Money Leaks: Warming Up Your Car

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Snowy BeetleAs winter approaches North America, temperatures are falling. Just a few weeks ago, we had our first few snowflakes and freezing temperatures; though that went by without much incident. When the temperatures drop, one money leak begins to creep its ugly head – warming up your car.

Warming up your car refers to turning on the engine and letting it run idle to “warm” it up. The idea with letting it warm up is that it’s like you stretching. You let the engine idle a little before making it do any real work. It sounds great in theory but it’s completely unnecessary. Your car doesn’t need this and you’re just wasting fuel.

This is the latest edition of our new series called Money Leaks.

There’s another type of “warming up your car” that people refer to and that has to do with the inside of your car. Sometimes you like to let the engine run so it can get hot and begin delivering hot air into the cabin. Again, that sounds great except it’s costing you money. Much like how your mom probably told you to put on a sweater when you were cold, rather than turn up the thermostat, it’s better for you to avoid this when possible. (Also, the engine gets warmer when you’re driving… so just get going)

If you live in a place where ice can develop, some of these rules go out the window because you need heat to melt the ice before you can safely proceed. If you live in one of those areas, you probably already know this. If you don’t live in an area like this, quit idling your car and throwing money out the window. 🙂

(Photo: spakattacks)

{ 16 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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16 Responses to “Money Leaks: Warming Up Your Car”

  1. Man – I don’t know about this one. How do you know that it’s unnecessary – got some facts to back it up? 🙂

    I live in Green Bay, WI (aka the Frozen Tundra) and I definitely notice a difference when I hop in the car and drive vs letting the engine run for a few minutes.

    If I don’t, the engine feels like it’s struggling and running hard and loud – especially when we deal with those below 0 days.

    I’m not sure what you mean by living in a place where ice could develop…isn’t that anywhere the temp is under 32?

    I agree with your thoughts on heating up the inside of the car – but based on experience – I’m going to continue warming up the engine.

  2. Alan says:

    I also don’t totally agree with this one. Manufactures build in a higher idle RPM when you first start the car for the purpose of warming the engine up. It gets the oils warm and less viscous. Start your car on a cold day, watch the RPM gage (if you have one) It’ll probably idle at 1500-2000 rpm. After the car is warm, that idle speed drops to around 500rpms. This same warm up period happens during the summer as well just not as long.

    Granted it won’t do any immediate damage to your car, but if you’re constantly starting the car in sub-zero temps and driving off, it’ll do damage to the pistons and the cylinders overtime.

  3. Frank says:

    I have to agree with the comment above.
    Living in New England I usually start my car and let it run for 1-3 minutes depending on how cold it is before I begin driving. Once I start driving I keep my speed and acceleration down for a few minutes until the engine has warmed up.

    As stated above once temps are in the 20’s or below engines run rough until warmed up and changing gears on a standard transmission becomes more difficult. On cars equipped with a turbo it is even worse, my car has an indicator light to let you know once the engine has warmed up enough for normal operation.

    If you start you car and head back inside for 15-20 minutes just to let the interior get warm, yes that is excessive and a waste of money. But in areas where the temperatures are routinely below freezing most mornings a few minutes of idling is necessary.

  4. Aaron B says:

    I live in eastern Mass. where people think we get bad winters, but they have no idea. Several of my neighbors warm their cars for 10+ minutes, which I think is a waste. Since I have to scrape off my car anyway, I start it, blast the defogger, and then scrape the windows. By the time I’m done (~2 minutes) it’s pretty much good to go. If it’s just cold but no scraping is required, I may linger in the driveway about a minute as I get situated, sip some coffee, etc., and by then the car is ready to roll. I get bad enough fuel efficiency in the winter as it is–I don’t need to waste who knows how many pints of gas going nowhere in my driveway.

  5. Tyler says:

    After reading this, I was curious how much gas is actually burned while idling, to put some real numbers to it.

    The best estimates I saw were in the range of 0.5 gallons per hour while idling. Assume you let it idle for 5 minutes, and that gas is $3/gallon.

    Add it all up, and you’ll be spending about 12.5 cents per day to warm up the car. If you do that every single day of winter (90 days), you’ll end up burning 3.75 extra gallons of gas over the course of the year, equal to about $11.25 at $3/gallon.

    Doesn’t seem too bad.

    • echidnina says:

      Hey, thanks for crunching the numbers for us! While little things do add up, sometimes it’s good to get some perspective on just how little the little things are. Personally, I’ll spend the extra $11.25 for the increased comfort in my car over the course of the winter. Of course I still drive with my coat on when it’s cold, but even with my coat I still get cold.

    • Ben says:

      Not sure where you are, but most gas prices are more than $3.

      Not to mention your car is probably idling faster than normal in the cold temps to warm itself up, so add a bit more to your usage rate. And really, your car isn’t going to be warm by simply idling in 5 minutes anyway, so most people wait 10+ minutes. Also, no modern cars need a warm up period, so your wasting fuel, as well contributing to the smog and pollution.

      All in all, just start driving and your car will be cranking out heat in a few minutes, save a few bucks, and keep our earth clean.

  6. Quinn says:

    Do you have any sources for this? I’d love to save the time and money by not waiting for my car to warm up, but I’ve always heard information similar to the comments above. I’d rather wait a few minutes before driving off if that’s what is better for my car in the long run.

    • Richard says:

      I have a source: your car owner’s manual. I can attest that the owners manuals of my last two Hondas explicitly said to not warm up the car.. that it’s a waste of fuel, harmful to the environment and unnecessary. All Fords, Hondas and several other cars, perhaps, use 5W20 and other viscocities that help with cold starts.

      I agree, though, that an engine does not run or ride smoothly in extreme conditions (I lived 7 years in the Midwest) but still, Honda would know best, and they say it is unnecessary!

  7. elloo says:

    Jim, where do you live? In New England, your car must warm up!

  8. Bryan says:

    Another New Englander with another objection. OK, I’ll agree with your point about warming up the inside, put on a hat and gloves and suck it up, the heat will be ready soon enough.

    As for the engine, think of it this way, a normal engine is designed to operate somewhere around 180-210 degrees, when you start in the cold its closer to 30 degrees (or less around here). At cold temperatures, metals contract meaning all your clearances have shrunk, you are trying to push a thicker oil through a smaller clearance. In addition the pistons have o-ring type seals on them. Ever notice how rubber boots feel stiffer out in the cold? Your seals are doing the exact same thing, they are less pliable and less able to conform to the surfaces they need to meaning a greater opportunity for wear over time. Wear in the engine internals will only get worse once its started and will go unnoticed until it is bad enough to cause a much worse failure. So really, you want to go easy on your engine when it is cold and if you can do that driving, great, if like me you merge onto a highway within the first minute of your commute (or otherwise have a hard time taking it easy), its well worth the warmup.

    To be fair, car manufacturers test cars in both extreme hot and cold environments, but I look at it as (taking Tyler’s math) an $11.25 per year investment to reduce the risk of major engine trouble down the road on a car I plan to keep for a very long time. And at $3.75/mo during only the winter months, small enough to fit in either my fuel or maintenance budgets.

    1-5 minutes depending on temperature and amount of frost/ice is plenty, any more is a waste.

  9. eric says:

    I guess as the lone Californian commenter I can agree with Jim that I don’t warm up my car. Then again, cold for me here is like…50-60 degrees? 🙂

    But I do notice other drivers here doing it though. Is it a universal thing? I don’t think it’s necessary.

    • ziglet19 says:

      I’m in southern California too, and always find myself annoyed with my husband as he sits there and lets the car warm up. I always figured it wasn’t necessary – on a really, really cold morning for us, it’s still in the 40s.

      Maybe it’s just one of those things people do because they always saw their parents doing it? I don’t know…

  10. Shirley says:

    Here in the Sacramento Valley it does sometimes get down to 40° at 5A.M. but we don’t feel the need to warm up the car either.

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