Don't Idle Your Gas Away

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Have you ever driven to the nearest drive-thru coffee shop in the morning and seen a line of 15 cars waiting car_exhaustwhileIdling.jpgat the drive-thru window and none parked in the lot? While everyone else sits in line for 20-30 minutes waiting to order their morning cup of java you could run inside, head straight to the counter, and be out of there with a latte and a muffin in just five minutes. While everyone else is sitting there idling away his or her gas you will have saved half a gallon of gas just by going inside!

As Americans we spend a fair amount of drive time stuck in the drive-thru line or in traffic. Do you ever consider the affect your idling has on the environment, air quality, or your wallet? Let’s get the facts straight and bust some myths. Did you know that for every two minutes your car idles you lose the same amount of fuel needed to drive about one mile? In fact, ten seconds of idling can use more fuel than turning off the engine and restarting it.

Myth #1: You should warm up your engine before driving.

It really only takes 30 seconds for your engine to warm up and this is best done while driving. In order for a vehicle to perform well other moving parts such as wheel bearings, tires and transmission need to warm up as well. This does not happen until the vehicle is in motion. Idling only wastes gas and is actually very hard on other components of your vehicle (LEaP).

Myth #2: Idling is good for your engine.

Idling can damage engine components such as cylinders, spark plugs and exhaust systems. When idling an engine does not operate at full temperature, which means that fuel is only partly combusted, and leads to fuel residue buildup on cylinder walls and damages other parts of the engine. Idling also allows water to condense in the exhaust, which eventually corrodes and reduces the life of the exhaust system (LEaP).

Myth #3: Shutting off and restarting your vehicle is harder on it than to leave it running.

The price of fuel wasted idling is more expensive than the cost of component wear that results from restarting the engine. Also, restarting your engine has little impact on engine components such as the battery and the starter motor, both of which can be damaged by excessive idling (LEaP).

A few other things to consider when idling:

  1. It is important to keep your engine well tuned since a poorly tuned engine uses up to 15% more energy when idling.
  2. Turning off the air conditioner when idling can reduce emissions by 13%, which of course improves air quality.
  3. Idling emits pollutants that can exacerbate symptoms of asthma and allergies (California Energy Commission).

Breaking Down Air Pollution

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Photo: The Denver Post

Have you ever been curious about what pollutants are measured when your vehicle is on the treadmill during the emissions inspection? Take a look at the Vehicle Inspection Report provided at the end of the inspection, and you’ll see that they are carbon monoxide (CO), hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx). But why?

It’s all about your health. Both CO and NOx are pollutants that have been demonstrated to be harmful to your health and the environment – so much so that there are federal health-based standards for them. Hydrocarbons (as well as NOx) are two of the primary components that lead to ground-level ozone pollution – another pollutant with a federal health-based standard. What follows is a little info about each pollutant.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) – Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless gas emitted when fuel is burned (this is called combustion). It reduces the body’s ability to deliver oxygen to organs and tissues.


  • Motor vehicle exhaust (accounts for about 50 percent of CO nationwide)
  • Non-road vehicles

Health Effects Include:

  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Impaired coordination and vision
  • Confusion, dizziness and nausea
  • Reduced oxygen delivery to the body’s organs and tissues
  • Aggravation of heart disease

Ozone – The naturally-occurring ozone layer in the upper atmosphere protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. However, ozone at ground level is a pollutant.

Sources: Ozone is not emitted directly from a source like other pollutants, but forms as a secondary pollutant. Certain “precursor” pollutants like hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides react chemically in sunlight to form ozone.


  • Motor Vehicles
  • Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Activities
  • Utilities
  • Industrial Activities
  • Paints, Solvents, Degreasing Agents and Cleaning Fluids

Health Effects Include:

  • Chest pain                       
  • Throat irritation
  • Coughing
  • Congestion
  • Aggravation of lung diseases like asthma
  • Decreased lung function

Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) – Nitrogen oxides are a group of highly-reactive gases formed when nitrogen and oxygen in the air are combined in high-temperature combustion. Nitrogen dioxide is the component of greatest concern because it forms quickly from emissions from cars, trucks, buses, off-road equipment and power plants.


  • On- and Off-road Vehicles
  • Combustion Sources (power plants, oil and gas activities)
  • Aircraft

Health Effects Include:

  • Throat Irritation
  • Respiratory Distress
  • Aggravation of heart and lung diseases

The quality of our air has a direct impact upon our health. Educating ourselves about the most common pollutants, their sources, their effects and what strategies are being used to reduce them is an important part of the effort to improve public health and the environment.

To learn more about air pollution, visit the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division’s websites at and