Keeping on top of the snowstorm -- does it really matter?
February 9, 2015 9:40 AM   Subscribe

I am in the snowy state of Massachusetts and avoiding my next foray out to shovel. Plus, spouse and I slightly disagree on how often we really need to go out and shovel. Does it really save time to shovel every few hours throughout the storm? I have a suspicion that it doesn't really save time, and that we be just as fine waiting until the end of the snowstorm -- is there a way to think this through mathematically to find a good answer?
posted by lillygog to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's definitely, definitely easier to shovel an inch of snow every hour than it is to shovel eight inches of snow at the end of the day.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:47 AM on February 9, 2015 [29 favorites]

It doesn't save time, but I think it's easier to shovel 6 inches twice than 12 inches once. I think that depends on the weight of the snow, though. This stuff, it doesn't really matter - it's pretty light. Heavy stuff would be brutal at a foot deep.

With the blizzard, I had to go out mid-storm, if only because it was getting to be too much for the snowblower. Normally I do the driveway every few hours, the deck when it gets to be too much for the dog to plow through, and the sidewalk at the end of the storm.
posted by neilbert at 9:47 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Having grown up in upstate New York with a long-ass driveway, yes, it really does make a huge difference if you shovel every few hours, if you have a significant amount projected to fall. 6 inches of snow vs. 3 feet of snow is so much less mass to move from one place to another. It might not be very fun to be out in the thick of it, when the snow is still falling, and may feel pointless when you turn around and that clean bit of pavement you left a minute ago is already getting covered again, but it's the best way to deal with it when you're going to be shovelling a lot. It's a very strenuous activity (eg. there are cases every winter of shovellers having heart attacks, etc.), so unless you're into pain and suffering, just do it more often.
posted by catch as catch can at 9:48 AM on February 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

I haven't sat down and figured out the optimum including time to get my snow gear on and off, but personally I don't optimize for time -- I optimize for minimum perceived effort, and do something like the previous folks (less snow more often) because I don't want to have to shift a whole foot of snow at once.

Also, people who have to be out on the sidewalks before the storm has finished will thank you.
posted by dorque at 9:49 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

No math but if it's windy there is no point in shoveling, snow will just drift into the shovelled area, but on a day like today you van make it easier by shoveling before the snow stops.
posted by Ferrari328 at 9:51 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's no way to say this since every storm is different and snowfall rates are not uniform.

Typically I shovel multiple times when I'm home, but more out of cabin fever than anything.
posted by selfnoise at 9:51 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Part of this equation is whether the thing you are shovelling is a public sidewalk that gets much use. If so, please be kind and shovel frequently if you can. As a pedestrian, it is tough having to slog through unshoveled sidewalks, even if legally folks have until the snow stops falling to shovel. Of course I understand some people may be at work or waiting on someone to come and shovel for them if they're not physically capable. If if you can do it, it's a nice gesture and absolutely will make people's lives easier. :)
posted by rainbowbrite at 9:55 AM on February 9, 2015 [4 favorites]

Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers: Before you Shovel Snow …
Shoveling Techniques
What is the recommended rate for shoveling?
According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), the recommended rate for continuous shoveling tasks is considered to be around 15 scoops per minute. Tasks involving continuous shoveling at this rate should not last for longer than 15 minutes at a time, followed by a rest break of at least 2-3 minutes.

What is the recommended weight to be lifted?
The load lifted should be adjusted according to the shoveling rate. For a high rate of shoveling (about 15 scoops per minute) the total weight (shovel plus a shovel load) should not exceed 5 to 7 kg (about 10 to 15 Ibs). For a lower rate, the load can be increased to a maximum of 11 kg (about 24 Ibs). Wet, heavy snow should be lifted in smaller loads as the weight per volume of snow is much greater than fluffy, powdery snow.

Clear snow early and often. When a large accumulation of snow is expected, shovel frequently throughout the snowfall. Fresh snow is more fluffy and light, and is easier to move than packed or wet and heavy snow. Do not wait for all of the snow to fall before shoveling. This will increase the workload and could lead to an injury when trying to move too much snow at once.
posted by zamboni at 9:55 AM on February 9, 2015 [17 favorites]

I shoveled three times during last week's foot-plus of snow that landed on southeast Michigan (partially to avoid the Super Bowl pregame and halftime shows, I'll admit), and I found it to be tremendously easier on my back than in previous instances when I waited it out.
posted by Etrigan at 9:57 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Good point by Ferrari328 about the wind. We almost always get high winds with our snowstorms and most people just wait until it's all over before they head outside.

Aside from that, yes, it's best to make a couple of trips out. Easier on your body, too. Sometimes we get really heavy, wet snow and if I wait until it stops, I might as well be shovelling concrete.
posted by futureisunwritten at 9:59 AM on February 9, 2015

When I have a walk to shovel, I tend to shovel every few hours. First, because it's usually easier. Second, it can help "define" the space you are clearing, which makes later shoveling a little easier. Third, a big reason you are shoveling is so that the people who have to use your walk can do so safely. Making someone's granny trudge through 12" of snow earns you a place in hell.

Also, unless you have a very short length of sidewalk, be sure to cut a path to the street so people can get on and off the sidewalk. This is especially essential if you have a corner. You are not shoveling just for yourself but for all of your neighbors and passers-by.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:00 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, a fourth reason is that, if you wait, people walking on your chunk of sidewalk will have packed it down, which can make it really hard to clear later. And, if you don't clear it, it becomes icy really easily, and no one wants a sidewalk that's a mass of unclearable ice. The hip joint you save may be your own.
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:02 AM on February 9, 2015 [11 favorites]

I should have specified: we're on a small side street without much pedestrian traffic. However, I am usually on foot myself, so trust me, our sidewalks are amongst the best cleared on the block! But I totally appreciate other pedestrians mentioning that point.
posted by lillygog at 10:05 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

On efficient shoveling:
“This is the kind of question that could be approached mathematically, but there are so many variables that it probably wouldn’t be a good way to find an answer,” [Univ. of MN mathematician] Gray said. Here’s the problem: your strength, the type of shovel, the depth and weight of the snow, the stickiness of the bottom layer to the driveway, the width of the driveway all make a difference.

posted by melissasaurus at 10:13 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think you can look to analogies with other exercises like weight lifting or running. You may not be able to bench 100 pounds but you can probably bench 5 pounds 20 times. Similarly, you may not be able to run 5km at a time, but if you broke it down to 500m stretches you could do it more easily. In this case it is more likely like benching either 100 pounds at once or 10 pounds 20 times, but the latter is still much more doable.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 10:25 AM on February 9, 2015

I think about this a lot as I'm on a street with a lot of foot traffic and the social contract of keeping walk ways clear is important. My grandfather took a tumble on some lumpy unshoveled icy snow when he was in his 90's and was stuck on his back like a turtle unable to get his footing until a couple of people came along to get him to his feet. He was mortified.
It depends on weight of the snow and wind. If it's the wet heavy stuff I'll get on it pretty often. If it's windy or powdery, I'll put it off.
posted by readery at 10:27 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Really depends on the snow (wet and heavy or light and fluffy-- which you can figure out by the temperature), the rate it is falling at (in terms of how much weight you are comfortable with in a shovelfull) and the schedule of any town/ city plows. I err on the side of doing as much at once as possible but you have to account for differences in storms. During the recent blizzard in New England I had to go out and clear in the middle of it and even then it almost overwhelmed the snow blower.

It depends on what you need to do as well: if you need to get out of the house right now, do the bare minimum and leave the proper cleaning for later.
posted by yerfatma at 10:30 AM on February 9, 2015

Does it really save time to shovel every few hours throughout the storm? I have a suspicion that it doesn't really save time, and that we be just as fine waiting until the end of the snowstorm

It's faster to carry your groceries into the house in one trip instead of going back to the car multiple times. But with enough groceries, carrying them all at once can be much more tiring than taking two trips, and could even cause injury. If there's enough groceries carrying them all at once just isn't possible.

It probably is also faster to shovel your snow all at once, if you can manage it. But it will be less strain to do multiple sessions, taking breaks in between. And unlike the situation with groceries, you don't know how much total snow there's going to be until it's over.

Also, if there's any chance of it changing to sleet or rain (that doesn't seem to be a danger for this particular storm), you are 500x better off if you clear away the snow before that happens.
posted by aubilenon at 10:34 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is the spouse that thinks "Shovel More Frequently" actually out shoveling, or is the task falling exclusively on the other? 'Cause if SMF spouse is out there shoveling and SLF spouse is inside drinking hot cocoa in front of the fire, there might be issues.

Practically, I just want to get the snow off before it gets walked on, because removing the compacted stuff is so much harder.
posted by achrise at 10:39 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

So there are a bunch of answers saying it's easier, which I agree with, but you asked if it was faster. Aside from the pedestrian issues, the main time that I find digging at the end to be slower is if the air is fairly warm when the snow falls and gets colder afterwards, when you end up with a crust of ice on the top, or a solid frozen lump on the bottom, or worst of all, an icy layer somewhere in the middle. This is especially true of the accursed stuff that the snowplow pushes into the driveway.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:39 AM on February 9, 2015 [3 favorites]

Spouses go out and shovel together. I promise y'all, I am jerk to neither spouse nor neighbor, just someone who grew up in the South and is ignorant of these snowy ways. I *do* wish we had a fire for the nearby drinking of cocoa, though.
posted by lillygog at 10:56 AM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

So there are a bunch of answers saying it's easier, which I agree with, but you asked if it was faster.

Of course, easier often equals faster, especially if you have a long drive or a lot of sidewalk to clear. Scraping the packed down gunk after 6 hours of people walking on it is a lot slower and sweatier than going out 3 times in those 6 hours for a quick cleaning, especially when you can push more than lift.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:03 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

i am also a southerner and with you - but my yankee husband agrees with your spouse and the thread - doing it more frequently is better for a bunch of reasons. i guess as long as he doesn't talk to me about proper biscuit making procedures, i'll listen to him about snow shoveling.
posted by nadawi at 11:06 AM on February 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yeah, even though we're getting light powdery snow right now, I've gone out several times to at least clear the giant heap of heavier, compacted snow and ice chunks that the plow guys keeps leaving in front of my parking space... It is much, much easier to handle this in smaller chunks than to wait until the end.
posted by TwoStride at 11:08 AM on February 9, 2015

I don't think anyone has yet mentioned the psychological factor and the term I invented several years ago, snow crying. That's when you have to force open the door, carefully squeeze your way out, pick up the shovel, clear out a few feet, look and see how much more there is, and you start crying. Because no way. Just. NO WAY.

The only way to avoid snow crying is to get out there often and cut down a few inches at most. Use proper form. Bend at the knees. If you can take an epsom salt bath after, DO IT. Stretch your upper and lower back as well as your neck.

SNOW CRYING can be avoided by getting out there early and often.
posted by kinetic at 12:01 PM on February 9, 2015 [19 favorites]

So, to summarize:
Steady and copious snowfall: scoop at regular intervals
Stormy conditions: definitely wait until the end of the worst (it is true!)

I would add: watch the temperature. If it falls, nothing to worry about apart from your personal safety while out there. If, on the other hand, it creeps up toward thawing, scoop earlier rather than later, and repeat as needed, to avoid an icy nightmare, should temperatures drop again later on.
posted by Namlit at 12:33 PM on February 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I personally find it easier to push the snow off our (concrete) driveway with one of the push style snow shovels each time 2-3 inches have accumulated, than to do the heavy bend and shovel work with the final total amount of snow. The other thing is to stay ahead of possible post-storm temperature rises and sun appearance, since warmer snow is wetter snow is heavier snow, and heavy wet snow leads to the aforementioned snow crying (not to mention things like heart attacks for those of us in the 50+ age bracket, even worse than snow crying).
posted by aught at 1:01 PM on February 9, 2015

I just got back from shoveling for the second time today; not that much has accumulated so far, but I definitely prefer to keep ahead of it. (Just the walkway to the front door; every time it snows, I give thanks that we don't have sidewalks, though as a city boy I thought it was weird when we first moved in.)
posted by languagehat at 1:09 PM on February 9, 2015

See also: Snow Crying: when you have finally gotten the driveway clear, go inside to grab your backpack, and the plow comes along and leaves a foot or more of wet, icy, snow chunks across the driveway.

The last several winters have been verrry snowy.* Get a snowblower.

* Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
posted by theora55 at 2:46 PM on February 9, 2015

Yeah, I wish that "it depends" wasn't really the best answer.

I have a lot of sidewalk (four properties) and driveway, so except in the smallest and lightest snowfalls I tend to just start early and keep at it. (I do have a snowblower, though currently I'm stuck with a crappier one than I really should have.) With this latest Midwestern blizzard I definitely did it in stages. For instance I always have to do the driveway first, to get the machine out, and I always do a "path" first, so that pedestrians can get through -- but I may wait until the storm is over to do the second pass where I take it out to the physical edge of the sidewalk. All in all it took me a good four-five days to finish up after the blizzard, making multiple passes at the driveway and corner openings to make them wider.
posted by dhartung at 2:59 PM on February 9, 2015

Keep ahead of it, I say. I've been out three times in the past 24 hours, and the one difference I noticed during this last attempt to unbury my car, again, is I have to walk farther with each shovel-full as the prime places to put the snow are being scooped up by the neighbors as the day goes on.
posted by danapiper at 3:10 PM on February 9, 2015

Thanks, everyone! I think I was fooled by thinking in terms of time spent rather than effort spent. Also, the first big blizzard was really windy and powdery where I was, so there were indeed cases of "I shoveled that space but the wind made it just as high again." The "it depends" answer actually makes the most sense to me, though I admit I was hoping for an optimized single answer of "yes, always shovel every three hours". Which seems a ridiculous hope, on thinking about it.

Anyone want some snow?
posted by lillygog at 3:15 PM on February 9, 2015

I am on the North Shore. I don't know where you are, but short of clearing sidewalks as best you can, there is really no more point in shoveling beyond the bare minimum you need to do. And there's no point in starting it until the snow has stopped for that particular storm. There is not place to put it. And there's no point in exerting effort to clear an inch when three more will be there in an hour (as we had last night.)

At this point, with more snow coming and no end in sight, do only what you need to do for survival purposes. I'm not kidding. We have no place to put any more snow, so it's not worth expending the effort to do any more than be able to get out of your house......
posted by zizzle at 5:56 AM on February 10, 2015

there is really no more point in shoveling beyond the bare minimum you need to do

I'd disagree with that. I took the same approach the year before we bought a snow blower because 9 feet of snow overwhelmed our yard that year, but learned my lesson. There's no point beyond the bare minimum in a given storm, but winter is really a continuum as your comment suggests and if you do the bare minimum each time you (or at least I) wind up feeling under siege as the trench between your house and the world gets deeper and narrower each week and it takes a mental toll.

Something else which I need to do during this respite: if you have a storm drain near you, dig that out. Because New England winters have a crappy habit of finding room for a warm spell that turns piles of snow into basement flooding.

And don't forget about fire plugs.
posted by yerfatma at 6:50 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

« Older What is this bird call?   |   How to send automatic email reminders to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.