Single-Stage Yard Machines Snowblower Makes a Good Backup

Not everyone is blessed to have a backup snowblower. Besides having to pay a few hundred smackers on top of whatever you paid for your everyday wintertime mainstay, you need room in your shed or garage to fit a second unit. You also need the justification: a few bad experiences that leave you no other choice.

I certainly had those—corroded shear pins (before I began keeping extras on hand), a snapped drive cable, and a broken pullcord—invariably after bad snowstorms. Electric start was already common in snowblowers 10 years ago, when I bought my two-stage, 24-inch Yard Machines unit, but the feature was not universal. So, when the pullcord wore out, I was out of business…at least for the duration of the snowstorm. Hello, shovel. Hello again, back trouble.

That’s how I ended up at Walmart, late last winter, to buy the one remaining single-stage snowblower in the store. Given the situation, I couldn’t exactly be choosy. Nevertheless, the 21-inch, single-stage Yard Machines 31A-2M1E752, $350, came through for me last week. I needed it after the auger housing of my two-stage Yard Machines 31A-62EE729 failed over an errant phone wire that snarled the auger, leaving the engine running fine so long as I didn’t try to clear any more snow.

The smaller Yard Machines performed as well as I’d expect from a single-stage snowblower. Granted, a two-stage model is beefier, clears much more snow per hour, and is easier to manage because of its transmission. Unless, of course, that transmission has become good only for taking the machine out of the shed to visit the snow. Repairs would have cost more than a new machine. We’ve since replaced that model with its modern-day counterpart, the 24-inch Craftsman 88173, a two-stage blower with a 208cc overhead-valve (OHV) engine and electric start.

With the backup snowblower, I needed to take it slower with deep or moist snow. If a single-stage takes in too much snow in one gulp, it gags—and stalls. This model was no different. And unless you reach over yourself to rotate the chute or angle its opening up or down, there’s no chute control. But in moderate snow no deeper than eight inches, the 21-inch 31A-2M1E752 performed like a champ. Like any single-stage snowblower, it cleans closer to the surface than the typical two-stager. And its 123cc, OHV engine should last for many years.

For regions like this, a short drive from New England’s southern environs, a single-stage model shouldn’t be your only snowblower. But as a stand-in to a more capable model, the Yard Machines 21-inch 31A-2M1E752 is well-qualified for the role.

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Stihl Delivers Cordless Power in a String Trimmer

Stihl FSA 56 string trimmerWith every new year’s lawn season, we can count on one thing: that battery-powered outdoor tools will creep even closer in performance to their gas-powered siblings. And now and then, you needn’t shell out a lot of green to own green gear. The Stihl FSA 56 string trimmer, from the manufacturer’s AK line of midrange cordless electric tools, is the second of two Stihl cordless tools reviewed here—and, at about $200, is moderately priced for a battery-powered trimmer.

The price for the straight-shaft trimmer includes a 36-volt, lithium-ion AK 10 battery and AL 101 charger, though we tested the trimmer with the beefier AK 20 battery we’d already had on loan from testing the Stihl MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw. (That product will not run on the AK 10.) Already have tools from Stihl’s AK line? You can buy the FSA 56 without the battery and charger for $50 less.

Revving Up the FSA 56
As with the MSA 120C-BQ, the battery snaps snugly into place and has four LEDs indicating remaining power. Starting the trimmer takes three steps, one of them the usual safety lockout for the actual trigger, but the lockout itself has a lockout—a retaining latch you must release before anything else. Without a glance first at the manual, you might find the unit adult- as well as child-proof. But once you’ve done it once, you won’t forget it. You need to hold down only the trigger to keep the tool whirring.

The business end of the trimmer has a bump head for feeding line plus the usual metal blade in the deflector to keep line from spanning beyond the 11-inch cutting width. Not many years ago, a dual-line, battery-powered string trimmer was scarce. Now they’re fairly common, and this pair has an ample 0.80-inch diameter. We didn’t need to swap spools but ran through the process anyway and judged it as easy as in the video below. As with the unit itself and all Stihl products, you’ll find replacement spools only at a Stihl dealership.

The FSA 56, as tested, weighs 8.2 pounds, and we found it well-balanced and easy to operate along the perimeter of the test property. But the news gets better: With the lesser AK 10 battery, the one actually sold with the unit, the trimmer weighs only 7.3 pounds. The shaft is also adjustable by several inches, and you can adjust the angle of the front (loop) handle with a quick turn of a star knob.

Turf Battles
We tested the FSA 56 on everything from soft, overgrown grass to a some stiff-stemmed weeds, with a persistent patch of ground elder providing much of the challenge. The dual lines ripped deftly through the grass and ground elder, though the heaviest growth likely accounted for the roughly 30 minutes we got out of the AK 20 battery before it began to cut out. (It’s rated for 34 minutes; the AK 10, 17 minutes.) Not that the trimmer didn’t slice through the denser patches. It did, but if you have a lot of thick weeds on your property, you might want to pay another $70 for a second AK 10, which would serve for another 15-17 minutes while the first battery charges.

Stihl claims that with the standard AK 10, you can “trim the length of five football fields on a single battery charge.” With most homes and their diverse plants and widths of the places the mower can’t reach, there’s no way to judge that claim. Still, we trimmed plenty of property on a charge—even accounting for fallen sticks, which add resistance, among the weeds we cleared. We even edged with the FSA 56, though we had to do it by holding the trimmer sideways; the cutting head can’t be rotated as with some other manufacturers’ trimmers.

As with the MSA 120C-BQ chainsaw, the charger took about 2 ½ hours with the AK 20. Buy the string trimmer in the usual way, with the AK 10 battery, and you’ll be up and running again in about 80 minutes.

A couple of caveats: We found no concerns about the battery life, but perhaps none arose since we used the higher amp-hour battery. Some customers on Stihl’s own site have complained about short battery life, along with problems getting replacement spools. For this second grievance, we advise you check before buying the trimmer that your local dealer stocks replacement spools for this product.

The Verdict
With either battery on the FSA 56, you’ll be spending a lot of time charging it if you live in a woodsy neighborhood with lush growth around the edges. That, in fact, might be the concern of some buyers who’ve posted user reviews to Stihl’s website. In such settings, you’d be better off with a gas machine such as the $240 Stihl FS 56 RC-E.

But if you have modest weed growth along your property’s perimeter and don’t want to deal with the maintenance of a gas-powered weed whacker, the FSA 56 deserves your consideration. For power, ease of use, and light weight at the price, you can’t do much better in a cordless string trimmer.

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