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Should You Warm Up Your Car in the Winter?

And what about warming up an electric car?

Car engine start/stop button
Tom Wang/Shutterstock.com

With the frigid cold months here, you’re probably wondering whether or not you should warm up your gas car in the winter before driving. It’s a decades-old myth and something you’ve probably heard repeatedly.

I understand the appeal of getting into a warm car with the heater running and windows defrosted when it’s freezing outside, but you’re not actually doing your engine any good. You’ve probably heard the saying that it’s good for your vehicle to warm it up, but that’s a myth. And what about electric cars? Should you warm up an EV before driving?

Depending on what electric car you drive, letting it warm up and “precondition” the battery can improve performance and range for several reasons. So, here’s what you need to know about warming up a gas-powered or electric car in the winter.

Is Warming Up a Car Good For the Engine?

Car warming up with blue exhaust

Yes, but also no. While it’s undoubtedly a good idea to briefly warm up your car engine on a freezing winter day, it’s not nearly as big of a deal as some people make it. Most experts and auto manufacturers recommend letting an engine warm up for only around 20-30 seconds before you start driving. Yes, that’s less than a minute.

By the time you start the car, get situated, put on a seat belt, plug in your phone, or change the radio station, you’re good to go. Modern vehicles only take a few seconds to lubricate the engine thoroughly.

Anything beyond 30 seconds is a waste unless you’re trying to warm up the cabin for comfort reasons. Unless you have an older vehicle with a carbureted engine, there’s no real reason or benefit from letting it warm up for 10-15 minutes before you head to work or start driving. Give it 30 seconds, and you’re good to go.

According to PopularMechanics, newer vehicles (think the 1980s and above) use sensors to adjust fuel trims and mixtures, and letting your car idle to “warm up” doesn’t even warm the engine enough to make a difference. It would be best if you started driving to increase temperatures.

Here’s Why You Shouldn’t Warm Up Your Car

electric car driving in snowy mountains
Maurizio Fabbroni/Shutterstock.com

Not only is letting a car sit and idle for 10 minutes not doing you any favors, but it’s wasteful, can potentially harm your engine, and in some states, it’s against the law.

On newer vehicles, the system handles everything electronically. When a car sits idle for long periods, all that unnecessary fuel can actually cut down on the oils and lubricants, doing more harm than good. Plus, all you’re doing is wasting gasoline and polluting the environment.

Even on extremely cold days, letting the engine warm up for more than a minute doesn’t do any good. Automakers and experts say that idling doesn’t do enough to make a difference after 30 seconds or a minute max, and the only way to warm up the engine is to put it in gear and start driving.

More importantly, many states have something known as “anti-idling laws” to cut down on warming up vehicles for environmental reasons. This is because, as stated above, it isn’t very beneficial. Depending on where you live, you could get cited for leaving a car idling in the driveway for ten minutes.

Even if you’re only warming up your vehicle to ensure the heater is ready to go when you start a commute, the fastest way to get the engine hot enough to deliver warm air inside is to drive the vehicle. Idling can and will get the lubricants to the proper temperature, but it’ll take upwards of 20 minutes for the car to get warm enough for the heater to be where you want. So, start driving within a minute, deal with the cold for a second, and you’re all set.

Warming Up an Electric Car in the Winter

Tesla superchargers in the winter snow
Ingrid Maasik/Shutterstock.com

Interestingly, there are several benefits to starting an electric car before you drive and letting it warm up, but not in the way you probably thought. Another common myth is that electric cars struggle in the cold, get terrible range, and could leave you stranded during a cold winter storm or traffic jam. Like most myths, this is also false.

Using the heater in a gas vehicle will lower your MPG, and the same happens in an electric car. More importantly, an EV doesn’t have a hot engine blowing warm air into the cabin, so you’ll use more battery to warm up the steering wheel, seats, or interior.

So, starting your electric car before you unplug it and leave the house can warm up the interior without draining the battery. Most EVs will let you turn on the climate controls and other things from an app on your phone, too, meaning you can stay warm and cozy inside while warming up an EV.

And on some electric vehicles, like a Tesla, the battery management system can help. According to Tesla’scold weather best practices,” warming up an EV before you leave the house has several benefits. For one, the system will heat up moving parts, including the door handles, windows, mirrors, and wipers that sometimes freeze during the winter.

Furthermore, Tesla’s battery management system can warm up and precondition the battery for improved performance and range, not to mention warm up the steering wheel, seats, and cabin before you leave the house. Owners can even hit the “schedule” button on the infotainment screen to schedule a departure and let the system do everything automatically. This way, you’ll have a warm vehicle and a full battery.

Using the schedule button helps during winter driving, too. That’s because the system warms the battery to ideal operating temperatures to improve charging speeds and efficiency once you reach a Supercharger station.

In closing, yes, warming up your gasoline-powered or electric vehicle has its benefits, but it’s not nearly as big of a deal as some make it. Your gas-powered car only needs about 30 seconds before you’re good to drive, and electric vehicles can also benefit from the practice in a few ways. That said, it’s always a good idea to check the owner’s manual for additional information.

Cory Gunther Cory Gunther
Cory Gunther has been writing about phones, Android, cars, and technology in general for over a decade. He's a staff writer for Review Geek covering roundups, EVs, and news. He's previously written for GottaBeMobile, SlashGear, AndroidCentral, and InputMag, and he's written over 9,000 articles. Read Full Bio »