Yes, Warm Your Damn Car Up If It's Cold

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Facebook, taken as a whole, is like having some pushy friend who has to give you advice on everything, then show you stacks of pictures of his lunches. And lately, that pushy friend has been telling you not to bother warming up your car in winter, and posting many articles explaining why. Should you believe him? Or look at his lunch pictures?

First, fuck the lunch pictures. You know what a hot dog or soup looks like. And as far as the car warming up goes, it seems that most of these anti-warming up articles are missing some huge points, and could be giving a potentially damaging message to most people, especially the vast majority that don't spend every waking moment thinking about cars and trying not to touch themselves. I'll explain.


The main thrust of most of these articles saying there's no need to warm up your car is that it's wasteful of fuel, creates needless pollution, and modern, fuel-injected cars just don't need to be warmed up to run well like old carbureted cars did. And, generally, these statements are all true — modern cars engine control computers are vastly better at managing the engine to run well even when cold, and, sure, if you idle the car for 20 minutes, you're not really accomplishing anything beyond turning gas into pollution.

But that's only a part of what's going on with your car when it's really cold. Even though these articles headlines proclaim there's no need to warm up your car, in the stories you can usually find that they say a short warm up of 30 seconds or so is okay. I'll go further — when it's really cold out, you'd be crazy not to warm up your engine for, say, at least a minute or two.


The reason has nothing to do with fuel or my latent desire to pollute your driveways — it has to do with oil. When your car has been sitting out overnight, all the lubricating oil that's coating all of the crucial, moving bits of the car has settled down to the bottom of the oil pan. When the temperatures are really cold, not only is that oil not near the areas it needs to be, its viscosity — ability to flow — has been severely impaired by the cold. You've seen how differently, say, refrigerated maple syrup flows compared to hot syrup — the oil is the same way.

So, when you start that cold engine, it's essentially running without lubrication. If you start up and immediately put a load on the engine, things could get damaged. It's just not ready to go. Take a minute or two to get that oil pumping around before putting any load on the engine, and your pistons and camshafts and turbos and other spinning, moving bits will be much, much happier.

Now, you don't need to idle for a half hour, but a few minutes just to get the fluids a bit thawed out is not a bad idea at all. Have a stick shift? Have you ever felt how sluggish the stick feels on a really cold morning? Think about all the components inside that housing, and how they're doing. Let the car have a moment to wake up and spread some warmth and fluids around.


Plus, while all those little explosions in the cylinders are making heat, that heat is being transferred to the coolant, which is then being piped through the heater core, which then can be blown into the passenger compartment so your lovely ass doesn't shatter like an ice sculpture shoved by a drunk bridesmaid. The heater's not magic — you have to make heat to get it blown onto your frozen face.

And, as far as the pollution and fuel waste goes, let's think about this on a larger, systems-level. Sure, if you idle for, say, three minutes, you're burning more fuel and polluting more. But if that three minutes heats up your oil and transmission fluid and prevents wear to your drivetrain, maybe your car will last, oh, 10,000 miles longer, which means more time to be used, which means less demand on the systems to make new parts or entire cars, less energy used, less fuel used in shipping, marketing, selling, etc. Keeping your car working well keeps it more efficient and less polluting as well. So, I think the three minutes of idle is at least a wash.


You and your machine are partners in the solemn task of getting your ass to work every cold, miserable morning. If you treat your car well, and give it a few minutes to get some heat into the system, get that oil splashing around, it'll treat you well, too.

Don't believe everything you see posted on Facebook. Except this one.