8 Important Tips for Warming Your Car in the Winter

Winter driving
Winter driving | Elio Motors

To quote the Starks, “Winter is coming.” For those in northern climates, this is the time of year when temperatures dive at night only to slightly rise during the day, carrying with them a mass exodus to garages, as drivers attempt to avoid getting caught on summer slicks when the first snowstorm hits.

Winter also means frigid mornings, and for those who are up and out of the house as the early sun begins to creep over the horizon, getting in your car can be a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Traditionally, the go-to remedy to alleviate such discomfort has been to run the vehicle for a few minutes prior to setting off, but that approach has drawn criticism for its potential side effects.

Esquire magazine outlined some of the issues with letting a car idle, arguing that this warming up process may be detrimental to both your health and the vehicle’s, while wronging the environment as well. Although it’s an older list — originally drafted by the publication in 2012 — many of its broader points remain relevant today, even with the increased popularity of alternative fuel options and electrical powertrains.

While remote start systems and heated seats may allow time for windows to de-ice and the cabin to get cozy warm, the misconception that a vehicle needs prolonged periods of time to warm up in order to function properly is utterly preposterous. Here are eight ways you can cut warm up times, while still giving your vehicle the attention it deserves, and the environment a break.

1. Drive it, don’t idle it

Toyota Sienna in snow
Toyota Sienna in snow | Toyota

It’s not recommended from a maintenance perspective, but actually driving the car will warm the engine — and thus the cabin — considerably faster than letting it idle in the driveway. “Idling is not actually an effective way to warm up a car — it warms up faster if you just drive it,” said Bob Aldrich of the California Energy Commission. Though the engine is running at idle, it’s not doing any work. Putting a load on it will help produce more heat at a much more rapid rate. Think of it like riding a bike: Pedaling in a lower gear will eventually warm you up, but pedaling in a higher gear will warm you up much faster, though with greater risk of injury.

2. Take 10, and then begin

Gear wall clock
Gear wall clock | Chevrolet

According to the Environmental Defense Fund, if you’re going to be stopped for more than 10 seconds, it’s actually worth it to shut down your engine entirely. “After about 10 seconds, you waste more money running the engine than restarting it,” Andy Darrell, deputy director of the EDF Energy Program, tells Esquire. “Switch the car off at the curb and you’ll be leaving money in your wallet and protecting the air in your community.” Many cars now come equipped with stop-start tech anyways, and the short time that you’ll be stationary won’t be long enough for the engine to cool.

3. Idle hands and engine regrets

Symmetrical all-wheel drive
Symmetrical all-wheel drive | Subaru

Cars, unlike generators, are meant to be driven, so sitting for long periods of time when not in motion can actually be detrimental, according to the Hinkle Charitable Foundation’s Anti-Idling Primer, per Esquire. The organization notes that idling causes the engine “to operate in a very inefficient and gasoline-rich mode that, over time, can degrade the engine’s performance and reduce mileage.” Fortunately, many modern cars have likely addressed this issue to some degree. That being said, it’s still probably a good idea to warm the engine oil slightly before setting off.

3. You’re burning gas and your cash

Cash money
Cash money | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

There’s no way around it: Idling burns up gas while moving nowhere. According to the Anti-Idling Primer, a year of five minutes of daily idling — which, as Esquire reports, causes incomplete combustion of fuel — making it the same as a V8-equipped vehicle burning off 20 gallons of gasoline. This not only produces 440 pounds of carbon dioxide, but it also costs a pretty penny over time. Although V8 motors are less commonplace nowadays thanks to an invested interest in turbocharged technology, that still doesn’t mean you aren’t burning fuel while at a standstill.

4. Idle in your garage at your own risk

Sarah Polley in Dawn of the Dead
Sarah Polley in Dawn of the Dead | Universal Pictures

This is a pretty well-known factoid, but it’s so important that it bears mentioning whenever possible. The burning of gasoline produces carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas that can displace oxygen and, if inhaled in adequate amounts, can cause loss of consciousness, brain damage, and even death. Idling a car in an enclosed space without adequate ventilation — like a garage — can allow carbon monoxide to build up, and if the garage is attached, the fumes can seep into living quarters.

5. Block heaters beat remote starters

Snowstorm | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Remote starts are amazingly convenient — they allow drivers to turn on their car from the house, allowing the vehicle to warm up while the driver gets all bundled up and ready to leave. However, there’s an alternative that allows for similar benefits without having to burn through so much gas: Engine block heaters. “Remote starters can too easily cause people to warm up their cars for five to 15 minutes, which is generally unnecessary,” said Lori Strothard of the Waterloo Citizens Vehicle Idling Reduction Task Force in Canada. “A block heater, which is designed to heat the engine and can cost under $30, on a timer set to start one to two hours before driving does the trick in very cold climates.”

6. Quick errand idling is trifling

Cars stuck in snow
Cars stuck in snow | Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Leaving your car to idle while you run inside for a bagel or coffee may not be as effective as you had hoped, and runs unneeded risks and costs. “Leaving your engine running is hard on your pocketbook, produces greenhouse gas emissions and is an invitation to car thieves,” says Natural Resources Canada.

8. No one likes black lung

Smoker lung
Smoker lung | American Cancer Society via Getty Images

Overall, idling is bad for your health and the health of others, though it may not feel that way even when it’s negative twenty and everything is iced over. “Exhaust is hazardous to human health, especially children’s; studies have linked air pollution to increased rates of cancer, heart and lung disease, asthma, and allergies,” reads an excerpt from the anti-idling ordinance of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Letting your car idle also contributes to lasting smog problems, which have also been proven to cause some pretty severe public health concerns.

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