When the weather is slowly turning arctic and you have to drive somewhere, you might turn on the engine for a few minutes just to preheat it. If you’re doing this, you’re not alone, as a 2009 poll reported that most Americans do the same in the winter. But the fact that it’s common doesn’t mean that it’s right. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, in this case, and leaving the engine run idle in cold weather is both a waste of your money and terrible for the car engine and the environment.
How is idling a car harmful?
The reason why most people decide to idle their car is due to the fact that old cars that ran using carburetors could be affected by subzero temperatures and not warming up the engine could bring the car to a halt. Therefore, many people started preheating their engines to make sure it worked properly. However, since the 1980s, car companies started substituting carburetors with electronic fuel injection mechanisms that feed the perfect amount of air and fuel for the engine every time.
Hence, the issue of the engine stalling due to an unbalanced mix of air and gasoline in a cold environment is not relevant anymore. As a matter of fact, preheating cars that run without carburetors, which includes all cars produced in the past few decades, does more harm than good. By letting the engine run idle, we’re pumping excessive gasoline into the engine. As Stephen Ciatti, Ph.D., a former drag racer and mechanical engineer with over 20 years of experience working with combustion engines shared with the Insider, "Gasoline is an outstanding solvent and it can actually wash oil off the walls if you run it in those cold idle conditions for an extended period of time."
If that does continue for months and years, this may affect the lubrication of the piston rings and cylinder liners of the engine according to Ciatti, and this, in turn, may shorten the life of the engine itself. Therefore, by trying to treat our car well and prevent the car engine from stalling, we end up just wasting fuel and damaging the car.
What can we do to warm up the engine without harming it?
You may ask yourself, is there a right way to warm up a car engine in the winter? The answer is “yes”, and it’s much simpler than you think - simply start the engine and drive. For the first 5-15 minutes, the car engine will be a bit colder than it should and it will be about 12% less efficient, which means that you’ll be getting a bit less mileage of the gasoline than usual, but it’s much safer for the engine itself.
After 15 minutes of running, though, the engine will warm itself up to the required 40 degrees Fahrenheit and will run smoothly once again. Ciatti does say that it’s safest to go easy on the pedal for the first few minutes when driving in the cold to be gentle on the engine, and besides, it’s also safer to drive slowly when the weather is freezing anyway.
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