Cold remedy

Top: Espar Airtronic D2
Bottom: Webasto Air Top 2000

Before last winter, owner-operator Ron Doll, who hauls regional loads from rail lines for Schneider National, kept warm by squeezing into a sleeping bag. The Bloomfield, Iowa, trucker also would get up in the middle of the night to restart his 1998 Volvo 610 for a few minutes of heater time.

But that all changed last September when he bought a Webasto Air Top 2000 in-cab parking heater through his carrier. The diesel-fired heater, which cost Doll about $1,000, keeps him toasty on cold nights in the Midwest and has virtually eliminated the 30 nights he estimates he idled in cold weather before he bought the device.

“I hate idling,” Doll says. “I can’t sleep well with all the noise and fumes. I sleep in fear that I’ve blown up the engine because I wasn’t there to see if I had an oil leak.”

Doll represents an increasing number of owner-operators and fleets turning to heating alternatives to survive cold winters. While comfort is a big part of their purchase motivation, the high cost of diesel and enforcement of anti-idling laws are also spurring many to consider options. Some are investing in auxiliary power units or generator set systems, which incorporate a complete HVAC system, 110-power and a small, electric or diesel-fired heater. Others are buying bridge devices like Bergstrom’s NITE system, which includes a deep-cycle battery pack and an air conditioner. But most are buying an Espar or Webasto diesel-fueled sleeper heater because they are less expensive, easy to install, require little maintenance and add relatively little weight.

“A lot of these fleets and owner-operators are based in places like California, where the temperature is mild,” says John Dennehy, vice president of marketing and communications for Espar. “But they’re driving to the Northeast – to New York – where the laws are stricter. If a guy gets fined $800 for idling, he’s just bought himself a heater.”

Both companies say heater sales are up. “Diesel prices are certainly causing people to consider our product,” says Don Kanneth, a sales director for Webasto. “When fuel prices shot up in 2003, it generated a bigger interest in heaters.”

Air heaters are popular with fleets and owner-operators because of cost and simplicity. While Espar’s and Webasto’s models cost about $1,100, Bergstrom’s NITE system costs nearly $3,500 and gen-sets cost as much as $8,000. At those higher prices, the return on investment takes longer to achieve; an owner-operator who buys a gen-set can wait up to five years to see a payoff.

Espar, which produces the Airtronic D2, and Webasto say their return comes in as little as six months, depending on how much the owner had been idling. Doll, an admitted spendthrift, says it took a long time for him to decide to invest in a heater. “There’s no way I can justify an auxiliary power unit,” Doll says. “It takes too large of an investment for the return I’d get out of it. At $1,000, this heater will take a while to get back, as little as I idle. It will probably take me three years, but the peace of mind and comfort are immediate.”

The systems are easy to install, operate and maintain, and both companies offer detailed instructions. Installation involves drilling and cutting a few holes in the floor of the truck and in the wall beneath the bunk. Power and fuel lines also must be run.

Other drivers insist on a year-around solution. Canadian owner-operator David Sanborn says buying a gen-set was more practical mainly because he lives in his truck most of the time. “I don’t have kids or a wife,” he says. “I stay in the truck a lot. I didn’t want all that idle time on my engine, and I want to stay comfortable in summer and winter.”

Sanborn’s solution fits his circumstances. Because his Kubota generator, part of a system made by ProHeat, delivers AC power to his sleeper, Sanborn chose an electric heater, which keeps him warm even when the temperature dips to 40 below. He uses the 110-power to run his microwave, coffee maker and other appliances, too. He also runs a block heater and an oil-pan heater.

Sanborn is back in the market for another gen-set because his $7,500 system recently broke down after running more than 10,000 hours over four and half years. “That’s 10,000 hours not on my big engine,” he says. Plus, there’s all the diesel he’s saved operating his gen-set instead of idling his Sterling.

While gen-sets offer more than heat, there are drawbacks. They’re expensive, difficult to install and require maintenance – often at different intervals than a truck engine. They add hundreds of pounds, while fuel-fired heaters add a negligible amount. Fleets point to these reasons as why they are buying heaters instead of complete systems. For owner-operators, the big sticker price is enough to keep many out of the market for higher-end systems.

Terry Zeigler, general manager of Bergstrom’s Electrified Systems, says cost is one reason why owner-operators are buying his company’s new NITE system, which offers both hot and cold air. “The heaters have been out there for many, many years,” Ziegler says. “For a large percentage of fleets and owner-operators, their primary drive is to provide climate comfort while eliminating idling.”

The NITE system is pricey, but at $3,495 offers a middle ground between simple heaters and auxiliary power units, which heat, cool and provide 110-power. While NITE does all that APUs do, it cools only for a maximum of eight hours under normal conditions, which means the truck has to be run once the batteries are drained. The batteries also add substantial weight – more than 200 pounds – and have a life of three years or less.

Like the heaters, the return on investment with the NITE system is much faster than a traditional gen-set. Zeigler says the ROI can be as soon as 12 months, depending on how much idling is replaced.

Other options for heating the cab exist, as well. The $5,600 PonyPack, for example, uses a generator to warm and circulate engine fluid, providing heat to the cab; it can also provide auxiliary cooling when its compressor and condenser are combined with your truck’s existing components. Some truckers are turning to truck stop electrification systems, notably IdleAire’s, or inverters that convert battery power and allow for shore power to be plugged in. IdleAire provides AC and heat directly through its window unit; shore power users rely on space heaters or electric micro-furnaces to heat the sleeper.

While the best solution for the idling issue is a system that provides both AC and heat as well as power for other conveniences, weight, cost, maintenance and infrastructure still present a barrier to many buyers. Fleets say they have had trouble finding a reliable air conditioning system that meets their needs. Schneider National, for example, which has started equipping all its trucks with Webasto heaters, continues to test cooling options.

Jacobson Transportation, a Des Moines, Iowa-based carrier that has installed Espar heaters, is also looking for a cooling solution, says President Howard Hein. “We want to invest in similar air-cooling units, but not until a reliable model has been found,” Hein says.

With no relief in sight from diesel prices as winter approaches, chances are good owner-operators and fleets will look harder than ever at ways to heat cabs without idling. While a cost-effective system for heating and cooling seems elusive now, many buyers are solving half of the equation with in-cab heaters that provide a relatively inexpensive cure for common cold.

Cost Wt. BTU
Espar Airtronic D2 $1,150 6 lbs. 7,500
Webasto Air Top 2000 $1,100 8 lbs. 7,000

The Espar and Webasto units are easy to install, requiring at most five hours by a mechanically inclined owner-operator.

Commercial installation can range from $50 to $200. The heaters are also available from some truck makers and at most dealers.

There are two basic models of diesel-fueled air heaters on the market: Espar’s Airtronic D2 and Webasto’s Air Top 2000. Instead of guzzling the gallon of diesel per hour that idling consumes, they merely sip diesel (about 1 gallon every 20 hours) from a truck’s standard tanks and draw an insignificant amount of voltage from the truck’s electrical system. This produces enough heat to warm even the most cold-natured driver.

Both units come with a built-in thermostat and work in a similar manner. Air and diesel are drawn into a sealed heat exchanger, then ignited into a controlled flame. Air inside the sleeper is pulled into an intake duct, circulated by electric fan over the heat exchanger and blown out as hot air.

The units cost less when bought through a carrier’s group purchasing plan.

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