[Commentary] Why You Should Stop Idling Your Car - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 26, 2015 12:39 pm

[Commentary] Why You Should Stop Idling Your Car

Turning your car on and off doesn't waste gas, either.

Series Intro: This series, simply titled Sustainability for the Everyday, came from the author’s experience of becoming a parent for the first time. While the author imagines that tips and insights may be found in this series, his bigger goal is to explore the choices he makes and why he makes them when it comes to trying to live a “sustainable life”. This is all in the effort to show that yes, a person can always do more, but let’s also recognize the good that we all try to do everyday.

In this age of technological innovation, the car industry is still chugging along at the pace of the combustible engine. Even though my check engine light was on in my previous car for over a year,  no computer diagnostic test could detect any actual problem. Every time I’d ask the mechanic for an opinion he’d just say, “I don’t know, the computer’s supposed to tell us if something is wrong.”

Even as Apple has given us six generations of iPhones that have increasingly tethered people to the digital world, the electric car’s fate is still uncertain. Self-driving cars still invoke suspicions of sentient machines malevolently overthrowing the human race, a la the Matrix.

But cars have become much smarter, and not just by the climate control sensors that can be pre-programmed to your most comfortable personal setting, or electronic pressure gauges in our tires that let us know when we have a slow leak, or electronic displays on our radio that instantaneously end the debate over of who sings “A Horse With No Name.”

There have been many advances that have greatly increased fuel efficiency, providing easy steps toward increasing everyday sustainability. However, sadly enough, there are a few misconceptions from the old days of the combustion engine that make drivers follow old rules that sometimes negate those advances. I’d like to dispel two of those out-of-date habits right now:

Myth 1: Cars need to heat up in the winter.

You’ve probably heard this from someone in your family who will scold you for ruining your engine in the winter by turning the key, putting the car in gear and stepping on the gas.

Of course, I hope you are not one of those people who scrape a tiny square on your windshield and then drive away with a sheet of ice on the roof of your car that’s shifting like a glacier that’s about the crash into the ocean. But if your car is free of ice, then there is no reason to sit there for five to ten minutes, as I have been told in the past.

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This misconception is a hold over from the 1970’s when a carburetor was the main mechanism for fuel injection. Without a warm carburetor, the engine could not get the right mix of fuel and air. But today, thanks to the modern invention of electronic fuel injection, the right mix of air and fuel is instantaneous.

Although it is true that cars experience 12 percent worse fuel economy when it is cold outside, according to a Washington Post article, a Department of Energy study proved that standard 3 liter cars that were warmed up for only 30 seconds wasted about 4 gallons of gas yearly while those same cars idled for 5 minutes wasted close to 15 gallons. It was less dramatic in more fuel-efficient 1 liter cars (about 1 gallon of gas for 1 minute warm up as opposed to 5 gallons for a 5 minute warm up). But the facts are in:  Idling a car to warm up wastes much more gas than just driving it while it’s cold.

Although this would have been good advice to give at the beginning of winter, I thought I’d give you one more winter of getting into a toasty, pre-heated car before feeling self-conscious for doing it. I hope you end this practice next winter.

Myth 2: Turning a car off and then turning it back on wastes gas.

As the last section stated, idling a car wastes way more gas and creates way more emissions than we would have if we just turned our cars off. But this leads to the next tall tale that was told to me when I first started driving:  Turning a car off and then turning it back on wastes gas.

Again, due to the retirement of carburetors and the new technology of electronic fuel injection, it does not take the same amount of fuel to start the engine as older models once did.

In all, aside from a toasty car or the ability to take off quickly should you be partaking in an activity such as bank robbery, there is really no need to idle your car except when it’s unavoidable, like when you’re sitting in traffic.

Even then, the electronic starters on conventional gasoline fueled cars are even starting to become as advanced as the starters on hybrids that basically shut an engine down when it is idling, so the car is thinking environmentally even if you are not. According to that same Washington Post article, Chevrolet is putting this feature on their 2014-2015 gas powered Malibu’s.

According to the article, the US economy would save a total of $5.9 billion annually if people stopped idling their cars. Just think how much that translates into the amount of greenhouse gas that could be mitigated from going into our atmosphere.

In 2008, Pennsylvania enacted the “Diesel Powered Motor Vehicle Idling Act” (Act 124) that prohibits diesel vehicles over 10,001 pounds from idling. Also, in the private sector, I’m sure that you have seen those signs on every Wawa that prohibit idling in their parking lots.

But what’s lacking is information on how often these laws or rules are actually enforced. Like most things in sustainability, these initiatives take behavioral changes. And by knowing the impact, as well as dispelling the myths, I hope that each of us can take part in reducing this unnecessary air pollution.

Image via Flickr User Stefano Tranchini


Nic Esposito is a writer, novelist, urban farmer and founder of The Head & The Hand Press. His forthcoming book of essays Kensington Homestead is due out November 2014.

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