It’s that time of the year when those of you who reside north of the Mason-Dixon Line may have to endure sub-zero temperatures. What’s worse than having to go outside when it’s below zero degrees? Entering a freezing cold car, of course. This is probably the reason why a lot of you are tempted to idle your cars (using that fancy remote starter system you got for Christmas, right?), getting it warmed up and cozy before hopping in. Some drivers believe that this is an important step in order to protect the engine during the frigid winter months. If you are one of them, you need to break that habit because not only is it illegal in a lot of places, you are actually doing more harm to your vehicle than good.
According to an interview by Business Insider with Stephen Ciatti, a former drag racer with PhD in mechanical engineering, idling your car in the cold weather not only wastes fuel but also strips oil from critical components that help your engine run. In short, this habit doesn’t prolong the life of your engine. You are actually doing the opposite.
Aside from the damage that it can do to your vehicle and your wallets (for wasting gas money), it also contributes to air pollution, which is why idling is prohibited in most states. Vehicle exhaust can cause asthma, allergies, and lung diseases as well as increases the risk for other health problems like cancer, infections and heart diseases. In order to minimize the health and environmental hazards caused by idling, 19 states have submitted anti-idling regulations in the last few years. Penalties range from $1,000 fine + 6 months in prison (Utah) to $15,000 fine in New York! So make sure to check your state’s laws on the EPA website to educate yourself about the different anti-idling regulations.
One thing that I personally recommend is using a winter-weight synthetic oil in the crankcase. I have used Mobil One for nearly 30 years, and I have had very good results. Mobil One comes in an unusual multi-weight version dubbed “0W40”, which means that it does not thicken appreciably even in severe cold, yet is still suitable for hot weather, too.
Of course, you should also make sure you have the proper rating of antifreeze in your radiator. This isn’t just a warm-up problem, though. Your engine can be destroyed by freezing coolant.
If it’s really cold, your suspension system needs a bit of warming up, too, and idling won’t help that at all.
So here’s a good general approach:
- Start your car, and let idle for 20 to 30 seconds (max). For me, that’s about enough time to do a check to make sure I’ve got everything I need for the trip, set my mirrors, tune the radio (or insert an audiobook in the CD), and set up my smartphone as a GPS if needed. Don’t race your engine! You should probably idle for about 10 to 20 seconds even in warm weather to make sure that your engine oil gets everywhere it needs to be.
- After the brief idle, engage your transmission in drive with the brake on. Give it about 5 seconds to get the transmission fluid going. If you drive a manual, you can skip that step.
- Let off the brake, and start out very slowly. Drive extra-conservatively for a mile or so. Accelerate and decelerate as gently as possible, and don’t go any faster that you have to. That’s an especially good idea if the roads are icy. It will warm up your engine much faster than idling. My house is less than a block from the main road, so in extreme cold, I’ll go the other way, and just go around the block in my neighborhood a couple of times before getting out into traffic.
- Once your temperature gauge gets off of the peg at the bottom of the range, it should be ok to drive normally — which in the case of icy roads, is still ultra-conservatively.
Better yet, if you don’t really have to be out in subzero weather, make yourself a cup of hot cocoa and cuddle up with your significant other at home in front of the fireplace 🙂