You probably heard at some point in your life that you would use less gas by letting your car run for a short time rather than turning it off. As with many truisms, this one has taken on a life of its own. But advances in engine technology have now made it preferable to turn a car off when it is stopped and then restart it, rather than letting it idle.
Before the widespread availability of electronic fuel injection in the early 1980s, engines relied on a carburetor to vaporize the gasoline that was then used to power the internal combustion engine. With electronic fuel injection, the precise amount of fuel needed at start-up, about a teaspoon, is delivered directly to the engine electronically. As a result, the fuel consumed when starting a car today is only a fraction of what it used to be. The current rule of thumb is that if you plan to let a car idle for more than 10 seconds, you will save fuel by turning the engine off then back on.
Turning off the engine is preferable to idling because doing so will reduce the emission of harmful pollutants into the air. In addition to improving the quality of the air you breathe now, for every 10 minutes your engine is off, you’ll prevent 1 pound of carbon dioxide — a primary contributor to climate change — from being released into the atmosphere.
It was once true that restarting an engine resulted in wear that would end up costing more in the long run than the cost of fuel from letting a car idle. Again, technology has rendered this view obsolete. Electronic ignition in particular has made starting relatively stress free for engine components. The cost of engine wear from restarting cars today is insignificant relative to the cost of fuel consumed while the vehicle is idling.
One misconception that’s been harder to shake than others is the belief that in very cold weather, it is important to let a car idle until the engine is warm enough for its metal components to be sufficiently lubricated before driving. It only takes about 30 seconds, even in cold conditions, for the engine oil to circulate completely. And the best way to warm up your car to optimal levels is to drive it. It is always wise, however, to avoid hard acceleration — like when merging onto a highway — for the first few minutes after beginning to drive, particularly in cold weather.
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