Friday, February 02, 2007

An Idle Threat

Now that the cold weather has finally arrived, Canadians everywhere are embracing one of their favourite winter past times -idling their cars. It's convenient, easy, no expensive sports equipment or skills are required, and it can be done just about anywhere. You can idle in the driveway before work, at the school when picking the kids, or at the store when stopping for those quick in-and-out purchases! And for people who get the chills just thinking about getting their cars started on chilly winter mornings, there's the remote car starter. For about the same amount of money that it costs to buy a decent winter coat, these handy devices waste gas, electricity, and help to contribute to global warming in a big way.

So, for the benefit of those not-so-hearty Canadians out there who haven't been paying attention to rising concerns about climate change, here's the message: idling your car in the winter isn't just bad for the environment, it's becoming a social faux pas, much like public spitting became at the turn of the last century.

If you're still not convinced, perhaps the economic arguments against idling might get your attention. Simply put, unnecessary idling can be very hard on your car's engine, which in turn can cost you big money. According to Canada's Office of Energy Efficiency,

"An idling engine isn't operating at its peak temperature, which means that fuel doesn't undergo complete combustion. This leaves fuel residues that can condense on cylinder walls, where they can contaminate oil and damage parts of the engine. For example, fuel residues are often deposited on spark plugs. As you spend more time idling, the average temperature of the spark plug drops. This makes the plug get dirty more quickly, which can increase fuel consumption by 4 to 5 percent. Excessive idling also lets water condense in the vehicle's exhaust. This can lead to corrosion and reduce the life of the exhaust system."

If that wasn't bad enough, idling your car does nothing to heat up the parts of your vehicle that are essential for safe winter driving, namely the wheel bearings, steering, suspension, transmission and tires. The only way to warm up these parts is to actually drive your car, which cuts warm-up time in half.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) advises that whether you're cold starting your vehicle or waiting (any place other than in traffic), don't idle your engine for more than 30 seconds. The UCS also suggests that when it comes to buying a new car consider purchasing a hybrid vehicle. When hybrids are not in motion, the engine switches off, effectively eliminating idling.

Great responsible suggestions, but the problem is that our habit of letting our cars idle has nothing to do with driving responsibly. It's about personal comfort - plain and simple. Consider the following:

Early one frigid winter morning I was out for my neighborhood walk when I saw a woman rush out of her house in a housecoat and curlers. She went into her garage and then backed two vehicles out on to her driveway. She left both of them running while she returned to her morning preparations. Given her state of undress, my guess is that at least one of those vehicles would be idling for twenty minutes or more.

On another occasion, my walking buddy and I were forced to walk up a driveway and around the front of an idling car to avoid its exhaust. The owner of the car came out of the house just in time to overhear my comment about how inconsiderate some people can be. (It's important to note that it was a sunny day and the temperature was at least 5 degrees Celsius.) The woman was so enraged that she got in her car and followed us, screaming obscenities as she went. She drove up and down the street several times, wasting more fuel in the process, before she roared off in disgust. Some people clearly don't have enough to do.

So here's my suggestion - give your car and the planet a break and don't idle your vehicle. Not only will you cut down on your greenhouse gas emissions, and save gas and wear and tear on your vehicle, you'll probably even save enough money to buy a decent winter coat.


The environmental, health and economic costs of unnecessary idling are outrageous. For more information, visit Canada's Idle-Free Zone.

For more information on hybrid gas vehicles, visit the UCS's Scientists Hybrid Information Center, or check out, Union of Concerned Scientists website and subscribe to the Greentips newsletter.


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