A Greener Way on a Cold Winter Day

by Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com). Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

I couldn’t decipher her exact words, but I think she was trying to say, “Baby, it’s cold outside!” I’m not sure, though, because we were speaking different languages. I was pleading, “Start, baby, start”. She was responding, “wuh – wuh – wuh”.

This January, it’s been cold enough to test just about anyone’s patience and love of winter. Even more than testing us, it’s been a test for our vehicles. Cold temperatures are hard on engines and terrible for fuel economy. But there are things you can do to save money, energy and the environment as you get around this winter.

Pre-warm your engine

For an engine, few things are more demanding than starting in the dead of winter. Parts move sluggishly and oil is thick as tar.

As a result, engines run very inefficiently when first started. They consume much more fuel than normal and produce much higher levels of toxic emissions like carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrous oxides – evidenced by that unique stink they produce when started cold.

Worse, for the first few moments, a cold engine is essentially like an engine running without oil, and parts wear much more quickly.

That’s why a block heater is a great investment in reducing emissions, improving your fuel economy and extending the life of your engine. When you plug in your car’s block heater to pre-warm the engine, it starts more easily and burns less fuel. According to Natural Resources Canada, studies have shown that block heaters can improve fuel economy by as much as 10 percent. Oil is circulated more quickly too, so wear on parts is greatly reduced. And when a car is plugged in, its heater and defroster work much sooner.

Block heaters are standard equipment on many vehicles, or can usually be installed for a cost of $100-150.

What about the power?

Block heaters do use a lot of power: 400-450 watts, or as much as 30 compact fluorescent light bulbs. If you plug in your car for 14 hours a night, that will cost $17-19 per month.

But here’s some good news. It takes just 2 hours for a block heater to warm most engines; anything more is a waste. By investing in an outdoor programmable timer that will turn your block heater on automatically while you're still sleeping, you can save over 80% and still be sure that your car will start in the morning. A $25 timer can pay for itself in about 2 months - an amazing investment!

What about a heated garage?

A heated garage may be a luxury many of us dream of, but it comes with some huge added costs.

First, there’s the heating – a much higher environmental and dollar cost than a block heater. It doesn’t help that garage doors are opened frequently, and are typically drafty and poorly insulated.

Then there’s the impact on your vehicle. Going from hot to cold every day allows all that caked on salt to melt, penetrate and chew especially hard on metal. Cars kept in warmed garages usually rust out much more quickly.
Unheated garages are better for cars, and they have the added benefit of keeping windshields frost-free.

Cold weather idling?

When it comes to winter idling, the 30 second rule and the 10 second rule still apply – with a bit of common sense!

For the first start of the day, modern engines need about 30 seconds for oil to circulate. Beyond that, vehicles actually warm up faster by being driven.

For the rest of the day, it’s better to turn the key off if you’re stopped for more than 10 seconds.

Common sense should always prevail, of course. It’s never wise to drive with frosted or snow-covered windows. And when it’s thirty below, it doesn’t hurt to stretch the idling rules just a bit.

Perhaps “wuh – wuh – wuh” means “treat me right”. With a block heater, timer and proper idling practices, you can save money, energy and the environment. And both you and your vehicle will be happier this winter.