No Need to Idle in Winter

Winter idling is bad for the environment and is even bad for your car.

By Thom Oommen
Published February 09, 2007

Winter has finally arrived despite our best efforts, willing or otherwise, to contribute to climate change (and I was just getting used to riding my bike in relative comfort during winter.) I suppose it's a good sign that we can still rely on some things in life.

One of the things I used to count on in winter as a boy was my father's morning ritual. No not shaving or showering, but just as common: winter idling. You see, if my dad's car didn't have a good twenty minutes of idling in the morning, the engine would stall as he drove along to work.

During the 1980s and earlier, winter idling was a necessity if one chose to drive. I wasn't alone; we all witnessed this parental behaviour every day the temperature dropped below zero. These memories stick with you and inform your choices later in life.

Maximum 30 Seconds of Idling

Unfortunately, today people still behave like it's the 1980s (in more ways than one). The myth of "essential" winter idling remains very powerful for many drivers. Since 1990, though, advances in technology have negated any technical need to idle in winter.

When was the last time you or someone you know stalled their car? It doesn't happen any more, thanks to fuel injection and computerized engines. The average car today has more processing power than the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed humans on the moon.

Natural Resources Canada recommends a maximum of 30 seconds of idling in winter, to get fluids moving, followed by consistent and steady driving; if you gun it you're more likely to stall.

For one thing, idling doesn't actually get all a vehicle's parts moving. Only driving does that: a vehicle is more than an engine. Even worse, excessive idling can corrode exhaust systems and foul spark plugs, which leads to decreased fuel efficiency. Nobody enjoys a trip to the mechanic for no good reason.

Car ≠ Coat

Many people already know that from a technical standpoint, their vehicle doesn't need to idle in winter. The sole reason they idle is to warm the interior.

Is comfort a good justification for fuelling climate change or poor air quality? Do you want to breathe in all that exhaust or have your children do so? What health impacts might this have? I'm still amazed to watch people casually clean the snow off their vehicles in a cloud of chemicals in the morning.

A car is not a coat. If the steering wheel is cold, get some driving gloves. If you're cold when you get in, please ponder what you're wearing. Maybe that light jacket isn't enough - think about a thick coat, toque and scarf instead.

I assure you that well-dressed kids and even a bundled-up baby can handle a cold car in the morning. When did Canadians get so soft?

Time to Rethink Myths

With the City of Hamilton seriously pondering an anti-idling by-law, Hamiltonians would be advised to rethink some of the myths of and reasons behind winter idling.

I encourage you, dear reader, to pass on this information to your family and friends. It's the only way this wasteful behaviour will ever be changed.

Thom Oommen is passionate about building truly sustainable communities. But far from technological solutions and other flights of fancy, he believes that the only way to build a just and ecologically responsible community is to embrace frugality and simplicity. He is currently focusing on actively learning the skills that will enable him and his community to face an unknown future with a measure of confidence. Check out his blog.


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By Ray (anonymous) | Posted February 12, 2007 at 20:49:45

My brother used to live in Germany, and he says every fall, there is a reminder in the papers against winter idling. According to him, the reason is the engine heats up relatively slowly in idling (because there is no load), so it runs on cold oil, which doesn't lubricate as well, for a longer time, causing more wear. If you drive away quickly instead of idling, the oil gets warmed up faster and the engine gets its proper lubrication sooner. Of course, don't gun the engine until the oil gets nice and hot.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted February 13, 2007 at 16:39:18

If education is the only tool available for reducing idling, it will have minimal effect.

Better are laws prohibiting it, but this will only motivate those who need a small nudge to comply.

Best is a societal push for person-to-person feedback on not idling. People really respond to shame, especially the SUV crowd who have purchased vehicles for nothing other than their curb appeal. Everywhere we see advice to do the opposite - don't encourage road rage for example - well, then the cluster* can continue rationalizing their harmful behaviour.

Also necessary is some limitation on just how much the business world can crap on the environment with impunity. e.g. Why are remote car starters legal? Why is anything that will make a buck somehow glorified as having a uniformly positive impact?

TO have Hamilton saying "please don't idle, it pollutes" while letting any shmuck buy a remote car starter at the local canadian tire, well, try harder next time.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted February 16, 2007 at 13:19:40

Do you people really think that you will make a difference by enacting an anti-idling law? Just exactly who is going to be around 24 hours a day to enforce this law? The chief of police? There are bigger problems in this city, such as drugs/crime and the deplorable state of the city's roads. Poor roads result in more pollution than any "idling".

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted February 16, 2007 at 20:05:07

quoting:"Just exactly who is going to be around 24 hours a day to enforce this law?"

My point exactly. How would Capitalist's ego withstand strangers coming up and saying "please don't idle, it's polluting my children's lungs". THat's more effective than the law. More people need to do that. I will.

quoting: "Poor roads result in more pollution than any "idling"."

Wrong. Good roads result in more cars, which produces congestion, and slows more traffic, which equals more pollution. The only solutions are tolls or gas taxes.

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By driving me crazy (anonymous) | Posted February 22, 2007 at 10:34:19

You said it, Ted!

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By ohwow (anonymous) | Posted December 25, 2008 at 15:11:40

It's always just another person who wants to FIX THE WORLD BY MAKING THE SOCIETY AWARE!!!!!
You know what? Start worrying about your family, and yourself instead of spreading useless information.
Theories like this one, or using less water etc. just make me puke.

While you're saving and "taking care", a million of companies, factories and other businesses are doing their best to pollute and waste anything they can to gain profit, and "your way" will change nothing - it'll only make yourself worse.
So just think if it matters, cause it ain't to me.

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By common sense (anonymous) | Posted December 18, 2009 at 12:48:39

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By j-dawg (anonymous) | Posted January 23, 2011 at 14:28:53

Of course people are concerned with the health risks associated with excessive idling, but what if you look at this from another angle.

Excessive idling in parking lots, road ways, etc.. gives the vehicle time to heat up, and melt snow which is already on the bonnet of the vehicle and so on. This snow/ice melts, and begins to drip onto the surface of the parking lot/ roadway. Has anybody ever noticed what happens to this liquid when the cold winter temperatures freeze it? It leaves small patches of ice which often times raise off of the surface of the ground creating another safety hazard. These raised patches of ice create an opportunity for people walking to work, the grocery store, or their houses to trip/slip and fall down.

The winter months are already full of potential hazards which are unavoidable. Why create another hazard by doing something as simple as idling your vehicle for a few extra minutes? Is it worth the potential harm which could be associated with it?

I believe that if this issue was viewed from several angles rather than just one, that perhaps it would open people's eyes to re-consider their decisions.

As for "By ohwow's" comment.... "So just think if it matters, cause it ain't to me." Maybe a broken ankle or leg would give you time to think about what your saying, next time you slip on a patch of ice created from your idling vehicle...

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By hammy (anonymous) | Posted January 23, 2011 at 15:28:39

The article says 30 seconds of idle time is enough. This is true for a new car running synthetic oil. However if you have an older vehicle with reg. oil I would recommend to wait a few minutes to give the oil a chance to warm up.
Don't get me wrong, I am also all for the environment, however 95% of a vehicles engine wear happens when it is cold.

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By Jane Doe (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2011 at 16:23:15

Most people I know only start their cars in winter so defrost the windows so they can see to drive. Last I checked you can't click your heels and have that happen...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted December 13, 2011 at 16:52:18

If only there was some kind of hand-held implement you could use to scrape the frost off the exterior of the car...

If only.

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By Jane Doe (anonymous) | Posted December 13, 2011 at 17:00:23 in reply to Comment 72246

insult spam from banned user deleted

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