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.

Still, Volvo has sold more than 5,000 shore power kits, many to owner-operators. Velere Stromer, an owner-operator from Klemme, Iowa, has a Xantrex inverter and shore power kit in his Volvo 770. Although the inverter allows him to plug in a microwave and a hot plate, its use hasn’t affected his idling habits. “That’s a fallacy,” he says. “My inverter doesn’t help conserve fuel. All it does is give you the conveniences of the house.”

The inverter has saved money, though, Stromer says. He saves on meals every week because he cooks in his cab, and an internal battery charger allows him to get 100,000 more miles out of his battery. He uses his shore power kit at home to keep his refrigerator running when his truck is parked. “That keeps the batteries charged,” he says.

Other options, such as gen sets, cost more than many owner-operators can bear, says Truck Gen’s Klaus Holze. “Their dollars are spent in other areas,” he says. Greg Bakkestuen was able to afford his $6,000 Truck Gen set only by rolling the expense into the financing for his new truck.

Cost isn’t the only motivator. Bakkestuen says some places where he delivers, such as New York state, forbid idling. “I’ve been harassed up there so many times I can’t tell you,” he says.

States with high pollution levels, such as Texas and California, are strengthening idling laws or adding new ones, says Frank Stodolsky, principal investigator for the Argonne National Laboratory. The lab says there are statewide anti-idling laws in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Hampshire, Nevada, New York and Virginia and local laws in Boston, New York City and jurisdictions in Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri and Pennsylvania. These laws have seldom been enforced, but that may change as the federal government seeks to reduce fuel consumption and states try to limit pollution.

“People who live near truck stops complain about breathing problems,” Stodolsky says. “If it’s bad nearby, imagine what it’s like in the middle of a truck stop on a cold night.”

Economic stability is also a big concern, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. “We’re importing too much foreign oil,” Stodolsky says. “Our president is looking for a way for us to reduce our dependence on that oil.”

Nevertheless, proponents say, if shore power stays unavailable for years, then owner-operators are faced with expensive investments in equipment such as gen sets, optimized idle engines or power inverters. One solution would be for the federal government to help fleets and owner-operators pay for such additions through low-interest loans, subsidies or tax incentives. Truck Gen’s Holze says different segments of the industry are lobbying hard for such incentives and waiting to see what happens. “The whole industry is watching each other,” Holze says, “to see who’s going to go forward first.”


A gen set enables Greg Bakkestuen and his dog Jake to keep warm and cut idling costs. Bakkestuen says his Truck Gen auxiliary power unit has paid for itself in a short time.

IDLE SPECULATIONS

Estimating how much money you waste when you idle isn’t that difficult. Experts estimate a truck engine uses between 0.8 and 1.2 gallons of diesel an hour when idling, depending on three factors: age and efficiency of engine, idle speed and parasitic draw – the amount of electricity accessories such as appliances use. Some new engines can use as little as a half-gallon an hour idling at 1,100 rpm, says Tom Diefenbaker of Detroit Diesel.

The amount of time you spend idling varies by personal habits – the number of nights you spend in your sleeper and what parts of the country you run in. Fuel costs, too, vary by region.

Using averages from Argonne National Laboratories, a typical long-haul trucker spends more than $2,800 a year to idle. You can replace the data in this formula to figure your own idling costs.

1. Estimate the number of hours each year you idle to cool or heat your truck while parked. If you’re not sure, use an average of six hours a day, 43 weeks a year, or about 1,800 hours.

2. Multiply that by the fuel you burn in an hour of idling. If you’re not sure, use 1 gallon per hour.

3. Multiply that fuel consumption by your average fuel cost. For 2001, that was about $1.45. That gives annual fuel cost.

4. Multiply your hours idling by 14 cents (.14), the average cost of engine wear and oil consumption for an hour of idling. That gives annual non-fuel cost.

5. Add fuel and non-fuel costs to get the total cost of idling for one year.

What idling costs you

1. 1,800 hours idling/year
2. x 1 gallon/hour idling
=1,800 gallons/year idling
3. x $1.45/gallon fuel
= $2,610 fuel cost/year

4. 1,800 hours idling/year
x $0.14 non-fuel cost/hour
= $252 non-fuel cost/year

5. $2,610 fuel cost
+ $252 non-fuel cost
= $2,862 total idling costs/year

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