Snowblower envy turns to gratitude when owners help dig out neighbors

Mike Phillips may have been the most delighted snow-covered person in the winter-weary Washington area Monday. With the white stuff accumulating on his head and his Montgomery County driveway, the 39-year-old pharmacy rep leaned over and flipped a switch on an MTD Pro 28-inch self-propelled snowblower with electric start and halogen guide light.

And he beamed.

“This is the first year I’ve been able to use it,” said Phillips, who spent the next couple of hours happily plying the $700 machine he bought four winters ago up his own driveway and those of four Olney neighbors. “Now I kind of get excited when it snows.”

While most of the region reacted to Monday’s late-season wallop with all the joy of a punch-drunk boxer walking into a final right cross, one category of homeowner greeted it with glee. Or at least with the smug satisfaction of someone who finally gets to feel justified spending a lot of money to be prepared for the big one. (See also: generator buyers and doomsday preppers.) This year, a lot of snowblower owners have been able to say “I told you so” to spouses and make their neighbors both envious and grateful.

“The first time, I didn’t even know who did it,” said Karl Landesz, 75, one of Phillip’s neighbors on King William Drive, who looked out after a recent snow to find a mechanical miracle, his driveway already cleared. A year after suffering a heart attack, it was more than just a pleasantry to the retired architect. “It was wonderful. My doctor told me not to shovel anymore.”

With the government closed, D.C. residents explored the snow Monday, some hoping it will be the last storm of the season. (Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

Historically, snowblowers ­haven’t been a hot item in the mild mid-Atlantic states. But dealers see a spike whenever the snows are huge, as in 2010, or frequent, as they have been this year.

“We’re not taking any glee in people’s misery,” said Kris Kiser, president and chief executive of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an Alexandria-based trade association that includes most of the top snowblower makers. “But this weather does drive the need for product. We’ve had some pretty light seasons the past few years, but this has been a very good, strong year. Inventory is largely exhausted around the country.”

The Home Depot in Hyattsville sold its last snowblower Saturday. At Village Hardware in Alexandria, a $699.99 Toro “Power Clear” gas model was still in stock, but general manager Alan Kelly said the two smaller, cheaper electric snow-moving machines he was carrying both sold out on Sunday.

On Monday in northeast Silver Spring, Frank Taylor donned his snowsuit and went to a neighbor’s place to borrow his snowblower. Taylor pushed the machine up and down the neighbor’s driveway, gobbling a swath of snow into the churning auger, spewing a wide rooster tail of white off to one side. Thanks to selfless inertia, he kept pushing until he’d hit all six houses in the cul-de-sac.

“Once you get started, unless you have mechanical troubles, it’s hard to stop and say, ‘I’m not going to do your driveway,’ you know?” said Taylor, an inventory supervisor at Capitol Cadillac Buick GMC in Greenbelt. “I guess that’s where ‘love thy neighbor’ comes in.”

Anything less can lead to flurries of passive-aggressive acrimony on neighborhood e-mail discussion groups and social media. “I’d like to curse out the 3 neighbors who saw me shoveling, all by myself, and didn’t even bother to bring over their snowblower,” one irate and exhausted shoveler tweeted Monday. “Yet the dude on the other side of the street used his [snowblower] down the sidewalk of the whole block. Because he’s nice.”

Not everyone loves the racket, either: Snowblowers can do to the muffled silence of a snowstorm what leaf blowers do to a lovely autumn afternoon. But few complain when the snowblower blows for them.

“He really is a nice gentleman,” said Landesz, looking through the storm door as his neighbor spread snow and goodwill along the block.

Phillips says he doesn’t even know the names of the half-dozen elderly neighbors he’s been snow-blowing for all winter, free of charge, including a couple of widowers and a 93-year-old woman.

“It’s good karma,” he says. “And there’s something about having a new tool. You want to use it.”

He bought the winter war machine after the last big blizzard in 2010, which had taxed his shoveling capacity to the back-breaking limit. Then, winter let him down. Year after year of mild weather rendered his investment a gas-powered doorstop.

“It’s been sitting in my garage laughing at me,” Phillips said.

His wife had been looking at it with skepticism. Maddeningly, they were out of town for the one shovel-worthy dump a few years ago.

Finally, during a big snow in January, he fired up the machine — only to have it spurt gas from the carburetor. After getting that fixed (and shoveling his driveway), he woke to the next storm “like a kid at Christmas” and has been out after every storm since.

Among the 27 houses in Taylor’s neighborhood, hardly anybody shovels when snow piles up. Instead, a regular citizens blower brigade of roughly half a dozen turns out, making snow clearing into a community event.

“When I first moved into here, back in 1995, all of the older gentlemen had big snowblowers,” Taylor said. “I thought: Get out there and shovel and take care of it yourself. I didn’t need a snowblower.”

But he learned to love them, and that it takes a village to raze a snowdrift.

“I had a neighbor across the street who would come down his driveway and go right up into mine,” Taylor said. “You return the favors back and forth.”

One unfortunate Chantilly man posted a photo on Twitter of an invoice that showed his new snowblower was scheduled to be delivered Monday afternoon.

But he may get a chance to use his acquisition yet. There are more than two weeks of winter to go.

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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