Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Infamous Idling Engine

One would think that an idling engine would not cause much pollution because the engine is not powering the vehicle down the road. Although, common sense should tell us that it can not be good. The truth of the matter is that it causes more pollution than when driving the vehicle at a conservative rate, because the fuel is being burned inefficiently. For example, a diesel engine will put out 2.5 times more pollution than when driving the vehicle at 30 mph. For conventional engines, it must be similar. If one stands next to an idling engine, the fumes are more intense as opposed to the vehicle being driven. A cold engine that idles puts out the most amount of pollution.

On the subject of cold engines, most Americans erroneously believe that the best way to warm up an engine when the engine is cold is to idle it. This is not true! The best way to warm up an engine is to drive it, because it warms up the engine faster and it burns the fuel more efficiently. In addition, when the vehicle is driven, the heating system within the car will generate heat much faster. On cold mornings, the norm here in America is to go out, start up the engine, with the heat on and go back inside and get ready for work. Often 15-20 minutes will elapse before the person actually drives the vehicle. It is very convenient, the car is warmed up, the inside is warm, but at what a cost to the environment and the engine! In addition, it is a waste of fuel. I have learned that in Germany, if one does that, it is a 300 Euro fine.

Idling causes unnecessary damage to the engine. When the fuel is burned inefficiently it will foul the spark plugs and it is bad for the cylinders as a result of a buildup of fuel residues. If the engine is idling for an extended period of time,--15 minutes--condensation will develop in the exhaust system and lead to corrosion. Depending on the temperature, one should only idle for a few seconds and then slowly drive the vehicle. This is something that a motorist should develop a feel for with their vehicle. I have heard on the syndicated radio show ‘Car Talk,’ that “if it is 0 degrees(Fahrenheit), idle the engine maximum one minute. Excessive idling is bad for the engine, bad for the environment and a waste of fuel. Idling for 10 minutes, on average, burns enough fuel to drive the vehicle 5 miles.

Lack of Education

There is definitely a lack of education in America on the subject of idling. There are no public service announcements on radio or TV. There is nothing in a driver’s manual on how bad idling is. It is generally not taught in schools in Driver’s Education. There are very few signs posted--they are small & inconspicuous. Here in New Jersey, they are starting to put a message on the back of inspection stickers urging motorists not to idle. According to the DEP, 400 tons of particulate matter is being emited into the air annually, by cars, trucks and buses. If motorists in NJ stopped idling, we could reduce this figure to 200 tons. A significant amount!

Idling in America is excessive and rampant. Although, I base this on my experience living in NJ, I believe I can safely assume that it is a major problem throughout the country. America is becoming country of generics and standardization. The prime examples are the ubiquitous strip malls & shopping plazas, as well as the monstrous shopping malls. This type of commercial development is  geared to automobiles and not people. It lends itself to more excessive idling! During business hours, one will always find vehicles idling needlessly. This creates an unhealthy environment for anyone in the immediate area because of the ground level ozone that is created.

Other common areas one finds excessive idling are at schools and train stations. American children are not that independent. Here, the mother becomes a chauffeur. In Europe, the children are much more independent in terms of getting around. There are more bicycle paths for them to utilize. The roads are safer due to the fact that there are less cars per-capita. In addition, their driving schools are more comprehensive when it comes to motorists dealing with bicyclists. Subsequently, the roads are much safer for bicyclists to use.

There was an article on the front page of The Daily Record(Morris Co., NJ paper)back in Nov. of ‘06 entitled, “Push is on to Protect Little Lungs at Schools.” The article about parents picking up their kids at school and idling their engines creating an unhealthy environment for the children exiting the school. When the temperature reached the uncomfortable level, 50% of the parents were idling their engines up to 20 minutes. Children are more susceptible to the harmful effects of breathing in these noxious fumes because their immune systems are not fully developed. Older people are at risk as well because their immune systems weaken with age.

Kinnelon was the first school district in NJ to start a program to educate the parents picking up their kids. Chatham & New Providence soon followed. However, the movement seems, by & large, to of died out. I thought as a result of this article, there would be a movement to get Americans to shut off their engines when they are not driving. Since the article, there has been very little change.

Idling Laws

There are idling laws throughout the country that are generally limiting motorists to 3 minutes. Here in NJ, the 3 minute law was enacted back in 1971. What has the NJ Department of Environment Protection been doing for the last 40 years to stop the idling? Not enough! What has the state government done to educate people and enforce the idling law? Nothing! I find this unfathomable that this law has been on the books for 40 years and nobody knows about! What is the point to have a law--an important law--if it is not being enforced and it is not being put out to the people. A lot of policemen don’t even know that an idling law exists. I have heard on several occasions, in reference to the idling laws, a police officer state, “It has to be posted.” Not true! It does not matter where the vehicle is idling,--it could be in a remote section of Montana--it is still contributing to greenhouse gases. I was once lamenting to a police officer that I had confided in because we concurred on the idling problem and his response to the lack of enforcement by stating, “We’re the worse offenders!” He is absolutely correct. Of course, he and I both knew that emergency vehicles are exempt.


When it comes to police and their use of patrol cars they are constantly being idled. For example, if there is road work being done, the standard operational procedure here in NJ for most municipalities is to have one police officer present with his patrol car’s engine running and the emergency lights engaged. If the workers are there for 8 hours, than the car will idle for 8 hours. If the work being done covers a large area, often there will be two patrol cars idling their engines. This is a lot of unnecessary wear on the engine, waste of fuel and of course much damage to the environment. Who pays for the service of these engines and the cost of the fuel, the tax payer. I understand that they are often being serviced. Of course, officers will rationalize that they have to have their engines running because they need it for the flashing emergency lights, for their radio and their computer. One officer told me that this is their office and they have to operate this way. Well, office buildings can be made to be operate greener. The key word here is alternatives. There are always alternatives to doing something that is inherently bad to finding a better way. These vehicles can be made so that the lights are run off some kind of auxiliary power, such as solar. Also, it is absolutely necessary for a squad car to be present. I know of at least one police department that only has an officer present, but no car. There does not seem to be a problem with this policy.

Second Worse Offenders

The second worse offenders are taxis, livery & limousine services. They usually congregate at train stations, idling their engines for hours, regardless of the temperature. There thinking must be if the taxi is running, they have better chance of getting a customer. Yet, I have seen many times, these taxi drivers asleep in the vehicle with the AC or the heat on, idling. That has to hurt their chances of getting work. It is certainly a disregard for the people who are coming and going at the train station that have to breath the noxious fumes.

Here in America we have so many things that lends itself to idling. The ‘drive-up’ services:  fast food; banks; and recently, drug stores. This is all catering to the lethargic propensities of Americans. The cell phone is another contributor. Due to the threat of receiving a fine while driving with a hand held phone, motorists are pulling over--which is admirable--but they are not shutting off their engines. The ‘automatic starter’ is still another contributor to the widespread idling syndrome.

Here is an incident which shows how the automatic starter can potentially cause hours of gratuitous idling. I was at a train station late in the evening, when I noticed a car idling, unoccupied. Thinking that the motorist was in the train station, I waited for the individual so I could inform them of the harm idling incurs. I waited for over 20 minutes and decided to go to the nearby police station with the plate number to inform the police of the violation. I was informed that they send a police officer over to investigate. During this time, I figured it might be an automatic starter. When the police officer arrived, using a flashlight he quickly determined it was indeed an automatic starter due to the fact there was no key in the ignition. The owner was called at their residence, but there was no answer. I requested a summons be written. His response, “I’m not going to write a summons because I don’t know the circumstances behind why the engine started. It could be that the automatic starter malfunctioned.” Of course, if it had been a parking violation, a summons is automatic. There is no question of not knowing the circumstances behind the violation. The summons is written and the defendant has the option of either pleading guilty or not guilty. If the individual pleads not guilty, it is then up to a judge to decide if there should be a fine imposed. Numerous summons for parking violations are written daily, in every town throughout the state and throughout the country. But, there are virtually no summons being issued to motorists that are exceeding the 3 minute limit--NY city is an exception. Not even excessive idling will incur a summons. Paradoxically, a parking violation does not harm the environment, whereas idling does great damage! Preventing damage to the environment should be a priority with the police. This reverts back to the lack of education on the subject.

Automatic starters are designed so that one can warm-up the vehicle by idling it. I have read from so many sources that one should avoid idling as a way to warm-up the engine. Of course, the manufactures of these devices are going to advocate idling as a warm-up. The manufacturer is not concerned with wasting fuel, engine wear or environmental damage. They are interested selling their product! What happens when a car is programmed to start the engine at a certain time and something happens, whereby the individual is delayed, incapacitated, misses the train, etc...: more gratuitous idling, potentially for hours!

Diesel Trucks

There seems to be a pervasive attitude that one can not shut off a diesel truck because they think they will have difficulties in restarting them. That was true in the past, but new technologies have made improvements to these engines. In the early 30's, there were inherent problems with diesel engines. The engine design, heavy oils, poor batteries and cranking systems contributed to difficult start ups, especially in the cold temperatures. Fuel costs were low combined with schedules that had to be met. Consequently, rather risk a non-start up, the habit of idling these diesel trucks came to be the norm. Since then, there have been improvements to the diesel engines, lubricants and fuels have helped prevent the gelling of diesel fuel in the cold, facilitating start ups. Despite the improvements, the habit remained. This habit of letting them idle has been passed on and is indelibly ingrained into the American mindset. The result is a lot of wasted fuel, more pollution and more wear on the engine.

Idling diesel engines costs the trucking industry 2.5 billion dollars annually in wasted fuel and engine wear! Of course, there is the pollution factor. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “...on average, each idling truck produces about 21 tons of carbon dioxide and 0.3 tons of nitrogen oxides annually. Diesel exhaust also contains particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and other air toxins.” What makes diesels worse than conventional engines is fine particles that are emitted. These pollutants have been linked to asthma, heart disease, chronic bronchitis and cancer. Diesel exhaust can trigger an asthma attack on an individual that has never had it.

According to an authority on diesel engine idling, Detroit Diesel, “Diesel engines were designed to operate at peak efficiency running wide open. At low idle the cylinder temperature drops leading to incomplete combustion. This incomplete combustion leads to a carbon build up on the valves, in the oil(crankcase) and the head of the pistons.” There are other damaging effects from idling to a diesel engine as well. “If the engine is going to be idling at low idle, for more than 5 minutes, shut is off.”

Federal regulations--for long hauls--requires truckers to stop and sleep after so many hours of driving. A lot of the 2.5 billion dollars cost to the industry is a result of truckers pulling over at truck stops idling their engines sometimes as long as 6 hours. They idle to keep warm or cool--depending on the temperature--and run their appliances. Part of the solution is truck stop electrification. This is a system where by truckers plug in as opposed to idling their engines. Truck stop operators would charge about 76 cents an hour for the electricity. Truckers should also consider when it is very cold, being equipped with bedding that is designed for extreme cold. Such as an extreme cold sleeping bag. They are designed for outdoor temperatures well below zero.

Diesel Locomotives

Things are starting to change, but the changes are too little and too slow! The DEP and Mayor Bloomberg’s administration in NY city has pressured NJ Transit to shut down their diesel locomotives overnight. Up until the recent pressure, they were running these diesels 24/7, 365 days a year. Yes, that includes the summer. There are currently 32 diesel locomotives within NJ Transit’s fleet. I was told by a senior conductor back in 2007, that NJ Transit had to shut them down overnight due to air quality regulations. The problem is that they are very difficult to start up in the morning, particularly in cold weather. Part of the solution is using what is termed as ‘in line heaters.’ They are special heaters to keep the engine and oil warm to facilitate start up, similar to those aforementioned that are used on trucks. In addition, NJ Transit received $537,000 in grants to out fit 6 of their diesel locomotives with new starters which are also suppose to facilitate start ups. It is amazing that it would take well over a half century to move in this direction. In the past , there were no doubt more diesels locomotives through out the country prior to electrifying the rail lines. Not all lines are electrified.

Despite the mandate and the changes that are taking place with diesel locomotives, NJ Transit still idles some locomotives all night. I was told by a conductor that a diesel locomotive will burn approximately 100 gallons of fuel in one night. Of course, these engines are huge! The amount of pollutants from these locomotives must be extremely high. If idling a diesel truck engine is bad for the engine components then the same has to apply to diesel locomotives.

Shutting down these diesel locomotives is suppose to save the company $835,000 annually. Why was this not pursued decades ago? Why does it take outside pressure to change a system that has been wasting a lot of fuel and causing a lot of pollution for so long? What ever happened to the concept of energy conservation?  It went out the window some 40 years ago!

Child on Board

There is too much rationalization when it comes to idling. When there is an infant or child in the car I hear this refrain, “I have an infant/child in the car so I must run the car for the heat/cool air.”
As if to say that the infant/child in the car is going to succumb to either hypothermia or heat prostration. This is just a lame excuse to stubbornly not shut off the engine! It would take a long time being in a vehicle with the heat off to lower the temperature to an uncomfortable level, let alone a life threatening situation. If it is hot, the AC unit can potentially draw in the noxious fumes into the car. The worst place to be on a hot day is inside a vehicle. Most of the time the parent is too lazy to take the child out of the vehicle and find either shade or cooler temperatures indoors. What about the poor who have to travel with public transportation with infants and children? They often are subjected to the extreme temperatures. Bus stops do not have heated shelters for them. Most stops don’t have shelters at all. A lot of the train stations are locked up in the afternoon and commuters must wait outside. This is a selfish, inconsiderate attitude that disregards other people’s health, especially people who happen to be in the immediate area. I often ask these people what kind of world--environmentally speaking--their children will inherit from us as a result of our selfish, extravagant, ‘live for today, the hell with tomorrow’ attitude.

Absurd Rational

A few years ago, while bicycling in the late evening to a train station proceeding a snow storm, I passed an individual using a snow blower on a sidewalk that ran along a wooded section some 300 meters in length. As I came upon a side street I noticed a van idling. The van was unoccupied and had a Department of Transportation seal on the door. I circled back surmising that the van belonged to the individual using the snow blower. After establishing that this young man was responsible for the van idling, I gave him a brief lecture on how bad idling is for the engine, environment and a waste of fuel. He seemed surprised by my complaint. His reason for letting the vehicle idle was because he did not have proper shoes for the conditions and his feet were wet. When he completed the job, he wanted to enter a warm van. My estimation is that the job was going to take at least an hour to complete, with additional time to load the van. This is completely absurd! Because this irresponsible state employee is ill-equipped, he is going to squander tax payers dollars on wasted fuel, unnecessary ware on the engine and of course the environmental impact due to excessive idling. Unfortunately, incidents like this are quite common here in America! Another absurd reason to idle an engine is charging a cell phone! This type of disregard for the environment has to stop!

Benard Lagat, who is naturalized Kenyan, is a three time Olympian. He won a silver medal in the 1500m for Kenya in the 2004 Olympics. He has a summer home in Tübingen, Germany, where he often trains. After a long run, he started up his car and proceeded to do some stretching. a German came over and yelled at him. Mr. Lagat could not understand why the man was so furious. Later that week he asked his German friends what he could have possibly done to upset the man. One responded, “Oh my God, your car wasn’t running, was it?” That was indeed why the German was so upset. Gratuitous idling! Some might construe this as being too extreme, but when it comes to the environment and the ways things are going, there is no such thing as being too extreme. Americans have to get serious about the environment!

Idling is Everybody’s Business

Back in the 80’s, I lived in Germany for 17 months. The one thing I admired about Germans was that they were uninhibited. They see someone doing something wrong, they will say something. Here in America, if one criticizes another, the common response is, “Mind you own business!” However, idling is every one’s business! We all have to breath the air. What happened to the 1st Amendment, freedom of speech? We are suppose to be a society that encourages it’s citizens to speak out against the wrong. Censorship is actively being used in our country at different levels. It seems to be that when ever one informs people that they are doing some thing wrong, they often pull out the ‘harassment card.’ A German friend of mine has lived and worked in the States for around 30 years said, “Americans can’t take criticism.” 

While I was living in Germany, I lived near a village that had a two lane state highway running through it. The highway was only one lane as it meandered through the village some 300 meters. They could only let traffic through in one direction at a time. Consequently, the light regulating the traffic flow had a long cycle--5-6 minutes. There was a sign on each end of the village, instructing motorists in German, if they should get the red light, they must shut off their engines. Everyone complied with this rule. In Switzerland, motorists have to shut off their engines at red lights. Everyone complies. At railroad crossing throughout Europe, there are signs posted that if the gates are down, they must shut off their engines.

As of the early 90's, catalytic converters became mandatory in Europe. Subsequently, our vehicles pollute just as much theirs.

Later than you Think

It seems with all these conveniences in our lives, the end result usually means more fossil fuels being burned. What ever happened to the concept of energy conservation? It went out the window some 40 years ago. If we want to lessen our negative impact on the environment, we have to make sacrifices. We have to change our extravagant ways. America represents 5% of the Earth’s population; we use 25% of the Earth’s natural resources. I asked a young man who was idling his engine if he was concerned about global warming? His response, “It’s a lie!” There are a lot of people that utilize what is termed as a ‘defense mechanism,’ denial. They refuse to believe it because they don’t want to believe it! It is convenient not to believe it, because they don’t have to make any sacrifices. They don’t have to change their lifestyles.

“Global warming means global warning!” When it comes to the environment, I hear the rationalization invariably. I also witness, too often, ‘the buck being passed.”’ No one wants to take responsibility. The earth’s temperature is not rising, even though weather records indicate otherwise. The polar caps and the worlds glaciers are melting. This reminds me of an article I read back in the 80’s entitled, “American Myopia.” It was about how Americans wait until we are in crises before we make a move to change. By then, it will be too late! We are doing irreparable damage to the environment!

The folk singer and environmentalist Pete Seeger was interviewed back in the early 90’s. Mr. Seeger was instrumental behind the ‘Hudson River Clear Water Revival.’  While talking about the environment, he stated that. “In 100 years, the Hudson river will be as clean as a whistle.” He did not elaborate on that statement, but it was clear to me what he was alluding to. Another words, at the rate we are going, we are not going to be around in 50 years. Mankind will be extinct! It will take another 50 years for the earth to purge it self from the abuse man has inflicted. That 100 year scenario is not only a possibility, but a probability! Quoting a professor of geology back in the mid 80’s, “It can’t keep going the way it is!” Americans have to get serious about the environment. We can not live without a clean and healthy environment!

We can reduce a great deal of pollution and greenhouse gases through public awareness.There has to be public service announcements on both radio and TV. There should be a whole section in the driver’s manuel devoted to idling. It should be mandated that every driver’s education class devote a significant amount of time to idling. There has to be more and larger signs posted in areas where idling occurs most:  schools; shopping plazas; stripe malls; train stations. At schools during drop off and especially pickup time, they should use those collapsible, standing signs on the sidewalk where parents are idling. Perhaps with more awareness on how costly idling is to the trucking industry and our environment, truckers will refrain from idling as much as they do. Education is the key to bringing about change. The message has to be repetitive. The last step is the enforcement of the idling laws. Police procedures have to change and alternatives have to be pursued. The law is not likely to be enforced if the police continue to set a bad example as they do.

The message is simple:  If you’re not driving your vehicle, shut it off. It’s bad for the engine and bad for environment!
Post Script Hypothesis:  "Approximately, 3.8 million gallons of gasoline is wasted from engine idling daily, throughout the US." When I read this statistic I knew immediately what was going on. I was leaning towards this hypothesis, but this convinced me. It is very simple. The oil companies are aware of this statistic and do not want the status quo to change, regardless of the great damage to the environment this is causing! They are paying off the DEP and various politicians, not to educate us on the idling issue. This would explain why the state laws are not being enforced. This would explain the DEP's ineptness. For years, I have tried to work with NJDEP on bringing about change. I have been in contact--via the internet--with their SME(Subject Matter Expert). All has been to no avail! Their SME is a fake and the DEP--like a lot of government agencies--is a sham! Any work in this area by the DEP is non-impacting/superficial, all by design. They just do enough to make it appear as if they are doing something. It is only to appease people who are concerned about the situation. This explains why the concept of 'energy conservation' has been completely erased from the American mind set. Energy conservation does not exist in America! Who is responsible, the oil and coal companies. This is called, "corporate dictatorship!" In Europe, energy conservation is strongly emphasized.
There needs to be some kind of lobby/coalition not only in America, but around the world to get America to change its extravagant ways. When it comes to the destruction of this Earth, borders are irrelevant. How can America criticize the Chinese for burning coal and allow 3.8 million gallons of gasoline to be gratuitously burned daily" How? What a paradox! My impression, when it comes to the environment, America puts on this façade that we care. The truth is that money is ruling this country. It is this obsession to make money that is going to lead to America's demise. If the world allows this disregard for the environment, than the Earth is lost!


  1. Nice Information.There are many people who are working for the welfare of environment by taking several types of steps.

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  2. Thank you. Idling is one of the most self centered, idiotic things Americans do. They park and let the engine run while texting, eating, whatever, then come back to start the car and repeat texting, eating, whatever.