Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Where's My Snow Removal Robot?

There's the Roomba, a little robot that runs around the house vacuuming up dirt.  For a while, there was a robotic lawnmower, also.  The company iRobot have some other robots for other tasks, also, but what I want to know is when there is going to be a robot that clears snow from walkways and driveways?  Like the Roomba, it does not have to be spectacularly powerful, because it can be doing its job all the time, perhaps identifying and zapping each snowflake it sees with a small laser.  So where is it?

I'm a bit frustrated at the moment because I am not thrilled with my choices.  I have been using a Troy-Bilt two stage walk behind snowthrower for several years, and while it works pretty well, it is slow, and exhausting, both because of the physical labor and noise, and the cold air you are breathing.  (It takes 90 minutes to make three passes over our driveway.)  My wife had shoulder surgery this last summer, and she is a bit fearful of freshly injuring her shoulder running this beast.  In addition, it would be nice to be able to clear not just our driveway, but also the private road out to the highway, which is about 2000 feet long.

Last winter, someone was staying with one of our neighbors, and he was having so much fun using an ATV with a snowplow that I was tempted by this approach.  But it turns out that you need at least a 500 cc ATV to realistically clear snow this way.  I dropped into Carl's Cycle Sales today and discovered that a new 4WD ATV would set me back about $6000, including snow plow and rebates.  Used ATVs are not dramatically cheaper because they are fun, and therefore in high demand.  (Economic downturn?  What economic downturn?)

Readers suggested buying a small tractor, because they are much cheaper (no one rides a tractor for fun--at least no one sane), and the low speed is actually a better choice for snow clearance anyway.  I dropped by Home Depot on the way home today, and there were several choices, ranging between $1299 and $1999.  (There are more choices on their web site, unsurprisingly.)  These are actually riding lawnmowers, but designed to replace the mowing part with either a snow plow blade (whose height is adjusted by the mower height control) or a two stage snow thrower.  With a snow plow blade, tire chains (for traction), and a snow cab (to make it not quite miserable), we're looking at somewhere in the $1800 to $2300 area.  Considering what you are getting, this really isn't bad.

The snow thrower attachment, however, is a lot more expensive, and I'm not convinced that I need it.  We do not normally get months of freezing weather here; I believe that I could just push the snow off the sides without a problem.  Worst comes to worst, the third or fourth week we discover we need the snow thrower, we can add it.

John Deere, Cub Cadet, Ariens, and Poulan are the brand names on the models on the web site.  Any experiences?


  1. Cub Cadet is made these days by MTD - purveyor of big box store mowers. Cheap. John Deere mowers do have the "Long Green Line" behind them - their large dealership network makes finding parts on short notice considerably easier than others. Ariens and Poulan are independent of MTD AFAIK.

    Mowers are built with a lot of components in common - there are limited suppliers of hydrostatic transaxles and motors. I'd look for one that has the features you want more than anything. I'm in favor of bearings and other moving parts (steering, front suspension) that have grease zerks. Fresh grease every year beats sealed bearings, IMHO.

  2. I bought a Cub Cadet with a 48 inch mower deck in 1970. Never used it to plow snow, but it was still doing a good job in 2003 when I sold it along with the house. Real workhorse. Can't say whether they are still turning out that kind of quality.

  3. Clayton,

    Those are not tractors, and you will not be satisfied with the money spent. There is not sufficient weight to plow effectively.

    Something like this http://www.tractorhouse.com/listingsdetail/detail.aspx?OHID=6273061&

    is the lightest that I would reccomend for snow removal, and a Kubota will outlast you.

    Just for reference sake, I regularlymplow miles of snow with a large compact tractor (Kubota 5030HSTC cabbed tractor with a front 7.5 foot snowplow and a rear 7 foot snowblower).

    I used to use an atv. As I mentioned in the previous post, you can make a larger atv work, if you get a big one (750cc) with 4wd. It is not ideal, but you can make it work. With your hand arm issues, it may create issues. The tractor is effortless. If you spend a few thousand on a lawnmower, you will quickly determine that it did not buy you a solution.

  4. The JD, Cub and Ariens can be good machines. No experience with Poulan.
    Might want to look into used small farm tractor.
    Something with a plow or a back blade around the size of a JD 650 or 750.
    The used JD's run around $4000 +- depending on condition and options.

    Yep, more options to look at.

  5. Cub, Ariens and Poulan are all made by MTD, afaik.... So that leaves the Deere.

    And when people suggested a small tractor, I think they meant something like a Kubota TRACTOR, not a riding lawnmower. Something like this:


    You can find used (real) tractors for a lot less than new at farm sales, etc. Implements the same.

  6. You might get a better (read: cheaper) sales deal at HD et al, but I'd be cautious about buying anything that doesn't have some sort of local non-chain dealer supporting it. At which point there's an advantage in buying from one of those dealers to build a relationship, even if that adds a couple hundred dollars.

    Mechanical things break, small tractors included, and when one breaks it's usually at the worst possible time, which places you in the position of needing competent support, and needing it fairly quickly. That's not usually something at which large retail chains excel.

    FYI, at the lower end of the size range you'll need transport for said device should it need service because the equipment dealer won't come to you. Spend $100K on a big-ag tractor, Mike the Tractor Mechanic will drive to your field; at $2-4K they'll open the back door of their shop so you can push it in. Think "trailer and winch." Yes, Country Bob's Lawn Tractor Company can send Cletus out to pick yours up, but delivering it will cut days (sometimes weeks) off the repair cycle time.

    And, going a step or two up in size from Basic Homeowner models, while more spendy up front, may offer more flexibility in the long run regarding attachments and equipment flexibility.

  7. perhaps you could cobble together a mount for the troybuilt snow blower to mount on the front of the tractor/mower. Another idea is to drill and tap some propane burner jets fed from a BBQ propane bottle into an old used mowing deck without any blades/belts/pulleys in it and drive slowly up and down the driveway to melt the ice and let it run off/evaporate/soak in. this is basically the same thing on a much larger scale that they use when re-paving an asphalt road to help with the asphalt bonding.

  8. The other alternative might be a full size pickup with a plow (and naturally 4WD and chains or studded tires).

    But that only works if you can find one at a great price (or really beat-up), or don't mind doing a lot of work on it...

    Has significant various advantages, such as being a general-purpose hauler the rest of the year, though...

  9. You can go to Consumer Reports and read about those brands. The Deere tractors are significantly better than the ones you mention according to them.

    I'd be careful about the Deere tractors at HD as they're often not as reliable as the ones that Deere dealers sell. I have a neighbor who uses a blower attached to his Deere that he uses rather than a plow. His is a high end Deere and while he likes it it's not significantly different from just walking behind a regular blower.

    Living here in farm country in Minnesota it's easy to pick up old tractors and implements cheap, especially smallish tractors. If your area has a significant farming community you might be able to do the same, and those old farm tractors tend to be tanks and run forever. Around here the reason they're being sold is because the farms are getting too big to have much use for the smaller tractors since a family farm averages over 500 acres these days.

  10. The D100 and D110 that Home Depot sells have the same model number as the units sold directly by John Deere; I can't imagine that John Deere would use the same model number for a cost-reduced private label version. I notice also that when you order one of them from Home Depot, it is actually delivered by a John Deere representative.

    This is farm country, but small used tractors don't seem to be offered for sale around here. My guess is that either the farms around here have been big for a long time, or they have not been growing.

  11. Roboplow is really cool! Where do I buy one?

  12. I'm working on a robot that will remove the snow, not by plowing or snow blowing. I'm almost done with my 2nd prototype and the 1st one work pretty good, so I have high hopes for this one. I will let you know more after completing and testing it. I'm sure it is just what you are looking for, allowing you to come home to a cleared driveway / walkway's all of the time. It will keep your car / pets or kids they would be kept safe. SO I will keep you informed if you would like. RH

  13. Anonymous - I would be interested in your prototype. Assume it will melt the snow using a platform similar to an IRobot developmental model - basically a heavy duty/outdoor roomba. Believe there is a new market and would like to explore investment.

  14. Sorry for not getting back sooner, life has a way of getting busy.
    Well the 4th prototype is almost completed, and will be testing it soon, this one is very promising. My robot does not work like the IRobots model, in fact it works different then many other ideas that I have seen, so much so that I have applied for a US patent. I'm looking forward to using this prototype to try to secure capital so that I can take the idea further towards marketing it. And to keep the snow at bay this winter, then use it during the rest of the year for other chores. RH

  15. I hope the snow robot comes along soon! I finally got fed up with removing my snow and I called up snow removal services in Aberdeen. I hope they can do the job until the robot comes along!