Remote starts warm bodies, save gas

Convenience for some, necessity for others

By Ryan Welton, Staff writer

It's been many years since Dallas-area resident C.L. Nathanson left the bitter cold winters of Winnipeg for the bearable facsimiles in Texas. However, she recalls the 45-below-zero temperature in Manitoba the very day she vacated Canada.

"Never again," she said.

Nathanson talks about Portage and Main, an intersection in Winnipeg's banking district that is reputed to be the windiest in all of Canada. Skies could be sunny and clear, making one think the Canadian air to be bearable.

"But the air was so cold, it would freeze your lungs," Nathanson said.

Nathanson said many Canadians have remote car starters, devices that send signals that start their vehicles defrosting and heating while the people stay inside, a must in the Great White North that is more and more in demand in the U.S.

"It all boils down to the perceived value of the customer," said Mitch Schaffer, who has sold and installed remote car starters in eastern Pennsylvania since 1994. "It doesn't just boil down to being lazy," Schaffer said.

Starters May Save Gas

He said that the time required to walk outside, start a car and wait for it to warm up is the same as if a person were to start the car from an inside location. The benefit is in not having to bundle up, crawl inside a freezing vehicle and do the dirty work yourself.

"I use mine every day (in the winter)," he said.

In fact, having a remote car starter might just save drivers money by improving gas mileage during colder months, he said. Because oil reduces the friction required to make a car engine run, and because oil thickens in cold weather, an engine not properly warmed up will have to work harder once you're on the road reducing gas mileage.

Some residents in cold-weather states use block heaters to warm engines, allowing drivers to start their cars without long periods of fuel-wasting idling. However, a driver without a remote car starter still has to walk outside to start the car.

"It's basically a comfort thing," he said.

For Kati Armbruster, though, having a device to start her car automatically is more than a requirement for comfort. Her family lives in Fairbanks North Star Borough of Alaska, where it's not unusual to see temperatures dip to 50 below zero.

"That means nothing warms up well, even with an auto-start," she said.

Armbruster said people in Alaska who don't have heated garages have to keep their vehicles plugged in to allow a block heater, battery pad and an oil-pan heater to work their collective magic.

She noted that most folks there, during the winter, have to plan ahead for trips by as much as four hours.

"Most people have their cars on timers so that two to four hours before they're due to leave, the heat comes on in those warming pads to get the engine ready," Armbruster said.

Armbruster recently got a remote car starter for her newest car, but her husband's vehicles have had auto-start capabilities the past four years. She said they use it about 15 minutes before they plan to drive and for even less time if it's warm out, such as 20 degrees, which is a balmy day for that part of the country during the winter.

"Using it more than needed is a useless waste of gas, but it's certainly better to have one following a long grocery trip at 40-below or after a long night at work. Standing around or sitting in a car at that temp, waiting for it to warm up, is nearly suicidal," Armbruster said.

How Much Does It Cost?

Schaffer said the cost to install a remote car starter system can vary wildly. There are different models and styles of these systems, and there are a wide variety of options for each.

For example, remote car starters can activate heated seats, keyless entry, rear-window defrosters and trunk openers. Some even offer two-way starters, which send a signal from the car back to the remote device telling the driver whether the car is actually on or not, an important feature for anybody far away from a parked car or with a hard-to-start engine, Schaffer explained.

However, Schaffer said drivers can spend anywhere between $225 and $1,000 for an installed system. He warns, however, that installing these systems are significantly more complicated than something such as a stereo.

"Make sure wherever they buy their remote starter is where they get it installed," he said. "Not any old mechanic can install a remote car starter."

Schaffer says the potential problems caused by a poorly installed system include bogus check-engine lights and computer issues.

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