Saturday, January 12, 2008

Snowthrowers, Global Cooling, My Driveway, & Chains

Yes, these all fit together. The Corvette has been sitting quietly in its warm little garage, out of fear that it would get stuck on the driveway. Wednesday, we discovered that even the AWD Equinox wouldn't get up the driveway. There was just too much snow on top of too consistent a layer of ice. Most people would just shovel the driveway. Since my driveway is about 600 feet long....

Okay, so Thursday we decided that since there are no snowplow attachments for the Equinox (at least that I could find), the right solution was to buy a snowthrower. Astonishingly enough, Lowe's still had four snowthrowers in stock. We bought a Troy-Bilt 5.5 horsepower Storm 2 stage snowthrower. It has four forward gears and two reverse gears. It clears a path 24" wide. And yes, it breaks up ice.

So the plan was: clear the driveway. Drop ice melt on the ice. And this is where the global cooling comes in. We went to Home Depot, and said, "Where's your big bags of ice melt?"

"We're out. And so is the manufacturer."

We went to Wal-Mart. Completely out. No idea when they will see more. It appears that the remarkable cold snap that the U.S. is experiencing right now has sucked up all available ice melt in this part of the country. (I assume ice melt is shipped everywhere in America to meet demand.)

Anyway, if, like me, you come from a part of America where you have to drive several hours to see snow, much less shovel it, you may not think about snowthrowers, anymore than Idahoans think about car alarms.

A snowthrower looks an awful lot like a rototiller. The one we bought has a four stroke gasoline engine that turns a set of blades that pick up the snow, and feed it to an augur that fires it up and out of what looks like a smokestack, which you can direct either left, right, or, if you are feeling particularly masochistic, straight ahead. The blades reach within an inch or so of the ground.

You start it up much like a lawnmower, and aim it at your snowbank. (Ours has an electric starter that you plug into an extension cord if you don't feel like pulling the rope.) The left control runs the blades and augur.

The right control is a weird mixture of a reverse clutch and accelerator. When you release it, the transmission disengages. When you depress it, it engages the transmission and increases power to the driving wheels. (I'm hoping that these are two separate functions, or the clutch won't last long if you use it at lower speeds.)

It picks up snow and throws it with great enthusiasm. It is less enthusiastic about ice, but it will break up the frozen ice layer, along with whatever dirt and rocks it finds, and create the world's least attractive slushy. (Pretend it's chocolate chocolate chip slushy!) The ice tends to come up in big lumps, like 19th century sugar loaves, while the snow just flies!

Anyway, it turns out that the first try on using the snowthrower to clear the driveway took a couple of hours to make two complete passes. I'm glad that I bought one that was driven, but even with this, both my wife and I have muscles that are sore in places that we didn't even know we had muscles. Even this still left long patches of ice, so we bought chains. (It's an AWD--so it takes two sets of chains.)

Anyway, my wife has never put chains on a car before, so this was a new experience for her. I was dreading this quite a bit, largely because all of my memories of tire chains are unpleasant. The strongest memory was helping my father put chains on a 1967 Pontiac Ventura as we crossed the Siskiyou Summit from Oregon to California in 1971. It was cold. It was dark. We were at the side of I-5, with traffic going by at what, in retrospect, could not have been more than about 35 mph, but talk about a way to get your fingers cold and sore.

Anyway, the chains made it possible for us to drive up the ice-covered driveway with only a little adrenalin rush, but the prospect of having to take them off and put them back on again each time we reached the base of our driveway was a bit much for my wife, so I decided to declare war on ice.

I spent most of this morning and into the afternoon--perhaps three hours total--breaking up the ice, enough so that my wife was able to drive straight up the driveway, without drama. As I neared completion of the task, however, one rock managed to get stuck in the augur, preventing it from turning.

This was an unpleasant task to remove, since it was a piece of granite (very useful for dulling high speed drill bits on, by the way), and eventually I could only get it out the same way that one of my lower wisdom teeth came out some years ago: by breaking it in place with a hammer and chisel. (And yes, the anesthetic was beginning to wear off by that point. I'm glad this snowthrower doesn't scream.)

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