Exploring my idle reduction options

by Mark Lee

I had thought long and hard before I took the leap into becoming an owner/operator, to the point where I was certain about which truck I was going to buy, how long I was going to keep it, where I would get it serviced, who I was going to lease on with and which areas I wanted to run.

But there was one thing I was still undecided about: idle reduction technology. I was certain that I did not want to idle my truck. That is just not an option on the newer engines – the emission control systems do not respond well to idling and the last thing I want to do is tempt fate. I may have a full warranty, but I do not want to put it to the test with something that could be prevented.

The alternatives to idling are not cheap, but neither is idling. My truck uses about half an imperial gallon of fuel per hour of idling, so in the heat of summer or the depths of winter that could well mean 30 to 40 gallons of fuel a week, so that’s a cost of around $150 on diesel alone.

Multiply that by 20 to cover an extreme winter (this is Canada, after all) and a reasonable summer and that’s $3000 taken care of. Three grand is not a fortune, but it’s on par with a fuel mileage loss of 0.5 mpg and that sheds a completely different light on the subject.

Three grand a year over the projected four years of my ownership of the truck just so happens to work out to the same price as having a diesel-powered auxiliary power unit (APU) fitted, so it’s a wash – except it isn’t.

An APU also requires servicing and routine maintenance, but those costs can be put against the increased wear and tear and increased frequency of servicing the big engine, so as a ballpark figure you can say it’s still a wash.

But this is not just a simple pen and paper exercise. The cost of an emissions system breakdown can run into thousands, even if it is covered by warranty. The chances of a breakdown happening in my yard are pretty slim, so I’ll be out on the road somewhere; at best I’ll lose a day’s revenue, at worst it could be a week or more. This would likely require the load I’m under to require repowering and the cost of that could be passed on to me. Then there are hotel bills and other unexpected expenses.

Of course I can always stay out and make up the lost time and corresponding revenue, but I don’t want to have to do that.

The whole reason for buying a truck was to give my family a better life and while some days my wife would tell you she wishes I was out on the road longer, deep down she doesn’t really mean it. Well, maybe she does, but that’s a whole different story.

Okay, so I’m joking a little there, but the point I’m making is a serious one. We’re out there for long periods of time as it is, so prolonging that is not something any of us really want to do.  We may do it to earn a little more, but to have to do it puts it up near the top of my list of things I don’t want to do, right up there with going in a submarine. And believe me, I really would put up a fight if you tried to get me in a submarine.

Now my reference to submarines wasn’t as random as it first appears. You see, a submarine uses its main power source to produce and store electricity to power its ancillaries, so I considered that method.

I could hook up a separate bank of batteries and use them to power the bunk heater in winter and a small portable air conditioner for the summer. I could fit a block heater to help cold starting and even run a heating element on the main batteries to ensure they had plenty of juice on a cold winter’s morning, or I could even go the whole hog and buy an electric APU. Either method would be cheaper than a diesel APU – both to purchase and operate – so instead of it being a break even, it would actually save me money and every penny I save is pure profit.

The winter part of it scares me though. Yes, a bunk heater is more than capable of keeping me warm, but if we have a winter like the one we’ve just experienced and I’m sat for a day or two because of a shutdown, that electricity is going to dwindle down to the point that I need to fire up the big engine and we come full circle back to the potential problems that idling can cause.

So I’m getting a diesel-powered APU. I’ve narrowed my choices down to two manufacturers; they both have a good dealer network, they’re both very involved with the small diesel engine market and they’re both around the same price.

It looks like I’m going to have to toss one of the Loonies I’ll be saving and let that decide for me. I just need to decide which one is heads and which one is tails.

A fourth generation trucker and trucking journalist, Mark Lee uses his 25 years of transcontinental trucking in Europe, Asia, North Africa and now North America to provide an alternative view of life on the road. 

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