Idle Your Car in the Winter: Fact of Fiction?

Idle Your Car in the Winter: Fact of Fiction?

By. Ryan O’Connor

Residing in New England for my entire life has taught me a lot about owning and maintaining a car through those cold (to put it mildly) winter months. Everything from “What to do when your car battery dies in a McDonald’s drive-thru?” to “What to do when your doors freeze shut while you’re away at college?” are questions I have been forced to confront, thanks to the cold weather. Their solutions ranged from asking the employee at the drive-thru to jump start my car, to retrieving hot water from the dining hall and pouring it all over my door handles. What I also have found in my 26 years of New England winter driving is that idling your car is not the solution to any of your winter driving problems. Not only is car idling unnecessary, it also has adverse effects on the environment and decreases overall fuel efficiency of the vehicle. I never idle my car longer than 30 seconds, and here is why.

Idling your car decreases fuel efficiency. This one should be a no-brainer. When your car is sitting in one spot with the engine running, it is using fuel. When your car is sitting in one spot, it also is not moving. Your car is therefore getting zero miles per gallon.

Idling your car is not necessary to properly operate your car. Due to the fact that most modern cars are fuel-injected, they require almost no warm-up. Modern cars are run by computers that can intelligently adjust how much fuel needs to be added to the combustion process. For older carbureted engines, this was not the case. Warming up a car before driving would actually make the car perform better and prevent it from stalling.

Idle Your Car in the Winter: Fact of Fiction?

Another winter driving concern about the operation of your vehicle is the engine’s oil. Before synthetic oils came on the market, it was very important to make sure you had the right oil for your engine, as some oils flowed better at different temperatures. With synthetic oils now being very popular, oil no longer needs to warm up as much before driving. Take, for example, Mobile 1. This oil claims to perform at temperatures as low as -40 degrees fahrenheit and as high as 500 degrees fahrenheit. However, before you go running to find any type of synthetic oil, it is still recommended that you consult your mechanic for what type of oil you should be using. Not all synthetic oils may be rated for these temperatures.

Idling your car is bad for the environment. Engine components like a car’s catalytic converter are crucial to prevent the emission of greenhouse gases. Basically, this is the thing that prevents your car from screaming down the road pouring out pollution. The catalytic converter has one shortcoming, though, which is that it is only effective when warm. So, during the winter when it is very cold, your car will not be starting off warm. This also means your car will not convert toxic pollutants into less toxic pollutants immediately after starting. What is the quickest way to warm up your car? Both the Department of Energy and the Argonne National Laboratory, as well as almost all car manufacturers, agree: Simply drive it. That being said, if you drive off gently after about 30 seconds of idling, you’re still likely to help the environment in a big way.

In addition to only idling for 30 seconds, another tip for increasing driving in an environmentally friendly manner in the winter is to combine trips. According to the Argonne National Laboratory, although the catalytic converter takes longer to warm-up during the winter, once it is warmed up it tends to stay at that temperature for up to 15 minutes. This means that when you run into the store to get your bread and milk, you can come back out to your car and the catalytic converter will still be ready to battle pollution. Instead of putting off the rest of your errands, continue on!

So what about safety and comfort? We can’t forget that cold is cold. It’s bitter and can take the wind right out of you. It provides a whole new set of obstacles for driving. I know some people who claim to feel more safe when idling their car during the winter before driving, who say it makes it easier to scrape the ice off of their cars or who attest that their car just takes longer to defrost. Most of these people also don’t feel comfortable driving with a scarf, hat and gloves on. This seems to be the only defense to idling I can find so far. I myself am able to get out there and scrape the ice off my car. I may do it begrudgingly, but it gets done. As for driving with a scarf, hat and gloves, I’ve had numerous cars (with a whole lot of what I’ll call “character”) over the years. Some of them had no heat; some of them were quite drafty. I can say that I’m crazy and used to this, and while I can’t claim that any of my friends were ever too excited about carpooling with me during those times, hopefully the benefits to the environment, your fuel economy and your wallet will be worth a little bit of shivering.

Note: I assume a few things when I say that idling is not the solution to winter driving. For starters, I assume your car is fairly new and therefore fuel-injected. I also assume you live in relatively average winter conditions. If you are unsure if your car is fuel-injected or if you may be visiting this page from areas of the world with very extreme cold conditions, you should consult the owner’s manual of your car, your car dealer or your mechanic. Most mechanics or local car dealerships will be happy to answer basic questions for you during those winter months. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about winters from living in New England it’s that we’re all in it together.

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