Why you shouldn’t idle your car in the cold

Letting your car idle when it’s cold outside can shorten the life of your engine. Winter is officially here — and winter storms are hitting many parts of the United States. In frigid temperatures, it’s a common practice for many drivers to let their cars warm up for a few minutes before hitting the road. Some vehicles even have a preset feature that lets drivers start their cars remotely. But a VERIFY viewer wants to know if doing so can potentially hurt your car’s engine. THE QUESTION Can warming up your car before driving in cold weather damage the engine? THE SOURCES THE ANSWER Yes, warming up your car before driving in cold weather can damage the engine. WHAT WE FOUND It’s true that warming up gas-powered vehicles before driving in cold weather can cause damage to the engine, according to Firestone Complete Auto Care and Smart Motors Toyota, a dealership based in Madison, Wisconsin. “If you’re one of the many drivers who thinks it’s important to turn on your car and let it sit for a bit before hitting the road in wintry weather, you could be doing your engine more harm than good,” Firestone says. In a blog post on its website, Smart Motors Toyota says letting your car idle in cold temperatures can shorten the life of your engine by stripping away oil from the engine’s pistons and cylinders — two critical components that help your engine run, Stephen Ciatti, Ph. .D., principal engineer for battery systems at PACCAR, told Business Insider in 2016. “Less oil means more friction, more wear and tear, and a shorter life for your engine,” Firestone says. While some people let their cars idle to warm up the interior, others may actually be trying to protect their engine because of outdated guidance. Firestone and Smart Motors Toyota both say that most cars made before 1980 did need to “warm up” when it was cold out. This is because older model cars had carburetors that regulated the air-fuel mixture within the engine and could not accurately adjust the air-to-fuel ratio in cold weather. “In cold temperatures, carburetors couldn’t vaporize all the gasoline they let into the engine, so some of it would be left behind as a liquid rather than being burned off during combustion. In order to work properly, a carburetor needed to warm up or else you’d run the risk of stalling out,” Firestone says. But times have changed since the 1980s. Nowadays, practically every car sold in the United States has an electric fuel injection system that helps maintain the perfect air-fuel mixture needed for a combustion event, no matter the ambient temperature, according to Firestone and Smart Motors Toyota. Instead of waiting for your car to warm up in the winter, most manufacturers recommend driving off gently after about 30 seconds because the engine warms up faster when the car is being driven, according to the US Department of Energy. “This means that your cold-day-driving routine should look something like this: bundle up, start the car, scrape the ice off the windows and mirrors, get in the car and get going!” Firestone says. Just make sure you don’t accelerate too fast or rev your engine too much in the first few moments you start driving in the cold. “This can add unwanted strain to your bearings and flood the combustion chamber with gas, which, in turn, will take miles off your engine’s life,” says Smart Motors Toyota. For owners of electric vehicles, which don’t have traditional engines, the above information doesn’t apply, according to a blog post on NAPA Auto Parts’ website. Instead, NAPA advises EV owners to warm up their cars before they’re unplugged because it can help preserve the battery range. “EVs have to draw on electricity to warm the interior. If you enter a car with a cold cabin and start driving, the vehicle will need to take from its stored electricity to bring the air inside to a pleasant temperature. This will tax the EV’s battery and leave you with less driving range,” says NAPA. The VERIFY team works to separate fact from fiction so that you can understand what is true and false. Please consider subscribing to our daily newsletter, text alerts and our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Learn More » Follow Us Want something VERIFIED? Text: 202-410-8808

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