gear box, which was significantly larger and contained much larger worm-and-roller gears for reliability and longevity. A 'differential lock' button that releases traction to the left wheel was available on some ST824 models. It's a nice feature to have when maneuverability is a priority, e.g., when moving the machine for storage or service.
From the outset, an electric starter was an available option that could help in adverse conditions. Some ST824 models offered larger wheels in comparison with , which were preferable owing to their easier operation both in snow and on turf. [Note: At the time, attachments for various seasons were available that could be used with the tractor drive in place of the snow thrower. These included such items as a rotary mower, leaf blower, power sweeper, and other items.] For snow, the ST824 required tire chains until Sno-Hog tires were offered, which do not require chains. Some owners retrofitted these tires to their older machines.
Another distinction is worth mentioning. Although the Ariens ST724 models look just like their ST824 big brothers, they use a slightly smaller tractor drive and smaller 3-bolt (instead of 4-bolt) wheels. Nevertheless, ST724 models are very sturdy and capable, and an ST724 can be a fine choice.
The 932-Series and 921-Series are good snow blowers, but not as substantial as their 924-Series predecessors. At the same time, these are younger and probably exposed to less usage. Therefore, one of these models is more likely to have a stronger flat-head or OHV engine, the latter of which is quieter and smoother with fewer emissions. One of the drawbacks of these newer Ariens is the rectangular-to-round transition between the impeller outlet and the base of the chute. This configuration leaves edges and "shelves" upon which snow can accumulate. This flaw allows snow leaving the impeller to clog at the base of the chute more easily than predecessors with a round-to-round transition.
As an aside, we always recommend that buyers obtain a Teflon-like spray and apply it in the impeller outlet, which protrudes upwards from the snow blower barrel, around the opening at the base of the chute, and up the entire chute. This offers a slippery surface that helps prevent clogging. Some products that work well include silicone spray, ski wax, DuPont Teflon Snow and Ice Repellent, Clean Deck Graphite, and Ariens Sno-Jet Non-Stick Spray, among others. One can even use a non-stick cooking spray like PAM!
Some newer Ariens snow blower models offer a trigger on the left handle to release the left wheel, allowing the operator to turn the machine easily in either direction. Note that when one wheel is released, the axle is free to rotate in either direction. This works in the same fashion as the "differential lock" button found on some ST824s, but is much more convenient since the operator can engage the trigger at any time while using the snow blower. The latest models offer power steering, which really amounts to a trigger release on each handle for each wheel. When the trigger is pulled up for one wheel, the power goes only to the other wheel, which in turn turns the snow blower in the direction of the release. In practice, this does not offer much of an improvement over a single release. In deep snow, snow resistance offers a fairly noticeable barrier to power steering, leaving control of turning to the operator via the handlebar. In light snow, power steering is not really needed since the operator can turn just as easily with a single release. Also, some very high-end Ariens machines have a full differential that allows for turning at any time.
We do not like to recommend any Ariens prior to about 1979 because (1) they lack some important safety features, especially the 1960s and 1970s snow throwers where the handle is released like a clutch to engage the drive, (2) they are much less likely to be in good shape internally (bearings, bushings, pinion assemblies, etc.), and (3) parts are harder to come by.
Compact Ariens snow blowers, which have a 932-Series designation, are structurally smaller and lighter than their full-sized siblings. These models perform adequately owing to their properly-reduced proportions. These are equipped with a noticeably shorter augur box and an abbreviated and smaller (in diameter) impeller barrel that reduce capacity. Altogether, the Ariens compact-sized models cannot take in and process as much snow as their full-sized counterparts. These are best suited to light use on smaller properties, where one can move more slowly and still get the snow clearing job done in a reasonable time. Lastly, despite their reduced size, these compact models have only a marginally smaller footprint and an even smaller advantage in price when compared to full-sized models. This leaves one to wonder why a buyer would choose a compact over a full-size. Photos of 3 similar compact 932-Series, ST724 models with different handlebar configurations are shown below.
Finally, our third recommended brand is Toro. Toro's line of snow blowers with drum-style augurs, made prior to about 2003, are quite good. These Toros are designed and built well, with a very rigid augur box and robust tractor drive. They employ unique, drum-style augurs that have a cylinder holding each of the augurs. The two cylinders are sized to the capacity of the impeller. They limit and control the amount of incoming snow that can enter the impeller barrel, thus significantly reducing the likelihood of clogging. The best models date to the 1990s through the early-2000s.
We prefer Toro's 824XL Power Throw full-size model, which shares it's rugged augur box with the premium Power Shift series. For sophisticated users who need greater cutting power at the front for clearing, e.g., for commercial use, we favor Toro's 824 Power Shift, which allows the operator to shift the wheels rearward (and back forward) depending upon conditions. This is done via a control integrated in the gear shift lever. When the wheels are placed in the rearward position, downforce at the front is increased significantly to ensure that the snow blower stays planted for cutting performance. In the forward position, performance is similar to and handling is actually a little lighter than a traditional machine. Compared to the Toro 824XL, the Toro 824 Power Shift wheels, when in the forward position, are set somewhat ahead of the non-adjustable wheels on the Toro 824XL. The latter essentially splits the difference between the forward and rearward positions of the Power Shift model, placing the wheels directly under the engine.
We like Toro's Compact 724 and 824 Power Throw models, also sold under the Lawn-Boy name with Lawn-Boy's paint and decals. We like this selection of models because they are so intelligently designed and easy to dismantle and repair. Further, we favor the Toro Compact models over the Ariens Compact snow throwers. It is becoming harder to find good examples of these compact machines. Photos of two Toros and a Lawn-Boy appear below.
Most homeowners should pass on Toro's Power Shift models, which are really designed for dedicated commercial use. These have a somewhat complex control with plastic cams embedded in the gear selector that moves the wheels rearward and back to the forward position using drive power. The rearward position places much more downforce on the front of the blower and makes lifting up the front augur box via the handlebar difficult and cumbersome, effectively knocking out maneuverability. However, it provides unusual cutting ability that a professional frequently requires. Rarely will homeowners ever use the rearward position. In the forward (normal) position, the wheels are located slightly further forward than those on a traditional snow thrower, like the Toro 824 XL, where the wheels reside directly under the engine. As a result, the machine is a bit lighter at the handlebar and nose, i.e., offering slightly less downforce up front. Nevertheless, the Power Shift still provides good clearing ability with its wheels forward owing to its extra weight. Another benefit of the Toro Power Shift models is the Peerless gear transmission that is used in place of a friction disc drive system. Again, this is something that the commercial user will value for its reliability and lower-maintenance lifespan. On the downside, the entire Power Shift mechanism adds complexity to the snow blower. The actual brackets that allow the wheels to swing between positions are sturdy and well-made, and rarely present any problems if lubricated periodically. However, the Power Shift control, specifically the plastic cam assembly, can break rather easily if the user is not familiar with how to properly use the gear selector handle to engage Power Shift feature. This control mechanism can be costly to repair. Overall, a Power Shift model is a good choice for the sophisticated and/or professional user.
No matter how you slice it, older is better from a design and construction standpoint. BUT, older can get you into a can of worms once you get inside the traction drive box and start replacing all kinds of parts and assemblies, which can get expensive quickly. So, the buyer has to balance the higher quality with the increased risk of condition issues associated with buying something older.
The trick is to find an older snow blower that has been cared for and properly maintained by its owner, such that it has good internal components, or perhaps some worn items that are routine to replace (like a friction disc). Our top choice would be either a Simplicity Signature Pro 8 HP, 24-inch or 9 HP, 26-inch. Among Ariens, as already described, our choice would be an ST824 (924-Series) from sometime in the mid-1980s to late-1990s. These Ariens perform nearly as well as the Simplicity Pro Series at much more attractive prices. Lastly, we like Toro's well-designed and constructed 824 XL Power Throw and Compact 724 and 824 Power Throw snow blowers.
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