Driving down idle time

by Truck News

Fleets and owner/operators looking to reduce idling to save money while maintaining comfort in the cab have multiple options to consider.

However, because of all the options out there, choosing the right anti-idle system for your operation can be tricky.

We asked several idle reduction system experts which of the three most popular idling alternatives – bunk heaters, gen-sets and battery-based systems – they think is best, what potential purchasers should be aware of when looking at their options, and which systems are really worth the dough.


Out of all the anti-idle options, the diesel powered APU is the most popular application right now, said Cettina Sciberras, sales operations manager at Reefer Sales. And it’s because the APU offers one whole complete package for driver comfort – it heats, it cools, and it provides power.

“It has five main features that we promote,” explained Sciberras. “It heats your bunk. It cools your bunk. It heats your engine so you don’t have a cold start in the winter. It charges the truck batteries so you don’t have any no-starts. And it also offers an electric port so you can run things like your microwave or TV or laptop.”

But with the easy convenience of the APU comes a loaded price tag, which is only increasing with the disparity between the Canadian and US dollars – a major con for those considering their anti-idle options.

This up-front price, however, is worth it according to Mike Forbes, technical specialist at Reefer Sales.

“The beautiful part of (an APU) is that it will save you money,” he said. “First and foremost because you do not have to waste fuel to run a huge diesel engine and secondly, it saves on the wear and tear on the engine because you’re not idling as much.”

Because APUs are such a pricey purchase, Sciberras and Forbes stressed that maintenance of the system is very important.

“From a warranty standpoint, there is an initial 50-hour service that needs to be done (on APUs),” said Forbes. “That 50-hour service is probably the most critical service if you want your warranty to continue and it’s the most overlooked service because it’s done at 50 hours. We have seen warranty claims rejected because customers didn’t do the 50-hour service and then at 2,000 hours, they have a problem.”

“Once you first do the install, and the truck goes running down the road with the vibrations and such and the change in temperature…we just want to make sure everything is still tight and nothing’s loosened so you don’t get any leaks and such. And that’s what the 50-hour service checks,” Sciberras added.

After the 50-hour service, APUs should go in for full-service maintenance every 1,000 hours, said Forbes.

Diesel-powered heaters

For those whose primary concern is keeping the bunk warm, the diesel-fired bunk heater is an attractive option because of its simplicity and lower price point. It can be coupled with an inverter to provide power, if necessary.

Bunk heaters weigh just six pounds compared to an APU, which weighs in at up to 400 lbs, and because of their compact design they can be installed in the tool compartment underneath the bunk rather than eating up valuable frame rail space. They’re also quieter than an APU.

“Drivers love them because they’re easy to operate,” said John Dennehy, vice-president, marketing and communications with Eberspaecher Climate Control Systems North America. “They act much like a home furnace; set the temperature, push a button and that’s it.”

Compared to battery-based systems, bunk heaters draw about one amp per hour rather than 30-60 amps. And there’s no bank of batteries to replace. Dennehy said testing has shown a bunk heater costs about $1.60 to run for eight hours (with diesel priced at $3.50/gallon) compared to $8.01 for an APU.

However, Forbes said that maintenance and regular use of bunk heaters is crucial.

“Diesel heaters are very susceptible to outside dirt, debris, and salt,” he explained. “So they need to be inspected at the very least once a year. And usually we say to do this in September and October before temperatures start to drop. A lot of people forget to run them in the off-months. So when diesel heaters sit for long periods of time without being used, the diesel fuel will sit inside the heater and the fuel will gum up and when they go to use it in November, it’ll cause issues.”

To prevent this from happening, Forbes says to take advantage of the system’s timer feature and schedule it to run each week for 15-30 minutes early Saturday or Sunday morning so you don’t need to think about it.

Battery-based systems

Brian Lawrence, a Canadian agent for Autoclima said he believes that battery-based systems are the future for anti-idling solutions.

“Are battery-based systems the future? Absolutely,” he said.  “What’s holding battery solutions back is batteries. If we get better battery solutions, then we could be in a position where we could get more run time per stopover. It’s the recharge time for the battery pack in between stopovers that is preventing the real growth of battery solutions in the marketplace.”

Lawrence believes that battery systems are superior to APUs because they don’t use fuel, need less maintenance and cost less.

“In the case of a battery solution…the yearly maintenance that should be required is just 10 hours of in-shop time to clean batteries up, check the batteries, check the condenser core for dust and that,” he said. “So it’s really 10 hours a year in the shop. The real cost of ownership for a battery solution is, you might require a second set of batteries within a five-year window. And that cost is around $1,000.

“But even if you need new batteries, overall a battery solution is a much cheaper option for fleets.”

Lawrence said this small price to pay for maintenance on a battery-powered system is dramatically different from the price you’d pay for maintenance on an APU even if it’ll save you money in the long run.

“We use an expression here that if you buy an APU… you’ll almost pay that price again in five years, because of the cost of fuel, because of the oil changes, etc. The costs really do add up,” he said.

One plus for the battery-based systems that Forbes added he sometimes hears from customers is that battery-systems are a lot less noisy than some diesel-powered APUs.

“With any diesel-powered APUs, you will have the engine running outside and that can get a little noisy,” he said.

Sciberras added that of her customers who choose to go the battery route, most know the climate they are going to be staying in.

“Most of our customers who choose batteries aren’t going long distance and they know the climate they’re going to stay in,” she said. “So the battery option works for them because they don’t need all the other benefits of the APU.”

Despite his loyalty to battery-based systems, Lawrence believes that APUs aren’t going away anytime soon.

“An APU will always get the job done,” he said. “I think they’ll always be in the market because they’re trusted and they really do their job well.” 

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  • A key component of driving down idle time is also related to how drivers perceive their non-essential idle time . With an easy to understand report from a well built ECM monitoring device (such as PeopleNet’s or Shaw’s devices) drivers can easily see where they are wasting fuel.