Beyond idling

Cummins says its ComfortGuard APU has a 1,000-hour oil-change interval, a 12,000-btu air conditioner and a 4,000/8,000-btu two-stage heater. It promises an average ROI of just more than a year.

Not idling is a point of pride for many truckers who long have realized the benefits of shutting down the engine. “The educated owner-operators, the true owner-operators, idle their trucks very little,” says independent owner-operator Gil Johnson of Bristol, Va., a 40-year industry veteran.

Idling has been a viable option during extreme weather, but much idling occurs at far milder temperatures. A recent survey showed the average owner-operator idles more than five hours a day, in all weather.

That’s the equivalent of an extra 18,000 yearly miles on your engine, according to Argonne National Laboratory. Cutting that idling to zero eliminates 18,000 miles of wear and tear while enabling you to extend your oil-drain interval and saving you more than $5,000 a year in fuel costs.

The choice to cut idling may not even be yours to make, as anti-idling laws and regulations proliferate in states, cities and counties nationwide. It’s possible that a nationwide no-idle law isn’t too far into the future.

There is equipment out there to help, but in-cab devices for engine-off air-conditioning and electricity require a significant capital investment, as well as fuel to power them in some cases and maintenance to keep them running. Are they worth it?

Following are return-on-investment analyses for each type of anti-idling device on the market. The ROI numbers are based on average stats culled from different sources, among them the annual Overdrive Owner-Operator Market Behavior Report, and assume an owner-operator who:

  • Drives 120,000 miles a year.
  • Idles on average 1,850 hours yearly.
  • Changes his oil every 15,000 miles at a cost of $150.
  • Buys fuel at $3.40 a gallon.
  • Gets 6 miles per gallon.
  • Overhauls his engine every 500,000 miles at a cost of $10,000.

The numbers also reflect an ROI based on complete elimination of idling. Where systems don’t quite achieve that goal, the numbers take into account the cost of supplementary options, such as IdleAire.

Your operation is unique, so it’s a good idea to run your own numbers. Online calculators can make this task very simple and, in some cases, quite thorough. (See “Measuring idle-reduction payback,” Page 46.)

Estimated price: $6,000-$11,000

ROI: 1.5 to 2.8 years

Advantages: They function independently from the truck’s HVAC and engine systems, with exceptions. Some even use built-in fuel tanks, rather than siphoning diesel from the main truck tanks. Most charge the truck’s batteries and electrically heat the truck’s block, ensuring easy cold cranking.

Disadvantages: Some drivers grouse about aux engines adding to noise or vibrations in the sleeper cab. Some units weigh as much as 500 pounds, and only a few states grant the federally recommended 400-lb. weight variance for APUs. They use slightly more fuel than other options.

Owner-operator Robert White of Northport, Ala., says he’s thankful for his Tridako PowerCube HC6000 APU genset, installed this past fall on his 2006 Freightliner Columbia. White has hauled auto parts from Michigan to the Mercedes-Benz plant in Vance, Ala., twice a week for nine years, hauling empty racks on the return trip. Before the APU, he regularly idled to keep warm during Michigan’s bitter winters.

“I’d take a break and idle the truck engine for 10 hours,” he says. “That’s 15 gallons of fuel. But with the PowerCube, I can use half that fuel.”

The genset APU market is populated by heavy hitters such as Alliance, Carrier Transicold, Cummins, IdleBuster, Kohler and RigMaster. And it’s forever growing and changing. Some of these stalwarts have changed their products in the past year in response to new, more restrictive California regulations or customer feedback.

RigMaster, based in Toronto, now offers the option of a general Tier-2 A engine for customers who drive pre-2007 trucks or who don’t intend to travel inside notoriously emissions-strict California, and a Tier-4 A engine that is California-compliant and can be fitted with a diesel particulate filter. “With that DPF, it will make for a greener APU,” says company spokeswoman Amy Egerter. All ’08 models also include a single serpentine belt drive to replace the generator and compressor belts, and improved heating and cooling capabilities, Egerter says.

Owner-operator Darlene Swift of Taylor Ridge, Ill., calls her RigMaster genset, which she’s had since 2005, her “right arm.” Before the RigMaster, Swift started many cold mornings with dead or low-wattage batteries. Now, whenever her truck batteries are low, the RigMaster automatically charges them up and then shuts itself off, she says.

That doesn’t mean she’s cut out all idling. Running in North Dakota, where temperatures drop to 40 degrees below zero, Swift is afraid to shut the truck down and risk frozen fuel lines. “Usually 10 below is as far as it goes,” she says; colder than that, and she idles.

Carrier Transicold’s ComfortPro will undergo tweaks later this year to lower its emissions output, a company spokesman says. On the market for two years, the $8,000-$9,000 ComfortPro features all the bells and whistles common to gensets – heating lines for the engine, battery-charging capability, multi-function control panel in the sleeper cab – plus an optional shore-power connector. With this option, drivers can plug in and power the HVAC with 110/120-volt grid power. Among other recent changes on the PC6000 model are a 60-amp alternator and 1,000-hour oil-change intervals.

The APU from Alliance Parts, a sister brand of Freightliner, Sterling and Western Star, will fit Class 8 trucks of all makes. The 3.5-kw generator uses a 7-hp Kubota engine and sips only a tenth of a gallon of diesel per hour. It puts out 10,000 btus of heat or 12,000 btus of air-conditioning.

“The APU integrates with the truck only through a supply and return line to the fuel tank,” the company boasts. “As a result, the Alliance APU does not violate any OEM warranties and will not cause wear and tear of the truck’s engine. With no inverter needed, the Alliance APU also greatly reduces wear and tear on truck batteries.”

Kohler Power Systems bills its unit as one of the smallest and lightest on the market at less than 250 pounds. The air-cooled 3APU-HC has an oil service interval of 500 hours. It uses 0.2 gallon per hour, running the HVAC on 25 amps. Launched in late 2007, it’s already undergoing changes to meet new regulations, including an add-on DPF due later this year. The company also introduced its new 7APU-HC at the Mid-America Trucking Show in March. The 7-kilowatt model is heavy, about 540 pounds, but Kohler says its under-the-bunk HVAC system will put out more power.

Necessary tweaks are what drew Tridako, based in Alliance, Neb., to the APU market, says company spokesman Mark Felker. “Our experts in engineering saw shortcomings” in other brands, he says. “We saw controls that were not reliable. We saw belt systems that were not reliable.” Drivers complained that APUs couldn’t uniformly heat or cool an entire cab, Felker says.

The resulting PowerCube model HC6000, at 500 pounds, may be heavier than many competing models, but it offers btu rates of 24,000 for cooling and 30,000 for heating. It operates on a two-cyclinder diesel engine and one fan rather than two. It has no external condenser unit and uses 0.4 gallon of fuel per hour.

Owner-operator White hasn’t tracked his exact PowerCube savings yet, but he hopes to cut his fuel use this year by a third. “Fuel is now over $3.50 per gallon, and when you take that into consideration, it’s a big savings,” White says.

Alliance APU

Carrier Transicold
(706) 357-7223

(800) 343-7357

(866) 438-4353

Kohler Power Systems
(800) 544-2444

(800) 249-6222

Tridako Energy Systems
(866) 526-7109

Estimated price: $7,900-$9,000

ROI: 1.3 to 2 years

Advantages: Many are lighter than most gensets, and most don’t require cutting extra vents into the sleeper or the use of precious under-the-bunk storage space, but rely on existing truck ventilation systems. They generally use less fuel than genset-type APUs.

Disadvantages: Most depend on the truck’s cooling and heating systems, so if the truck is inoperative, depending on the problem the APU might be inoperative as well.

In 1984, while waiting on a load in scorching Southwestern heat, Rex Greer was irritated to realize he was burning a gallon of fuel per hour just to run the air conditioner. The enterprising owner-operator set out to build his own generator that would piggyback off the truck’s HVAC system without using the rig’s big-bore engine.

Greer then built his own integrated auxiliary power unit. Such devices air-condition cabs and sleepers more efficiently, he says, using the truck’s existing HVAC vents to direct airflow. Gensets have limited ventilation placement, he adds.

At last month’s Mid-America Trucking Show, Greer’s Pony Pack was to share floor space with integrated and genset APU makers in the SmartWay pavilion, named for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SmartWay Transport Partnership. But Greer says the environment wasn’t his primary concern 24 years ago. Rather, it was wasted fuel and upkeep costs on his $30,000 engine.

Greer says his device is less intrusive than most. “The only thing that goes into the truck is the control pad,” installed in the dashboard for the driver’s convenience, he says. “If you bought a brand-new car, would you want to cut holes in it?” Some integrated systems, however, require heaters and evaporators to be installed under the bunk.

The Pony Pack 200 weighs roughly 400 pounds and uses a two-cylinder Kubota diesel engine with a Ford 110-amp alternator. The device uses only 1.5 pints of fuel per hour at most settings, Greer says. At the 2008 MATS, Greer was scheduled to introduce a compact, more powerful APU that can be installed in two smaller areas on the rig rather than one large block roughly 2 feet long.

Thermo King offers the 430-pound “hybrid” TriPac APU, combining genset-like elements for a greater level of integration to provide all the essentials with a 12-volt onboard power source and an optional 120-volt household electrical power plug-in. The unit pushes out 13,000 btus of air-conditioning per hour in a system mostly independent of the truck; its fuel-fired bunk heater has a capacity of 7,500 btu. Installed on the frame rail, the rear cab wall and under the bunk, the TriPac uses 0.04 to 0.14 gallon of diesel per hour. It sells for just under $9,000.

Owner-operator Barry McCauley of Durham, N.C., told Overdrive in 2007 that he boosted mpg from 6 to 8.5 on his 2007 Volvo 780, in part because of his TriPac. “I have zero idling with my truck, and I only use the TriPac for temperature control,” he said.

Thermo King also sought out a niche with its extreme Arctic package. “We added an oil-pan heater and an in-line coolant heater so when the temperature does drop, this helps ensure cold-weather engine starting with minimal wear,” says Tom Kampf, project manager.

Auxiliary Power Dynamics makes the Willis APU, which contains an alternator, an air-conditioner compressor and a heat exchanger to circulate coolant. The roughly $8,000, 435-pound unit operates off an engine that uses less than a quart of diesel per hour at its lowest setting. As with all APUs, the more strain on the unit – running HVAC and electrical appliances, plus exterior cab lights, for example – the greater the fuel use.

Pony Pack
(505) 243-1381

Thermo King
(952) 887-2200

(800) 825-4631

Estimated price: $4,000-$11,000

ROI: 0.8 to 2.3 years

Advantages: The systems are quiet, almost completely pollution-free, and satisfy even California’s emissions regulations with virtually no maintenance other than cleaning and replacing air filters.

Disadvantages: Depending on system configuration, batteries are limited in most cases to just over 10 consecutive hours of full power when running air-conditioning. Shore power occasionally may be a necessity for haulers restarting their hours away from home.

The most recent arrival to the anti-idling scene, comprehensive systems powered by Group 31-size absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries, has been slow to capture a significant portion of the owner-operator market. But the reliability of these systems, many of which are capable of sustaining 10 hours of continuous heating or cooling without any engine support whatsoever, has them poised as the way of the future.

Owner-operator Wayne Baker runs a 2002 Peterbilt 379 outfitted with Bergstrom’s NITE System, offered today as a factory install on Freightliners and in the aftermarket on other makes. With four batteries mounted in a box on the frame rail, Baker’s NITE System runs an air-conditioning unit under the bunk with air ducts outfitted behind an addition to the wall in the rear of the sleeper. It’s coupled with a fuel-fired cab heater that works well, Baker says. “You could close the curtain, and you can bake cookies in here it gets so hot.”

He’s been through two winters and a summer with the system, and like his partner, Darlene Swift, who owns a RigMaster APU, the only idling he’s done has been this winter up in North Dakota at 20 to 30 below zero. “We’re afraid of turning the truck off in weather like that,” he says. He’s contemplating buying a fuel-fired block heater to keep the engine warm in extreme situations.

The NITE System requires an alternator with at least 30 amps of extra charging power to ensure full recharge. That likely will mean a 165-amp alternator for owner-operators with 2006 and older engines, 175-amp or greater for newer trucks.

Dometic Environmental, which launched its own line of fully customizable battery-powered anti-idling systems in 2007, goes further than that, recommending that owner-operators of larger sleeper trucks who need a full 10 hours of air-conditioning spec a system with an externally regulated alternator capable of 270 amps. Dometic’s Lou Siegel tells the story of a small-fleet operator who, against Siegel’s advice, kept his 165-amp alternators on his five trucks and then regretted it. “When we got him set up with our alternators, he said the difference was like night and day,” Siegel says.

Skepticism among owner-operators is driven largely by the fear that battery systems will encroach on cranking power. But following the lead of truck makers such as Kenworth, which introduced its Clean Power battery system in 2007, all the comprehensive systems out there use cutoff systems so that power never drops below a user-specified level reserved for cranking.

In the NITE System, as the main batteries reach their full voltage after startup, a separator automatically switches the alternator’s output to the auxiliary batteries, says Bill Gordon, sales director. But, he adds: “There are cases where, if the starting batteries are shot, it will take quite a while to charge them.” If you’re keeping your starting batteries, be sure they’re in good working order.

“A very conservative driver would say, ‘I want to reserve two batteries for cranking,'” Dometic’s Siegel says. “That might put them with as many as 10 batteries total on their truck with one of these systems. We’ve tried to talk them out of that. Each AGM battery [in Dometic’s system] has 950 cold-cranking amps of capability. Regular truck batteries have about 600 or 650 amps.”

While you might jump to the conclusion that all you need are a few extra batteries and an auxiliary air conditioner to make your own battery-powered cool air, Siegel cautions that it’s not that simple. “They really have to be designed to work together as a system,” he says.

All the same, some individuals have done just that, and at least one of the battery-powered systems on the market today was designed by an owner-operator. Robert Jordan, Overdrive 2006 Trucker of the Year, invented the Idle Free system now offered by Mack as a factory or after-market install. It’s similar to the others, but Jordan’s patented Reefer Link allows the alternator in the reefer to continuously supply power to the batteries while the truck is parked and the reefer’s running.

The full Idle Free system, with a fuel-fired heater, a shore-power-ready inverter/charger, four AGM batteries and an auxiliary AC unit, might add $11,000 to the price of a new truck, says Terry Garsey, sales manager at Indiana Truck Sales & Service. But factory-installed durability is worth it, Garsey says: “It’s just like a 10-year battery. It’s made to run the life of the truck.”

Battery life cycles depend largely on the number of charge cycles they go through, says Dometic’s Siegel. If you use them hard only in the summer, a long battery life lies ahead.

Bergstrom NITE System
(866) 204-8570

Dometic Environmental
(804) 746-1313

Idle Free
(920) 206-6900

Kenworth Clean Power
(425) 828-5000

Fuel-fired heater: $800 to $2,000; ROI 2.5 to 6 months

Shore power possibly supplemented with aux HVAC equipment: Price varies; ROI immediately to 2 years

Solar with battery power: $4,000-$7,000; ROI 1 to 1.3 years

Advantages: Low capital cost; little or no environmental impact

Disadvantages: These alternatives largely are incomplete in and of themselves and require elements of other systems. Shore power isn’t widely available nationwide.

With a proven track record in Europe and Canada, cab heaters are a prime choice for Northern U.S. haulers. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” says independent Gil Johnson of Bristol, Va., of his Espar cab heater, purchased more than two years ago.

Many owner-operators agree with him. While complete in-cab climate solutions have been long in coming and the battle for the no-idle market has been fractious, fuel-fired cab heaters such as those made by Espar and Webasto rule the roost for simple heating options and rapid ROI.Espar estimates that its unit uses less than a half gallon of diesel per eight-hour period.

Johnson bought his for just $1,200 in 2006. “I calculated that winter I had it paid for by February 2007.” Others might do better than that, he adds, as he’s seen models going for $875 or less, and fuel prices have gone much higher.

Heaters don’t help in hot weather, so the listed ROI reflects a year-round climate control solution that includes IdleAire use in the summer, increasing the estimated time to return the investment.

Most of the battery-based systems are compatible with fuel-fired heaters, and many – including Idle Free, Kenworth Clean Power and the NITE System – actually recommend a heater.

Owner-operator Mike Soper, leased to tank hauler Suttles Truck Leasing of Demopolis, Ala., spent $3,100 for Espar cab and block heaters. “I figured with running the Northern states, I will not have the need for AC as much as I would heat,” he says. “I will make use of IdleAire as much as possible in the summer months.”

Unlike some shore-power stations, IdleAire comes with its own heating and air-conditioning options. With a Gold membership ($10, for six months), an hour of basic service is $1.85. If your truck’s already outfitted with an inverter, the price of diesel means the return on that $1.85 IdleAire investment is instant.

With an inverter/charger similar to those made by Xantrex and an auxiliary AC unit, plugging into shore power as your primary anti-idling source is itself an ever-more-viable option.

Another new option, Paddock Solar, was developed by independent air-freight owner-operator Ray Paddock. The invention started as a solar panel that fit on the roof of a certain condo-type sleeper, wired to keep the truck’s starting batteries charged while allowing enough power to run in-cab appliances. But as California requirements kept tightening, Paddock looked for ways to make his solar panel a viable battery-based alternative.

Paddock Solar is a fully modular design adaptable to fit different operations. The initial piece – the Maximizer control unit, similar to the separator in the NITE System – can cost as little as $350. As in other battery-based systems, the operator can control the reserve starting power desired to ensure a safe cranking threshold.

“It’s non-parasitic on the starting batteries,” says Paddock, adding that it needs only two AGM batteries to power in-cab appliances and a Redtech/Tundra International DC air conditioner.

Also, it utilizes the charging power of the sun, making it perhaps the greenest of all power solutions out there. “That’s the beauty of the system,” Paddock says. When you’re stuck in Phoenix in mid-summer waiting out a 34-hour restart, at least part of that time the sun will help charge the system to keep it running beyond the typical 10 hours.

Cost of the total package, including a fuel-fired heater for cloudy winter days, will run $4,000 to $6,000, Paddock says, with a single solar panel costing more than $1,000. It’s a rather lightweight system, with only two additional batteries plus 30 pounds for each solar panel. Before he gave up his operating authority and sold his Sterling, Paddock had four panels on it.

The units soon will be available along the I-5 corridor from Cascade Sierra Solutions, a West Coast nonprofit that provides low-interest financing for owner-operators looking to invest in environmental technologies. “I’m very passionate about it,” Paddock says. “The independent truckers are the ones I’ve built this for.”

(800) 387-4800

(877) 738-7024

Paddock Solar
(888) 793-9899

(810) 593-6000
–Todd Dills and Steven Mackay