No idle threat

| April 02, 2008

Idle-free zones in truck-stop parking lots, like this one at the TA in Troutville, Va., aren’t uncommon, but few truck stops contain enough such spaces to merit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recognition.

Since police at the giant Hunts Point food terminal in the Bronx, N.Y., began enforcing a five-minute idling limit, the cops seem to start beating on Marjorie and David Struckle’s cab door the moment they pull in.

But when Hailey, their 2-year-old black Labrador retriever, peers out the window at the visitors, the cops tend to move to the next truck in line. “The dog has gotten us out of a lot of tickets,” Marjorie Struckle says.

The Jordanville, N.Y., owner-operators have minimized their idling even without police encouragement. “Our wake-up call came when we started tallying our idling hours,” Struckle says. “We were idling a lot more than we thought we were.”

Using sleeping bags in winter and fans in summer to cut idling, and sticking to 64 mph on their New York-to-Florida produce run, the Struckles have more than doubled the fuel economy of their 1999 Peterbilt 279, from 3.1 mpg to 7 mpg.

“The only thing we can do as truckers about the price of fuel is control our idling and our fuel economy,” Struckle says. “We really should be doing something to help ourselves.”

Whatever their views on politics and the environment, owner-operators undeniably have more incentive than ever in 2008 to cut their idling by any means necessary, as state and local anti-idling laws proliferate, electrified parking spaces and anti-idling grant programs become more common, and diesel prices head toward $4 a gallon.

Truckers who need encouragement will find police nationwide willing to help. “Stricter idling regulations are becoming more common in many regions, and more rules are guaranteed,” says Cummins’ “Idle Talk” brochure promoting the ComfortGuard auxiliary power unit.

In Pennsylvania, for example, legislators and regulators seem to be in a race to determine whether a statewide idling limit becomes a rule or a law. In February, the state Senate unanimously approved a five-minute limit that was before a House committee at press time; meanwhile, the state Environmental Quality Board held hearings on a five-minute limit of its own.

Anti-idling ordinances were traditionally driven by citizen complaints about noise, says Terry Levinson, senior project manager at the Argonne National Laboratory and editor of the monthly National Idling Reduction Network News. “Today, however, air quality is a real driving force,” she says.

State and local laws proliferate in the absence of a federal rule, something the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Bush has steadfastly resisted, Levinson says. “Perhaps after the election, certainly after Jan. 20 of next year, there may be discussion at the federal level, but not before,” she says. “For now, the SmartWay Transportation Partnership is strictly voluntary, and that’s the end of that song.”

EPA does offer a non-binding Model State Idling Law that suggests a limit of five minutes every hour, with penalties including a $150 fine for the driver and/or a $500 fine for the truck owner or the owner of the load/unload location where the idling occurs. It suggests a laundry list of common-sense exemptions – including traffic jams, traffic signals and police instructions, as during inspections – and specifically exempts the running of an APU. It also suggests an exemption for federally mandated sleep periods if the state hasn’t established a grant program to help truckers buy anti-idling equipment, but quickly adds a boldfaced disclaimer: “This is inherently a matter for states to decide in their legislative process.”

Indeed, truckers can expect more anti-idling laws in states – as well as in cities and counties – nationwide, Levinson says, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be ticketed for violations. “A lot of times the laws are on the books, but they’re not enforced,” she says.

In the typical scenario, Levinson says, an outraged citizen complains about lax enforcement, whereupon there’s a two-day or two-week sweep, but then law enforcement returns to the countless other duties that taxpayers consider more important than policing truck engines.

Consequently, “Idling laws are only a partial solution,” writes Katherine Daniels of the New York Planning Federation in her September 2006 report “A Municipal Official’s Guide to Diesel Idling Reduction in New York State.”

Owner-operator Gary Dziadula of Girard, Kan., is concerned about his idling, but not because he fears a ticket. A flatbedder leased to Jessee Trucking of Galena, Kan., Dziadula hauls mainly giant pipes for water-treatment plants at construction sites already full of loud, emissions-producing machines, where one more idling truck is no big deal. But to Dziadula, anti-idling laws are like load-securement regulations: Public interest and self-interest go hand in hand. “Forget the regulations,” Dziadula says. “My first goal is to take care of me.”

He uses the built-in bunk thermostat in his 2001 Freightliner Classic XL to automatically start and stop the Detroit Diesel Series 60 engine at temperatures of his choosing, at a 4-degree, 7-degree and 10-degree spread. Set the desired temperature at 70 degrees with a 4-degree spread, for example, and the engine will start at 66.

He just bought a new ProDriver onboard engine recorder on eBay for less than half the $800 retail price and had it dash-mounted. He looks forward to generating records of his engine use per trip or even per leg of a trip.

“I’m hoping with this deal to find out exactly how long it runs through the night, because I don’t know,” Dziadula says.

Anti-idling regulations and the cost of diesel are forcing owner-operators to pay close attention to their businesses, Dziadula says. “Trucking is like farming: very thin profit margins. There are guys who can drive circles around me, but they don’t have any interest in what’s going on under the hood. I do.”

Penalties aren’t governments’ only tools for cutting truck idling, but they are among the easiest and cheapest, hence their popularity. Other direct tools include financing the construction of electrified parking spaces and providing financial incentives for companies to retrofit their trucks with anti-idling devices.

Indirectly, alleviating congestion at terminals, ports, border crossings and interstate junctions also would reduce idling, but alleviating congestion may be government’s toughest transportation challenge of all.

Daniels’ report recommends ordinances that require truck stop or terminal operators to site trucks 500 feet or so from “sensitive land uses” such as neighborhoods, schools and hospitals, and to plant trees as buffers.

EPA offers a SmartWay Truck Stop/Plaza Partnership Agreement through which a truck stop can commit to providing an idle-free zone, with or without electrification, as follows:

  • Year One: 50 idle-free spaces or 25 percent of the total spaces, whichever is smaller.

  • Year Three: 100 idle-free spaces or 50 percent of the total spaces, whichever is smaller.
  • Year Five: 150 idle-free spaces or 75 percent of the total spaces, whichever is smaller.

The agreement includes a rider with which states can pledge to place the SmartWay truck stop “on low priority for enforcement” of anti-idling regulations. At press time, however, SmartWay partners included 417 trucking companies and trucking fleets but only three truck stops.

For companies that stick to certain corridors, especially owner-operator businesses or company-driver fleets with relatively few trucks, electrified parking can be cost-effective, Levinson says. If long haul carries you far from electrified parking across all climates, however, “you have to have some sort of device on board,” she says. “I think there’s room for both.”

Ideally, more states and larger cities will offer truckers not just sticks but carrots, too, by providing grants or other incentives to buy and install anti-idling equipment, Levinson says. This has been both a cost-effective use of taxes and quite popular with trucking companies large and small, judging from the flood of applications that tends to come in. “People wouldn’t be applying for the money if they didn’t want to do this,” Levinson says.

In some states, for example Texas and Wisconsin, the grants come with requirements to log and report in-state miles and APU use, to help the state assess its EPA-required implementation plan, Levinson says.

One big incentive states could provide isn’t financial but regulatory. A 400-pound weight exemption for idle-reduction equipment – an exemption encouraged but, again, not mandated, by the Bush administration – is now law in only five states: Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington.

Not all environmentally conscious cities have climbed onto the anti-idling bandwagon. One holdout so far is Salem, Va., where city officials have endorsed the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement – and yet are campaigning to land a Norfolk Southern intermodal facility, idling trucks and all.

Located on busy I-81, Salem already is home to a U.S. Foodservice distribution center and General Electric and Yokohama Tire plants, says Melinda Payne, the city’s planning director. Yet in her eight years with the city, “I haven’t had a single complaint about an idling truck,” she says. “We don’t have to do a whole lot of monitoring, either, in these economic times. There aren’t many businesses interested in seeing their trucks idle, because it sucks up fuel.”

Ultimately, it’s fuel prices, not ordinances and fines that will force truckers to cut idling drastically or stop it altogether, Levinson says. The Cummins brochure sums it up: “The days of casual idling are over.”


IdleAire growing amid challenges
By far the largest electrified-parking network is run by IdleAire. It has 131 locations in 34 states, three-fourths of them in the TravelCenters of America chain (which since May 2007 includes all Petro locations).

Shorepower Technologies has six locations in the Pacific Northwest’s I-5 corridor, including the famed Jubitz Travel Center in Portland, Ore. Another startup, CabAire, advertises 116 electrified spaces at its first location, the New American Auto Stop on I-95 in North Stonington, Conn.

The truck stop electrification grid has grown remarkably from 10 years ago, when there was virtually nothing offered, and some truckers are faithful users.

Small fleet owner Karen Barnett pays for IdleAire for her two company drivers. “Sometimes they can get in, and sometimes they can’t,” she says. “There’s not near enough of them out there.”

Owner-operator Brian Coleman of Tacoma, Wash., uses IdleAire, even though he has an auxiliary power unit, which he hooks up to IdleAire. “I can actually keep batteries charged up through IdleAire.” Plus IdleAire provides an Internet connection, satellite television and long-distance phone service.

But getting adequate numbers of truckers to hook up has proven to be something of a difficult sell. “Our Advanced Travel Center Electrification system has not yet achieved widespread market acceptance,” IdleAire reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in November.

The company said that overall use of its sites in the third quarter of 2007, at an average hourly rate of $2.18, was 29 percent. That’s not as low as it sounds, considering that most demand occurs overnight and that the need for hot or cold air drops during spring and fall. Of used hours, 39 percent was billed to fleets.

The typical site costs $1 million for 65 electrified parking spaces, or $15,000 per space, IdleAire told the SEC. Those costs have been subsidized by states, local governments and truck stops.

From the company’s inception in 2000 through Sept. 30, 2007, IdleAire reported, it had been awarded $55.6 million in government grants. Of that total, $8.6 million had expired or been terminated, $25.7 million had been invoiced by IdleAire (of which $24.1 million had been received), and the remaining $21.3 million would be invoiced as new sites were deployed.

IdleAire, which has yet to turn a profit, told the SEC that its net loss for the first nine months of 2007 was $66 million, with an accumulated debt of $219 million, and that it would need “substantial additional funds” to continue its expansion and to fund its 2008 operations. IdleAire subsequently announced Jan. 31 that it would cut 40 jobs.

IdleAire spokesman John Doty declined to comment for this article.
- Linda Longton contributed to this story.


Finding electrified sites:
A shore thing Owner-operators interested in electrified parking as an idling alternative can get quick information via a U.S. Department of Energy Truck Stop Electrification Site Locator online at afdcmap2.nrel.gov/tse. It allows users to search by city, and to get the phone number, number of electrified sites and a location map for each shore power location.

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