Anchorage offers drivers free cords, timers amid call to plug cars in

A yellow plug hangs from the front of a black truck
The Anchorage Health Department recommends plugging in engine block heaters when temperatures drop below 20 degrees. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

As Anchorage enters the heart of winter, the city is encouraging drivers to plug in engine block heaters and giving out free extension cords and timers to help.

“Plug @ 20” is a Municipality of Anchorage Health Department initiative that aims to reduce carbon monoxide pollution, which spikes in Anchorage’s residential neighborhoods on cold mornings.

Cold engines burn inefficiently, resulting in more of the poisonous emissions. That can be avoided, though, by pre-warming vehicles’ engines with an electric block heater.

“People that park outdoors, especially if they’re parking overnight, when the temperature falls below 20 degrees, we encourage them to plug in their vehicle for at least an hour prior to starting it,” said Matthew Stichick, an air quality specialist with the city.

Carbon monoxide, even in low concentrations, can be dangerous for anyone with heart or lung conditions, Stichick said. But cold-starting your car also affects the health of your vehicle. 

“The engine is protected by the engine oil to lubricate the piston rings and all the other internal components of the engine,” Stichick said. “And when the oil is very cold, it becomes very thick and syrupy.”

That highly viscous oil doesn’t flow through the engine as smoothly, so it can’t get to all the small components to lubricate them and prevent wear and tear. An engine block heater warms the oil and allows a vehicle’s interior to warm up quicker, too.

If you don’t already have a block heater installed, Stichick said, you don’t necessarily have to invest in one, especially for newer cars with better emission controls. But if you have one, it should be plugged in when the temperature outside is 20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, he said.

Stichick said 20 degrees is roughly the point that it becomes beneficial to plug in, and the colder it gets, the more important it becomes for both air quality and car maintenance. Above 20, engines aren’t getting cold enough for block heaters to make a noticeable difference, Stichick said.

The Health Department recommends plugging in for at least one hour for smaller cars and up to two for the biggest trucks, and the municipality is giving out timers to help residents avoid using more electricity than is beneficial.

Information about how to get a free timer or extension cord can be found at the local Plug @ 20 website.

Meanwhile, the National Weather Service is forecasting cooler temperatures in Anchorage this weekend, with overnight lows dipping just below zero.

a portrait of a man outside

Michael Fanelli reported on economics and hosted the statewide morning news at Alaska Public Media. 

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