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If you live in a place with a harsh winter climate, then you’ve likely encountered the challenge of starting a car in cold weather. There’s a never-ending debate about the merits of warming up a car by letting it idle during frigid outdoor temperatures. However, we suggest an alternative. For cold weather, it’s worth getting an engine block heater to help start your car.

What is an engine block heater, and how is it better than idling to warm up a car in cold weather?

Front view of snowy car, showing how warm with engine block heater in cold weather is better than idling
Car in snowy winter weather | Trevor Bobyk via Unsplash

An engine block heater helps start a car in cold weather by heating up the engine and fluids. After using the block heater in your vehicle, the fluids reach the optimum operating temperature. A block heater is also a good alternative to warming up your car by idling it — or a cold start. In addition to its effectiveness, this is because an engine heater reduces the risk of damage that can happen with idling or cold starts. 

During cold weather, engine oil and other fluids can become sludgy and thick. As a result, the vehicle components scrape against each other. However, warming your car up by idling — especially if you do it for too long, can damage your vehicle. It also wastes gas, resulting in lower fuel economy. Plus, it produces more emissions. 

However, with an engine block heater, you can avoid these problems. Warm the engine with a block heater before you start the car in cold weather, and then you’ll be ready to go, as detailed by The Drive and Rainbow Muffler and Brake. Also, coolant regulates the temperature of your car and affects the heat in the cabin. Therefore, by warming up the coolant with an engine heater, the interior of your vehicle will warm up more quickly than letting your car idle.

What are the types of engine heaters?

Close-up view of car engine, showing how warm with engine block heater in cold weather is better than idling
Car engine | Martin Zdrazil via Unsplash

There are different types of engine heaters. Some heat the “block” or the engine itself, while others directly heat the coolant and oil. Also, some of the engine heaters are easy to install and are applicable to nearly all car models, while others are more specialized — and should only be installed by someone with a higher level of mechanical proficiency.

Here are some popular types of engine heaters:

  • Engine-warming blanket
  • Frost plug heater
  • Inline heater
  • Oil pan heater
  • Dipstick heater
  • Bolt-on external heater

At what temperature should I use an engine block heater to help start a car?

As far as when you should use an engine block heater, it depends on the vehicle you drive and your parking situation. Most new cars can be started at -15 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, while older ones struggle to start in cold weather. However, an engine block heater is beneficial for newer cars, for it reduces the strain on the engine and other vehicle components when starting in low temperatures. Plus, it helps heat up the cabin more quickly. 

As a general rule, an engine block heater is only necessary when the temperature is below five degrees Fahrenheit. However, for an older car that has a history of struggling to start in the winter, using an engine heater at less extreme temperatures might be necessary.

The other factor is whether you park your car in a garage — or outside. Obviously, with direct exposure to cold air, a vehicle parked outside in the winter is more likely to have problems starting.

Also, for added convenience, some engine heaters can be activated remotely and set to a timer. Before starting your car, activate the heater for a few hours. Usually, a heater only needs around two to four hours to effectively warm up an engine in cold weather.

Some drivers might be inclined to warm up a car in cold weather by letting it idle. However, a better alternative is an engine block heater. It’s more effective and minimizes the risk of damage to your vehicle.


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