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A car idles in winter.

ImageegamI/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Immigrating to Canada decades ago as a British-educated white male, I didn’t experience culture shock. Well, except this: Seeing unattended cars parked outside stores with the engine running. “What’s your problem? I just went into the corner store for milk. I was only gone for 60 seconds.”

Where I came from, your car would be gone in way less than 60 seconds.

Thirty years later, I’m still dismayed by Canadians’ compulsion to idle their engines for no reason. Look at that guy in his pickup; he’s parked in the shade with the windows open on a balmy September day, but he’s still gotta keep that engine running.

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And every winter, we hear the same story: an epidemic of vehicles stolen from driveways as they sat “warming up’' while their drivers were eating breakfast.

Aside from the car-theft risk, everything I’ve ever learned says this is a horrible practice – harmful to your wallet, the environment and the vehicle itself. And yet, even while the auto industry touts its shift to clean mobility, remote starters are increasingly available on new vehicles.

Granted, if you insist on running the engine to warm up your vehicle, a factory-installed remote starter should be more reliable than an aftermarket add-on. And it beats going outside to start the car manually. But still, must you?

This is Canada. Winter happens. Dress accordingly.

What’s wrong with idling your engine to warm up the vehicle? Says Natural Resources Canada, “When an engine starts up, it pumps oil throughout the engine block to lubricate moving parts. In a cold engine, the oil is thick and resists flow, so the engine has to work harder.

“Fuel combustion is also less efficient in a cold engine, and the air-fuel mixture is richer [that is, using] more fuel and less air. The combined effect is a sharp increase in emissions. On top of everything else, the catalytic converter doesn’t work efficiently when it is cold.”

I can relate. According to my car’s trip computer, idling fuel-consumption right after startup at zero degrees is up to six times higher than when it’s warm.

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Natural Resources Canada notes, too, that idling in the driveway doesn’t help warm up tires, transmission, wheel bearings and other moving parts that also need to be warm to perform well.

A couple of other things that the government doesn’t mention: Cold oil takes longer to circulate throughout the engine, increasing wear, and even a warm engine burns fuel less cleanly while idling than at driving speeds.

“Contrary to popular belief, excessive idling is not an effective way to warm up your vehicle, even in cold weather. The best way to warm it up is to drive it,” Natural Resources Canada concludes.

Modern vehicles provide alternatives to spewing untreated exhaust fumes into the neighbourhood while your vehicle sits there going nowhere. Heated seats and steering wheels help take the edge off a cold start.

Here’s another radical concept: If you have a garage, use it. Many cars sit outside because the garage is full of other stuff. Haven’t you been meaning to dump all that junk anyway?

My insulated but unheated detached garage typically stays five to 10 degrees warmer inside in winter than outside. Each time we stow the car after a drive, residual heat warms up the garage for a less-cold start the next morning.

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On our previous cars, we also used a block heater. That wasn’t an option on our current one, but between its fast-acting seat heaters and the (relatively) warm garage, we’ve never missed the block heater on cold mornings. We also don’t miss brushing away snow or scraping ice before setting out.

Block heaters, which are immersed in the engine coolant, can be imperative in the Far North, where frozen-solid coolant can crack engine blocks or oil becomes so thick the engine won’t turn over. But it doesn’t have to be Arctic-cold to be worth using a block heater – assuming, of course, you have somewhere to plug it in. The cabin will warm up much faster if you plug in a few hours before departure – use a block-heater timer – and you’ll reduce the harmful effects of a cold start on fuel economy, emissions and wear-and-tear.

Block heaters are standard on some vehicles and available as retrofits for many others. Be aware, though, that on some vehicles a thermostat prevents the block heater from activating above a certain (very low) temperature. Another option is heaters that attach to the outside of the oil pan.

So why are automakers so keen to install remote starters? A General Motors of Canada source concedes that emissions are far higher from a cold engine, but counters, “customers are going to start their vehicles without a remote start anyway. … Using remote start usually prevents bad behaviour like driving high rpm in a lower gear or revving the engine in neutral to get the heat up.”

“Modern fuel injection,” he adds, “has several different fuel-dosing modes, and the ECM [engine-control module] picks the best one for emissions during a cold idle.

Granted, newer vehicles do a better job of controlling emissions when cold, and modern oils flow better at low temperatures. Still, better isn’t perfect, and we don’t all drive new cars. Me, I’ll give the engine 60 seconds max for the oil to start circulating, and then I’m gone.

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Of course, it’s a given that I’ll drive gently during the warm-up period. But at least I’m getting some use out of the fuel I’m burning – like, you know, actually going somewhere.

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