The biggest myth about warming up your car in winter is doing your engine more harm than good

Why You Don't Really Need To Warm Up Your Car In Winter

Harsh driving conditions in winter are already hard on your car, but you could be making things a lot worse.

If you're one of the many drivers who thinks it's important to idle your car, or turn it on and let it "warm up," in frigid winter months to protect the engine, you've likely fallen victim to a myth that's may be doing more harm than good.

We spoke with mechanical engineer and former drag-racer Stephen Ciatti about the pervasive myth that you need to warm up your car in the winter.

For the last 26 years, Ciatti has worked on combustion engines — engines that generate power from burning fuel, like gasoline — and currently oversees all of the combustion engine work at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois.

To get straight to the point, Ciatti said that idling your car in the cold not only wastes fuel, but it's also stripping oil from critical components that help your engine run, namely the cylinders and pistons.

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The biggest myth about warming up your car in winter is doing your engine more harm than good
LUBBOCK, TEXAS - DECEMBER 27: A highway worker tries to shield himself while walking to his truck on December 27, 2015 in Lubbock, Texas. Coming on the heels of several strong tornadoes, some northern parts of Texas are experiencing blizzard conditions with wind gusts up to 50 mph and as much as 13 inches of snow forecast. (Photo by John Weast/Getty Images)
NEDERLAND, CO - DECEMBER 15: Steve Hauser plows snow in the Caribou Shopping Center in Nederland, Colorado on December 15, 2015. Snow is expected to continue throughout the day. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
NEDERLAND, CO - DECEMBER 15: A yellow lab waits patiently in his owner's snowy old truck along East 1st Street in Nederland, Colorado on December 15, 2015. Snow is expected to continue throughout the day. The dog looked warm and didn't wait long in the car as his owner returned shortly after an errand in the town. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DEC. 15: Anna Renton, 7, right, relaxes while neighbor Graham Langner, 7, has a snow fight with his nanny, Ashely Kish.The Denver metro area received more snow than expected overnight, closing schools across the city with some areas measuring a foot of snow by the early morning. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
LAKEWOOD, CO - DECEMBER 15: Crut Liles clears snow from his walkways outside his home in Lakewood, December, 15, 2015. Many schools in the area are closed due to the snow storm. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - DEC. 15: A CDOT crew runs their plow truck southbound on Colorado Blvd. near E. 13th Ave. in Denver. The Denver metro area received more snow than expected overnight, closing schools across the city with some areas measuring a foot of snow by the early morning. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Al Frelk walks his dog, Shiba, 10, in Lords Park in Elgin, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015. Asked about the snow, Frelk said, 'It's beautiful, but can be tough to drive in. Though Shiba has been waiting 9 months for this.' The first winter storm of the season dropped more than 10 inches of snow at numerous Chicagoland locations. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 17: Snow hit the Denver metro area having an impact on air travel at Denver International Airport. They were clearing out from the snow on Tuesday, November 17, 2015. Raul Hernandez shovels snow in the economy lot. Hernandez and his crew had worked all night to clear snow. (Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
LAKEWOOD, CO - NOVEMBER 11: Brandon Nelli, a student at Colorado Christian University in Lakewood, shovels snow during a Veteran's Day snow storm the moved into the area overnight, November, 11, 2015. Lakewood got almost 3 inches in some areas form the storm. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11: A blanket of white snow covers Fort Logan National Cemetery during a Veteran's Day snow storm the moved into the area overnight, November, 11, 2015. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
MONUMENT, CO. - November 17: Bob Swift clearing his driveway of a deep drift of snow in Monument, CO. November 17, 2015 Monument, CO (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
An above-average amount of snow covers a small cabin near where the first snow survey of winter conducted by the California Department of Water Resources in Phillips, California December 30, 2015. REUTERS/Fred Greaves
Cameron Shonnard backflips a jump at Squaw Valley in Olympic Valley, California, December 5, 2015. An El Nino is forecasted for California, and regular precipitation has been welcomed after years of drought. REUTERS/Max Whittaker TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Fresh snow clings to trees near Big Bend, California, December 4, 2015. An El Nino is forecasted for California, and regular precipitation has been welcomed after years of drought. Picture taken December 4. REUTERS/Max Whittaker
The U.S. Capitol dome can be seen behind piles of snow removed from parking areas and walkways around the Capitol grounds in Washington January 26, 2016. The snowbound Washington area was resuming partial business on Tuesday as trains and buses restarted near-normal service, while federal offices remained closed following a massive blizzard that hammered the U.S. East Coast. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Floodwaters cover Green Avenue after a winter storm in Manasquan, New Jersey, January 24, 2016. A morning high tide surge of 2 feet followed snowfall of about 2 feet in the first major storm of the season. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter
A couple poses for a photo on a snow pile during a snow storm in Times Square in the Manhattan borough of New York, January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, UNITED STATES - 2016/02/15: Snow is once again falling across Washington, D.C on Monday, 15 February 2016. The bitter cold was replaced by snow, sleet and rain Monday in the mid-Atlantic states and the South, but many residents were able to hunker down at home with federal offices and many businesses closed for Washington's Birthday. (Photo by Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A barn painted with the U.S. flag is seen in the snow covered field in Kanawha, Iowa, United States, January 16, 2016. Iowa will be the first state to hold its primary, with both Democratic and Republican events being held February 1, 2016. Picture taken January 16, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young
Police officers gather outside the Montgomery County Courthouse, where actor and comedian Bill Cosby will arrive for a preliminary hearing on sexual assault charges, in Norristown, Pennsylvania February 2, 2016. Cosby has been charged with the 2004 sexual assault of Andrea Constand, a former women's basketball team manager at Temple University in Philadelphia, Cosby's alma mater. REUTERS/Mark Makela REUTERS/Mark Makela
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How it works

Under normal conditions, your car engine runs on a mixture of air and vaporized fuel, gasoline in this case. When that mixture enters a cylinder, a piston compresses it, which — at the risk of oversimplifying — generates a combustion event, powering the engine.

But when it's cold outside, gasoline is less likely to evaporate. Your car compensates for this initially by adding more gasoline to the air-vapor mixture — what Ciatti calls running "rich" — and that's where the problem begins. Here's an animation that shows how pistons drive the cylinders in your car to generate a combustion event:

"That's a problem because you're actually putting extra fuel into the combustion chamber to make it burn and some of it can get onto the cylinder walls," Ciatti said. "Gasoline is an outstanding solvent and it can actually wash oil off the walls if you run it in those cold idle conditions for an extended period of time."

Over time, that washing action can "have a detrimental effect on the lubrication and life of things like piston rings and cylinder liners," which are critical to running the cylinders and pistons that breathe life into your engine, Ciatti said.

The bottom line: Contrary to popular belief, idling your car does not prolong the life of your engine, rather it shortens it.

A simple solution

Thankfully, your car doesn't run rich the entire winter. It only happens when the gasoline is cold. Once your engine warms up to about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the car transfers to normal fuel consumption rates.

So you might think by idling your car, you're warming it up, which will prevent this problem. But don't confuse warm air coming from your car's radiator with a warm engine. Idling is, in fact, the root of the problem.

"Idling isn't really getting the engine up to temperature, and until that happens the little brain box on the engine is going to keep sending rich fuel mixture to the cylinders so that it can ensure that enough is evaporated for a consistent combustion event."

The fastest way to warm your engine up is to use it, aka drive!

Some might tell you that the power steering fluid — the oil that pushes on pumps enabling you to control the car's wheels — might be too cold to flow properly. To that, Ciatti said no way.

"You will get the oil warmer, faster so that it's flowing exactly the way it's intended if you drive the car lightly reasonably quickly [after turning it on], within say 30 seconds to a minute," Ciatti said. "The power steering pump is certainly going to groan a little bit ... but idling the car for five minutes isn't doing a thing for the power steering fluid. Nothing. You're not making the power steering fluid do anything because you're not steering and moving the pump."

In the time it takes you to scrape the snow and ice off of your windows, your car will be ready to go.

Don't gun it

Be gentle with the gas pedal at first. It takes time for your engine to warm up once you step on the gas — between five to fifteen minutes depending on driving conditions — and you'll put unnecessary stress on the it if you go racing down the road immediately after turning your car on.

Moreover, because your car is going to run a bit rich before the engine reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit, you're going to get lower gas mileage than usual.

In fact, your car will be at least 12% less efficient at burning fuel when it's cold, according to the Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department.

If you put your pedal to the metal straight out of the driveway, you're just wasting gas, MIT mechanical engineer John Heywood told Business Insider.

"[Idling] does of course use fuel, and the bigger the engine, the more fuel," he said.

Roots of a myth

Some myths die hard, and the notion that you need to idle your car in the cold is no exception. The basis for this thinking extends to an age when car engines relied on carburetors.

Before 1980, carburetors were the heart that kept car engines pumping.

From the 1980s onward, however, electronic fuel injection took over and is still what powers today's car engines.

The key difference is that electronic fuel injection comes with a sensor that feeds the cylinders the right air-fuel mixture to generate a combustion event. Carburetor-run cars lacked this important sensor.

Therefore, if your gasoline was too cold, your car wouldn't run rich, it would simply stall out. In those days, it was important to get the carburetor warm before driving. But those frustrating times met their end long ago, and so too should pointless idling.

Yes, you're going to be cold during the first few minutes it takes your radiator to warm up and start blowing air that feels comfortable. But you'll be saving yourself fuel as well as a lot of time and money.

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