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Post-traumatic snow syndrome: Prepare now for winter's wrath

| Friday, Nov. 12, 2010

Although the weather is sunny and temperate today, the frosty mornings we had this week may have brought on flashbacks to last winter, or for those who remember, flashbacks to 60 years ago when the Pittsburgh area recorded its biggest snowstorm, accumulating 27.4 inches over Thanksgiving weekend 1950.

If you find yourself thinking about how much toilet paper you can store in the basement, and you're building a 10-foot wall of cut logs in the backyard to keep the fireplace going if the power goes out, then you might be experiencing that dreaded condition — Post-Traumatic Snow Syndrome.

Just in time, we're here to help you get ready for that first significant snow, which happened on Dec. 19 last year but has occurred as early as Oct. 18 (in 1972). So put down the log-splitter and read up on how to be prepared.

Feeding the fireplace

Splitting logs is hard work.

It's easy to be tempted by electric and gas-driven log splitters that make easy work of turning large, round logs into firewood.

If you're only splitting logs for occasional use in a small fireplace, chiminea or fire pit, a residential model powered by electricity, such as the Homelite log splitter that retails for around $300, may be all you need, says Shawn Hertneky, the supervisor for the garden department at the Home Depot in North Fayette.

Models like that can split 20-inch-long logs as thick as 10 inches in diameter for firewood or yard cleanup

Those who use firewood as the primary or regular supplemental source of heat may require something more substantial, and pricier. Gas-driven commercial models, such as the Ariens 27-ton or 34-ton log splitter, can cost from $1,600 to $2,000, but get the job done faster and more efficiently.

Occasional users may find it more cost effective to rent a log splitter from a nearby home-improvement or tool-rental center for about $75 a day.

Booming business

Besides leaving a permanent scar on the memory, days of shoveling after the February snow have cranked the engine on snowblower sales.

Machines are lined up at outdoor and hardware stores, luring buyers by bringing back memories of those aching backs.

Robert Vasko, Toro's regional manager, says some of his dealers are in their third shipment of sales. That is really busy for this time of year, he says.

The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute, an industry trade monitor, says sales of single-stage blowers are up 22 percent from September 2009. The bigger, double-stage machines, on which snow is churned into the throwing blades, are up 5 percent.

Vasko says a potential buyer needs to be cautious as he or she looks at a machine. Be wary about going wider than 28 inches, he says. They can be bigger than many walkways or sidewalks, he says, adding they are more suitable for driveways and parking areas.

There is another element on which to be careful.

"Those two-stage machines can be pretty strong," Vasko says. "If you pick up a rock or a part of a brick and they throw it, you can be in trouble."

Putting your back into it

Your first line of defense against any future Snowpocalypse is still the humble snow shovel. Chances are, you've already got a few --especially if you lived through last winter in Western Pennsylvania. And snow shovels tend to last a long time, even after significant amounts of use/abuse.

The standard snow shovel is cheap, sturdy and gets the job done, like the True Temper 18-inch Mountain Mover Snow Shovel ($12.97, ). You still have to "put your back into it," though, which explains the popularity of newer, ergonomically designed snow shovels. A bent handle lets you get at the snow from a different angle and reduce the amount of bending over you have to do. Of course, the Ames 18-inch Ergonomic Mountain Mover Snow Shovel ($25.97, www. is a little more expensive than the basic model, but may be worth it if you're worried about your back.

You can even split the difference between snow shovel and snow blower with products like the Toro 12-inch Electric Power Shovel Snow Blower ($99, ). It looks and handles like a shovel, but blasts snow up to 20 feet away like a snowblower, making it helpful for narrow driveways, sidewalks, stairs, decks and other confined spaces.

As many of us learned last year, the snow on your roof can be a much bigger problem than the snow in your driveway -- so don't forget the Roof Rake ($39.99, ).

Covering up

Winter weather can be brutal enough in Western Pennsylvania. But if you're not dressed properly, it can be dangerous. Sierra Trading Post, an online outlet for outdoor wear, offers tips to avoid frostbite, hypothermia and other scourges of winter.

• The most important thing to do for any outdoor activity in regards to clothing is layering. Start with a base layer, thermal underwear or other comfortable apparel; ideal fabrics include silk, polyester or a polyester blend that wicks moisture from the body. L.L. Bean offers silk pointelle pants and scoopneck tops, which are a virtually weightless layer with a bulk-free fit. Lands' End offers pieces such as a silk camisole or tank top to help trap body heat. These pieces also come in a variety of colors, some with feminine detailing. The Eddie Bauer silk underwear shirt and pants are described as a whisper-light base layer. And REI has a pair of long underwear bottoms that are made of a silk jersey material and slim enough to be worn under a pair of jeans. Most of these pieces range from $20 to $45; silk underwear are also available for men in a similar price range.

A mid layer -- anything from a T-shirt to a casual slacks -- provides insulation when going from outdoors to indoors. Finally, an insulating layer, a coat, which should be lightweight for active sports or other activities. Suggested materials include polyester fleece, boiled wool, Polartec, goose down or synthetic fill.

• A good coat that blocks the wind, is impermeable to precipitation and allows internal moisture to escape is necessary. Winter jackets should have snug sleeve openings and a drawcord around the waist. Hoods also are recommended, and waterproof material such as GoreTex is optimal for conditions where there is a lot of moisture.

• Protect the extremities, which are most prone to frostbite. Use a hat made from polyester or an acrylic knit. Both materials retain warmth while wet. A face mask or a balaclava is recommended for the worst conditions; polyester is optimal. Gloves are best for outdoor activities such as snowboarding or skiing; mittens are optimal for extreme conditions. Boots, naturally, are a must. They should be waterproof or water resistant and lined with a material such as Thinsulate. Plush liner socks, made from nylon or wool and designed to wick away moisture, are also important.

Shake it on

At Hampton Hardware & Supply Co., owner Jack Richardson is already stocked for winter. He's got three tractor trailers of salt, one of calcium chloride and 100 snow shovels.

"It's an investment," he says. "I know I'm going to sell it."

When it comes to clearing your icy sidewalk or driveway, it comes down to a choice between rock salt or calcium chloride.

Richardson sells 50-pound bags of calcium chloride for $18.98. At $9.98 for an 80 pound bag, rock salt is a good deal cheaper.

But you get what you pay for. Rock salt is less effective at lower temperatures and can damage concrete. Salt melts ice and snow by lowering the freezing temperature of water by dissolving to create a briny mixture.

"Most of the big homes have concrete driveways so I recommend the calcium. The rock salt really does a number on the concrete," Richardson says.

Calcium chloride gives off heat as it melts. It will continue to melt ice to a temperature of about 30 degrees below zero, Richardson says. It also is less damaging to concrete, grass and trees. Plus, you're less likely to track calcium chloride into the house.

Calcium chloride is available in pellet and flake form. Consider the flakes if you have a steep driveway, Richardson says, because the pellets might roll down the hill. Be careful when walking on pellets, too. Richardson says he sells the calcium-chloride flakes to assisted-living facilities because pellets can present a footing hazard for their elderly residents.

Preparing your car

Checking antifreeze is only the first of several essential steps in preparing your car for winter to reduce your chance of being stuck on the road waiting for help. AAA recommends the use of a 50-50 mix of engine coolant and water.

Be sure, too, that your windshield-washer solution contains its own antifreeze ingredients. Consider winter wiper blades because they are more likely to maintain consistent contact with the windshield.

Last winter's deluges of snow were a reminder that there's no substitute for snow tires. Be sure to check the tire pressure of whatever tire you're driving as tire pressure falls as temperatures fall.

Because batteries deliver less power in cold weather, have the battery's charge checked to be sure it's not weak. In checking hoses and belts, make sure the alternator belt is adjusted properly.

Keep at car emergency kit

Winter demands adding items to your car's year-round emergency kit, which should include a jack and spare tire, flashlight, battery cables, a cloth or roll of paper towels and flares or reflective triangles.

AAA recommends carrying a bag of abrasive material such as sand, salt or kitty litter to help with traction in snow. Carry a blanket for warmth, but don't try using it for traction: Tires can kick it back.

Other items for a winter car trunk are obvious: ice scraper, snow brush and snow shovel.

Keeping the lights on

If you spent part of last February without power, you can protect yourself this winter with an emergency generator, but be sure to plan ahead. Being in the midst of a blizzard is not the time to be shopping for and hooking up a generator.

One type of emergency generator you can buy for a snowstorm is a home standby model, according to the Web site . These generators can power many appliances and lights, and are located outside, reducing the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. The generators have casings that make them weather-resistant, and an electrician usually installs them. Home standby units, unlike portable units, usually are hooked up to your home's main fuel line. But standby generators aren't cheap: they cost, on average, from the $2,000 to $4,000 range.

A portable generator is cheaper -- most cost less than $1,000, and even as little as around $200 -- but you have to be careful about running it during the storm. Many generators aren't protected from the elements, so they can freeze up and stop working. Don't run the generator inside your home or garage. These generators, when powered up, can last anywhere from hours to days.

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