Last year during the holiday season, many families across Toronto were left in the dark and without power for days (and weeks) in the wake of a brutal ice storm. Though the Weather Network isn’t expecting a repeat of last year, there are several systems brewing that will likely lead to a white christmas for many parts of Ontario. After our most recent snowfall, many low-rise homeowners were taken by surprise and left unprepared to deal with the inclement weather. Despite all this mild weather and rain, it might be a good idea to refresh our memories and discuss some tips for shoveling, review snowblower maintenance, and consider some environmentally safe alternatives to de-icing with salt to help you get through the next snowfall.
The art of shoveling
Waking up to a beautiful blanket of snow can be breathtaking, but also daunting if a long driveway or walkway stands between you and the rest of your day. For low-rise homeowners, reviewing the steps to safe shoveling only takes a few minutes, but will certainly save you a lifetime of back pain.
The first step to safe snow removal begins before you even hit the driveway. A good stretch that targets your hamstrings, back and shoulders will help to reduce the likelihood of injury while shoveling. Popular Mechanics recommends using stretches similar to those used by runners and mountain bikers, while other sources recommend simple yoga stretches. After stretching, be sure to dress in multiple lightweight layers that cover as much skin as possible and can easily be removed to avoid overheating. Also, be sure to protect your hands with gloves or mittens, and prevent slips by wearing boots with non-skid or non-slip rubber soles.
The second most important preparatory step is to make sure that you have the right tools at your disposal. These are essential to safe and efficient snow removal. Ergonomically shaped models, such as those with a curved handle, can help prevent injury and reduce fatigue. However, the fancier model is not always the best choice. Steer clear of heavy shovels with metal blades and opt for the sturdy lightweight shovel with a plastic blade. Good tool maintenance will also help you get the job done more efficiently. Get rid of shovels with wobbly handles and use a utility knife to carve off the shredded end of a plastic shovel.
Once you’re dressed and properly equipped, it’s time to make sure your technique is in top form. For efficient and safe snow removal follow the simple rule - ‘foreground before background.’ Start by shoveling a strip along the perimeter of the driveway (or the area you are shoveling). Then move from the center to the edge, pushing (not lifting) the snow to the edge. Once the snow is moved into the cleared perimeter area, lift and throw the snow out of the rectangle.
To avoid strain, rely on your leg muscles as much as possible. Always push snow when you can, or walk to dump snow rather than throwing it. To protect your neck and back, ensure that you are lifting properly and safely. The Toronto Paramedic Services recommends that you stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the shovel close to the body. When lifting snow, always bend from the knees and avoid any twisting motions.
Not only is it important to master technique, but also timing. Frequent shoveling, if possible, will greatly reduce the strain shoveling poses on the body. It is much easier to shovel new and lighter snow than dense and heavily packed snow. Don’t wait for the snow to stop - the earlier and more frequently you shovel, the less demanding the job will be. Regardless of how often you are shoveling, be sure to take frequent breaks to stand up and hydrate. Also, don’t forget to let mother nature help you out when you can. On a bright day, try to expose a strip of your gray, green, brown, or black driveway to the sun. The dark colors are less reflective than the white snow, and will help the remaining snow melt more easily.
When all is said and done and the driveway is clear, make sure to give yourself a quick stretch and grab a bottle of water to keep hydrated. Shoveling can be a great workout and you should treat your body the same way you would after a run or a trip to the gym.
A high-tech approach to snow removal may be the best option for those who struggle with chronic back problems or joint pain. According to the The Wall Street Journal, shoveling snow “places extraordinary demands on the cardiovascular system, raising heart rates to dangerous levels after only two minutes, and risks injury of soft tissue.” For aging baby boomers and elderly people, safely removing snow is of the utmost concern.
As the winter season approaches, make sure you take some time to give your snow blower a quick test run. This will help you catch any bugs before you’re stuck with a driveway full of snow. Also, keep items like a wire brush or a spray de-icer around to keep the machine’s moving parts clear of ice and compacted snow. A can of spray lubricant will also help moving parts to work better in cold and wet conditions. For your own safety, never clear the moving parts while the engine is running, and do a quick sweep of the area before you rev up the snowblower. You don’t want a fallen branch or a newspaper to take you by surprise and clog up or damage your machine.
If snowblowers still seem too cumbersome, snow melting driveways are a safe albeit sometimes expensive alternative. These systems use temperature and moisture sensors to detect snowfall and activate a heating system located beneath driveways and walkways during inclement weather. These systems are extremely beneficial for those wishing to eliminate the stress of shoveling before work, or those who rely on others to help clear walkways and driveways.
To salt or not to salt
Spreading salt can help reduce the chance of falls while shoveling or receiving guests during the holidays. However, excess salt can build up in the soil, harm nearby plants, leach heavy metals, or burn the paws of our pets. Fortunately, there are a number of alternatives you can use to create better foot traction and improve safety while also preserving the environment. Sand, kitty litter, coffee grinds, and even bird seed can be used to create traction, but require some clean up after the snow melts. Alternatives such as Alfalfa Meal, a 100% natural ice melting alternative, is both environmentally friendly and grainy enough to create traction. However, some believe that the best salt alternative is Sugar Beet Juice, which has been known to lower the melting point of ice and is safe for animals, metals, concrete, and plants. Beet juice is also one of the few effective options below -20 degrees celsius!
If you do choose to use salt, be sure to choose carefully. Sodium chloride (NaCL) can contain cyanide and is not ideal for families with pets, while Calcium Chloride (CaCl) can lead to algae growth. Green Venture has published a helpful chart that outlines the environmental impact of several types of commercially available salt, as well as a Risk Zone table that outlines plants that may be harmed by overzealous de-icing.
To make sure this holiday season goes smoothly for you and your family, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and equip yourself with the proper knowledge and the right equipment so you’re prepared before the snow hits.