Elenathewise/Getty ImagesFor those of us who live in the north, winter means that our outdoor maintenance focus shifts from green lawns and gardens to snow-covered driveways and sidewalks. In summer you can mostly choose when you’re going to work in your garden or mow your grass. In winter, when it snows, you have to deal with it immediately, often before or after your workday. This is why it can be so frustrating when your snowblower won’t start. Here are some basic troubleshooting tips to get that engine to fire up and to make sure that it will do so every time the snow flies.
Simple Stuff First
To start, always look for the simple stuff. Is the ignition key inserted properly and in the right position? If there is a fuel shut off, is it in the on or open position? Most importantly, is there fuel in the tank?
The Right Fuel
If there is no fuel in the tank, better fill it up with the right type of fuel, depending on what type of motor you have. There are two types of motors, 2 cycle and 4 cycle. If you have a 4-cycle motor, it’s just straight gas that goes in your tank. If it’s a 2-cycle motor, you have to mix oil in with the gas, so be sure you have the mix ratio right. That ratio is often written on the gas cap or nearby on the engine housing. If you can’t find it, consult the owner’s manual to be sure. Many auto parts, and even convenience stores, have bottles of 2-cycle oil proportioned for 1 or 2 gallon gas cans. These are great because they take all the guesswork out of getting the right mix.With both 2- and 4-cycle motors, it is best to get a minimum of 87 octane gas with no more than 10% ethanol.
Make sure that the fuel is fresh. The most common culprit of a hard-starting engine is stale fuel. If you left fuel in the tank over the summer, it’s best to drain it by accessing the fuel line or using a siphon system. If that leftover gas is less than a third of the tank, top it off with some fresh fuel, and be sure to include a fuel stabilizer to help condition the mix. Follow these same guidelines for your gas can.
So, if you’re sure your gas tank is full of fresh fuel and your motor still won’t start, you might consider trying a can of starter fluid. But beware, most starter fluid has an ether base which makes it extremely flammable and can also ruin a 2-cycle motor because it strips necessary residual oil off of cranks and cylinder walls. It’s best to find a spray can of non-Teflon, petroleum-base lubricant, such as WD 40, to use for starter fluid. To use this, you will have to access the intake of the carburetor which is usually found behind the air filter. Give a couple of solid squirts into the throat of the carburetor and then try starting the engine. If it’s still a non-starter it usually means that the issue is with your ignition or spark plug.
While you’re taking off the air filter to get to the carburetor, make sure to inspect it. If the filter looks dirty, try cleaning it out with some compressed air or a vacuum. If after that it still looks bad, go ahead and replace it. Look for the serial and model # stamped somewhere on the motor or body of your machine, snap a picture of it and then head to a hardware store or a small engine repair shop with the air filter in hand.
If you’re sure the engine is getting gas, or you’ve tried some starter fluid and it’s still a no-go, its time to check the spark plug. Locate the spark plug and pull off the cap. Find the appropriately size deep socket, usually 5/8 or 13/16, to remove the plug. Once out, dry off the plug with compressed air or a rag. Look for signs of carbon build up. If it looks bad, you can grab some fine-grit sandpaper and clean it up, but the best bet is to just go buy a new plug. It’s a less-than-$10 investment. I suggest you get an Iridium spark plug because they provide faster starts and last longer than conventional spark plugs. Once you’re ready to put the plug back in, make sure you check the gap on the spark plug. The gap on a spark plug is the distance between the center and ground electrodes. You can find a simple spark plug gapper at a hardware store. New plugs are usually not gapped properly and it’s quite likely your old plug was never gapped right in the first place.
If you feel that in the process of trying to start the motor you flooded the engine with fuel, now is not a bad time to pull that starter cord several times with the spark plug out. This will force any excess fuel vapors out of the cylinder and dry things out a bit in there. If you do this, make sure your ignition switch is turned off so that you don’t accidentally ignite any of those escaping vapors.
When to Throw in the Towel
If after going through all of these steps your snowblower still won’t start, and your arm is maybe falling off from pulling that starter cord, it just might be time to cry uncle and admit defeat. Find a reputable small-engine repair shop and bring your snowblower on in. Fair warning though, these shops are probably maxed out with other machines in the same condition this time of year. You’ll probably have to resort to shoveling because your snowblower might not be ready for a couple of weeks.
The best advice I can offer is to take the time at the end of each season to drain your fuel tank and add a bit of fuel conditioner into the tank to keep any fuel that remains from getting stale and making the machine hard to start. Even with that done, it’s still a good idea to take your snowblower in every few years for a tune-up in the off season. That way you have better odds of it starting when you really need it in those wee hours of a cold and snowy winter.
To see these troubleshooting tips demonstrated, watch this video: