There are so many good reasons to reduce engine idling that truckers may come to consider IDLE a pejorative acronym for "I Don't Learn Easily"

Here's a trucking riddle for you: What single thing could fleets do that would improve miles per gallon, lower maintenance costs, boost driver satisfaction, reduce exhaust emissions, enhance residual value, and help to improve the industry's image? If you'd like a hint, the payback period is about a year and the annual cost savings per truck after that can be as much as $4,000.

The answer, of course, is: Don't idle the truck's engine to heat or cool the cab and sleeper. Utilize one of the available auxiliary heater and/or cooling systems instead.

Now try a really tough question: If reducing idling has all these demonstrated benefits, why are most of the nation's trucks still idling for so many hours a day?

If you are struggling with that second question, you're not alone. It's baffling many experts throughout the industry. "In Europe, they generally don't idle trucks," observes Dave Settle, director of transportation for Lasco Bathware. "Perhaps one of the disadvantages of living in such a great and prosperous country is that there has not been a general emphasis on conserving resources like fuel. It's been, with very few exceptions, plentiful and affordable, so we've continued to idle our trucks because it's the easiest thing to do."

"Market awareness in the United States is still not where it should be," notes Jeff Walker, vp-sales for Espar Heating Systems, the U.S. supplier of fuel-fired engine and cab heaters for German-owned Eberspaecher. "That's part of the reason fleets have been slow to utilize the available auxiliary systems. Heater market penetration in Europe is at about 50%, due to strict idling laws, high fuel prices, and driver comfort demands. It's only about 5% in the U.S.

"Today things are changing, however. In the current competitive climate, fleets are more interested in the cost savings and driver benefits associated with reductions in engine idling," Walker adds. "Many state governments are also banning idling for environmental and other reasons, and the Dept. of Energy (DOE) is seriously re-addressing the idling issue in the hopes of curbing dependence on foreign oil, reducing petroleum consumption, and lowering vehicle emissions. Change is definitely in the air."

Up in smoke The report on truck idling, due later this summer from Argonne National Laboratory, may signal the beginning of the end of idling as a routine practice. Conducted on behalf of DOE, the new study makes a very strong case for the use of auxiliary heating and cooling devices.

"The average longhaul truck idles away up to $4,000 in profits each year," notes Argonne's prepublication report summary. "Instead of letting their engines idle, operators of Class 7 and 8 trucks should consider using separate devices for cab heating and cooling and engine block warming.

"Such devices are efficient, inexpensive to operate, and readily available," the summary adds. "Using them could reduce annual fuel costs by about $1,600 and maintenance costs by over $2,000 per truck, without sacrificing comfort or convenience. The payback period for such devices could be as short as one year, depending on use."

That's a pretty strong statement, but Argonne scientists have been doing their math homework on idling. Analysts estimate that U.S. trucks idle their engines for up to 1,890 hours per year and that the average truck burns about one gallon of diesel fuel per hour of idling. "If auxiliary devices replaced idling for 1,450 of those hours (a conservative estimate)," the summary notes, "and used 85% less fuel, the change would save 1,230 gallons of fuel. With fuel at $1.30 per gallon, the cost savings would be about $1,600. Preventive maintenance and overhauls due to engine wear would be less frequent, for an estimated annual savings of $2,300."

"The 1998 Argonne report on engine idling is actually our second study," explains Jules Routbort, a physicist and full-time researcher for Argonne. "The first report on idling was done in 1986. Now, 12 years later, there are many more heavy-duty trucks on the road and many more good options to idling engines. Today's auxiliary systems are generally excellent, reliable, and robust."

Routbort, like others, is somewhat puzzled at the trucking industry's slow adoption of these auxiliary systems. "U.S. truck operators have always idled their engines," he notes. "It's been done this way for years and people hate to change. Then again, trucking companies are very sensitive to capital outlay, especially smaller operators, so even a $3,000 expense can seem like a lot.

"Maybe it's even possible that some truckers really just don't understand the costs associated with engine idling or the alternatives available," he adds. "When I'm traveling, I make a point now to stop at every truckstop I pass and count the number of trucks idling. It's kind of depressing."

Like so many endeavors, however (quitting smoking, beginning exercise programs, or learning a new skill come to mind), giving up idling does require some level of commitment and effort. "A certain amount of training for drivers is necessary," explains Jeff Walker. "They have to learn to shut off the engine and use the auxiliary system - and as with any system that ties into the truck's batteries, that means learning to properly manage power.

"The other factors are installation and maintenance," he adds. "Technicians have to learn how to install heater systems, and the systems do require some servicing. It's not like adding an AM/FM radio. If the system ties into the coolant, electrical, or fuel systems of the truck, problems in those areas can affect the auxiliary system. None of these factors are truly obstacles, though. They are the issues typically raised when the 'Why not?' question comes up about using auxiliary heating or cooling systems."

Count your benefits For fleets that have made the commitment to dramatically reduce engine idling, the benefits are well worth it. Lasco Bathware, for example, has been testing Webasto Thermosystem's Thermo Cooler system on four units for the past nine months, one with its fleet in Georgia, and three with its Michigan operation. "As you might expect, the Georgia fleet runs primarily in the southern states, and the focus has been on cooling," explains Dave Settle. "I'm pleased to report that we have seen to date a 22% reduction in idle time in the Georgia truck and an increase of 0.24 miles per gallon.

"The Michigan fleet runs primarily in the northern states, and the challenge in these areas is to provide warmth without running the engine," Settle continues. "Here we've seen a 30.5% reduction in idle time and an increase of 0.62 miles per gallon. I think these benefits speak for themselves.

"You have to train the mechanics as well as the drivers," he adds. "That's very important to us. After all, someone has to know how to work on these systems. Webasto did all the training, and it resulted in a better understanding and willingness on the part of the Penske technicians who service our trucks and our Lasco drivers to be a part of this effort.

"We pride ourselves on our long-term record of retaining our drivers," Settle continues. "Turnover is almost nonexistent at Lasco. Since the Webasto tests, we've seen a paradigm change with our drivers. Before the tests, drivers said, 'I can't sleep if the truck isn't running.' Now that's changed to, 'I am sleeping better than I've ever slept before.'

"Lasco has 56 Freightliners currently on order and they will all be equipped with Webasto's heating system," he adds. "Our goal is to have systems installed on our whole fleet of 200-plus trucks."

B&B Trucking in Kalamazoo, a 52-truck operation hauling mail for the U.S. Postal Service, has seen very positive results from its Pony Pack units, according to fleet manager Andy Blackburn. "We're going on our fourth year with Pony Pack," he says. "We have seven units now and we just ordered another.

"Our trucks run three-quarters of a million miles per month, mostly between Chicago and Detroit, but we go as far as Toronto, Canada, and Des Moines, Iowa," he explains. "All our trucks used to be daycabs, but when we added sleepers to the fleet, we had to reduce idle time. Idling those units while drivers slept was adding the equivalent of an additional 120,000 miles per year.

"We do our own maintenance," Blackburn continues. "Idling at low oil pressure is harder on coolant systems and on the engine as a whole. All that idling meant we couldn't maintain our extended drain interval and we had to do engine overhauls at about 500,000 miles. With Pony Pack, we can stay on the extended drain cycle and go to 700,000 miles before overhauling the engine. Plus, we're seeing an 11-12 month payback on fuel alone."

To help assure that all fleets have access to good information about the costs associated with idling, the Dept. of Energy's Office of Heavy Vehicle Technologies has begun a program to inform truckers of the advantages of reduced idling. Called "Don't Idle Your Profits Away," the program includes information about the national costs of idling in terms of fuel usage, emissions, and maintenance. A simplified chart for calculating your own fleet's cost of idling (based upon TMC's RP1180 issued in March of 1995 and Argonne Lab reports) is also available.*

Certainly by next spring, it will be much harder not to know about the benefits of reducing engine idling and the auxiliary heating/cooling systems that can help get the job done. "The trucking industry has the opportunity now to step up and address the idling problem in a proactive way, before legislation or regulation mandates the solution," notes Jules Routbort, of Argonne National Laboratory.

"There are really no excuses anymore," adds Lasco's Dave Settle. "We all tend to wait until we have no other choice before we make changes, even when the ROI is clearly there. In the case of reducing engine idling, the time has come to just do it."

*[Editor's note: Additional information, including Argonne's full report and copies of the chart for calculating your fleet's cost of idling, can be obtained from the Office of Heavy Vehicle Technologies, U.S. Dept. of Energy, EE33, 1000 Independence Ave. S.W., Washington, D.C. 20585.]

According to the America Trucking Assns.' most recent survey (January 1996), 15 states already have anti-idling regulations on the books, including:

California. Limits idling to five minutes.

Colorado. Several cities have limits in place, including Denver, Colorado Springs, and Aspen.

Connecticut. Limits idling to three minutes unless idling is to power PTO, bring vehicle to operating temperature, or if ambient outdoor temperature is below 20 deg. F.

District of Columbia. Three-minute limit for trucks, except for powering PTOs or when temperature is below 32 deg. F.

Hawaii. Idling is prohibited, including for powering A/C, except for certain specified applications.

Illinois. Idling is prohibited on any business street "for a longer period than is necessary for ... loading or unloading."

Maryland. Idling is prohibited for more than five minutes, but permitted for the operation of heating and cooling equipment and other specified purposes.

Massachusetts. Five-minute idling limit, except for PTO operation.

Montana. Two-hour idling limit in Helena only.

Nevada: 15-minute idling limit except for emergency vehicles, during traffic congestion, or for the operation of specific equipment, such as liftgates and PTOs. In pollution emergency periods, these functions are also limited to 15 minutes of idle time.

New Hampshire. Five-minute idling limit except when temperature is below -10 deg. F or for certain other specified functions, such as PTO operation.

New Jersey. Three-minute idling limit unless vehicles are at operator's place of business, then 30-minute idling limit. If vehicle has been stopped three or more hours, the idling limit is 15 consecutive minutes. Exemptions exist for operating refrigerator and PTO units, connecting or detaching trailers, and for trucks with sleepers in non-residentially zoned areas for drivers sleeping or resting.

New Mexico. Limits idling with smoke emissions regulations that specifically include emissions during idling. Smoke opacity is limited to 30% for no more than 10 seconds at altitudes of less than 8,000 ft., or 40% when the vehicle is being started.

New York. State and some city regulations limit idling. State limit is five minutes except in traffic or if engine is providing power for auxiliary equipment such as PTOs or cranes, or when truck is remaining motionless for more than two hours and the temperature is below 25 deg. F.

Virginia. Three-minute idling limit in commercial and residential areas unless to provide power for something other than heating and cooling the driver. Diesel vehicles may idle for up to ten minutes to minimize restart problems.