Power play

| February 01, 2002

For years, owner-operator Greg Bakkestuen burned thousands of gallons of diesel to keep his truck warm in winter. Idling wasn’t just a comfort issue. In Minnesota, where he picks up loads for personal vehicle manufacturer Polaris, it’s an issue of survival.

“You face days up here where it’s 40 degrees below zero,” he says. Conscious of burning a gallon an hour to idle, Bakkestuen, who lives in Viroqua, Wis., found a solution when he spec’ed his 2000 International Eagle with an onboard generator. It powers appliances and a climate-control unit mounted on the back of his sleeper. He can also plug in an engine block heater.

In the year and a half he’s used his gen set, Bakkestuen estimates he would have idled nearly 5,000 hours, using about $6,300 worth of fuel. That’s getting close to the $7,300 he’s spent on the 5.5 kilowatt gen set from Truck Gen – $6,000 to buy and install it himself, plus about $1,300 to run it for 5,000 hours, at two-tenths of a gallon of diesel an hour.

Bakkestuen is actually around the break-even point if you count the money he’s saving on engine wear and maintenance. “Where I once would change oil every 10,000 to 12,000 miles, now I can change it every 22,000 miles,” he says.

Owner-operators like Bakkestuen have more options to idling than ever. Some choices, such as gen sets, are widely available today and can pay for themselves in two or three years. Others, such as shore power, are just appearing and promise to be widely available at some point. These technologies are compelling options for owners faced with high diesel prices and stricter emissions regulations.

Owner-operators Manny and Trudy Serrano of Palm Bay, Fla., have a gen set and an inverter. They use the inverter to run their television, satellite system, microwave and hair dryer. On extremely cold or hot days they use their gen set to run a heat pump; the generator also powers their stove.

“I’m almost positive that the inverter has paid for itself twice over,” Manny says. “It’s truly not the money for the fuel that’s at issue. It’s the wear and tear on the engine. The worst miles on a motor are your idling miles.”

Since the late 1980s, an increasing number of governments have tried to limit idling. The efforts have been fairly ineffective, largely because they’ve failed to address why truckers idle: to maintain some minimal standard of living.

Now, a few enlightened regulators are taking a broader look. In New York, for example, where police routinely write citations for idling, New York Thruway officials spent more than $450,000 on a pilot project to install shore power connections at two travel plazas and plan to spend thousands more to expand the project. Nationwide, though, progress has been slow. Electric companies, truck manufacturers, environmental groups, government agencies and a host of equipment makers have struggled to introduce low-cost equipment and infrastructure to reduce idle times. The biggest efforts have focused on shore power, which is costly to install at large numbers of truck stops and rest stops. For that reason, anti-idling proponents have looked to fleets.

“The fleets are trying to figure out how to make a business case out of reducing idling,” says Rick Tempchin, director of electric transportation at the Edison Electric Institute, an early backer of anti-idling efforts. “We’ve teed it up for the market to take it over. It will, but it’s going to take time.”

For large fleets, incentives are twofold. First, they can reduce expenses by an estimated $7,000 per truck per year, according to the Argonne National Laboratory. Second, the biggest fleets can apply for environmental credits that help defray the installation costs.

For owner-operators, the story is different. Most options to idling are expensive or unavailable. Shore power is virtually unavailable at truck stops. And even if all truck stops were equipped, idling at shippers, receivers and terminals would continue.

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