Idling away the profits

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Excessive idle time is a huge cost for most motor carriers. Engine idling burns unnecessary fuel and maintenance experts believe that it can shorten the life of an engine by 100,000 miles. Profits literally go up in smoke. Some never shut down their engines. They idle while sleeping – even when the weather is neither hot nor cold.

Fleet owners have tried for years to break drivers of this habit. Some, for example, install self-powered heaters so drivers don’t have to idle the truck when it is cold. But controlling temperature isn’t the only reason drivers idle engines. Many simply are in the habit of sleeping while listening to the white noise created by the engine idling. At a truck stop, an idling engine helps drown out the sound of a reefer unit firing up or the noise of trucks coming and going. So even if the truck has a heater, many drivers don’t use it.

The point is that if you expect minimal idling time, you are facing long odds. Try to have realistic expectations. Even if you can’t get drivers to turn off their engines while sleeping, you can significantly lower your fleet’s idling time.

The first step is to educate your drivers that today’s diesel engine wasn’t built for idling. Many senior drivers grew up when diesel engines were always idled. They pass the conventional wisdom along to younger drivers that you never shut off a diesel. Diesel engines used to be difficult to start when the temperature dipped into the single digits or lower. Today’s diesels will start easily except in extremely cold temperatures. Point out that not only does unnecessary idling waste money and fuel, but it also creates pollution. For some drivers, the environmental argument may be more successful than a plea to save you money.

Next, encourage drivers to turn off engines when clearly there is no need for them to be running. For example, if a driver takes his truck home for the weekend, there is no need for the truck to idle during that time. If the weather is cold or hot, the driver can start the engine 15 minutes ahead of time to get the cab warmed up or cooled down.

When a driver leaves the truck to go into a terminal, truck stop or customer facility, there’s no need to idle. This time may seem insignificant, but consider how many times during the day a driver is not in the truck. Just by getting drivers not to idle during the day, you might reduce idle time per truck by 1 to 2 hours or more.

This is one of the toughest habits to instill in drivers. A good starting point is to look for tractors idling in your terminal yard and tell their drivers to turn them off. You will be amazed at the number of tractors that are idling right at your terminal. Instruct dispatchers to ask drivers calling in from a truck stop or customer facility whether their tractors are idling.

Finally, measure idling time as a fleet and by individual drivers. The information is there in your engines’ electronic control modules. You just need a PC or laptop and the appropriate software to download it – investments that are well worth the money.

Some fleets pay bonuses to drivers for keeping idle time below a certain percentage. A small bonus may not be a big incentive, but such programs serve to warn drivers that you monitor idle time. If drivers haven’t paid much attention to idling time in the past, knowing that you are monitoring it will help to get idling time under control.

What’s the real cost?
Argonne National Laboratory estimates that the average long-haul truck idles away $1,790 a year in fuel costs and increased maintenance. That figure is based on data showing that Class 8 on-highway trucks average 6 hours of idling a day and 43 weeks of use per year.

Instead of idling, the laboratory, a U.S. Energy Department research facility, recommends use of auxiliary devices, such as direct-fired burners for cab and engine-block heating; thermal storage devices for heating and cooling; and auxiliary power units for heating, cooling and electrical power. Using these devices could reduce annual fuel costs by more than $1,500 and maintenance costs by over $275 per truck without sacrificing driver comfort or convenience, the laboratory says.

The laboratory has created an Excel worksheet to help truck owners and operators determine how much money they waste by idling. For more information and a link to the worksheet, visit

David Goodson is a management consultant specializing in the transportation industry. E-mail