Saturday, January 12, 2008

Time to Plug In

Before I moved to Alaska, I lived for many years in Washington State. Occasionally I would see a vehicle on the road there with an electrical plug sticking out of the front grill. At first I thought it was most odd, but someone enlightened me that the plug meant that that vehicle had spent time in Alaska, where all vehicles have electrical plugs.

The plugs connect to one or more heating elements which must be installed to protect the vehicle’s motor during severe cold. The very minimum is to have a block heater which warms the engine block. The ideal is also to have an oil pan heater and a battery blanket. At -20F, motor oil has the consistency of something like mayonnaise, and cannot lubricate the moving parts as they need to be. All three elements are usually routed to a common plug which sticks out the front of the vehicle’s grill, ready to plug in.

Common wisdom around here is that you know it is time to plug in when your truck’s bench seat feels like a wooden church pew. After sitting overnight in the cold (meaning below zero mostly, but certainly below -10F) a vehicle needs at least an hour of plug-in time before being cranked; two hours are better and three are great. After two hours the oil is nice and slooshy and the battery has full juice. Of course, the engine is still cold, so the heater is a long way from warming the interior. Dutch and I crank the trucks at least a half hour before we plan to leave, with the defrosters going full blast to minimize windshield scraping before take-off. Those few people with heated garages (very few in Bethel) don’t have this problem.

Leaving vehicles plugged in all night long is not a good idea, as doing so for many nights in a row can give you a power bill that will knock your socks off. My first winter here, when I didn’t know any better, I did just that. Two vehicles plugged all night for most of a month gave me a power bill of over $400! Now we keep a heavy-duty timer outside which switches on about 4 am, giving the trucks about three hours of block-warming before starting.

When doing errands around town, most people simply leave their cars running. When you pull up to the grocery store, every single vehicle in the parking lot will be idling away; fortunately, between the nearly constant wind and the lack of surrounding mountains, this does not create a smog problem like it can in Fairbanks, where even the parking meters have electrical sockets. Once it gets down to -20F, people leave their vehicles running even if they are going to be somewhere for a while—like two or three hours for dinner with friends. The cost of gasoline, nearly $5/gallon, does become a consideration.

Many people carry extension cords with them when driving in the winter, and many places of business have numerous power outlets placed throughout the parking area so that employees can plug in while they are at work. And the ultimate convenience is to have a remote starter, so your vehicle can warm up without you having to go out in the cold to crank it ahead of time. One of the mechanics in town does a thriving business in the after-market installation of this item, and I am one of a number of people on his list to get this done.

Bethel’s temperatures have been hanging out at about -20F for over three weeks now, with occasional brief forays up to -5F or so. For the last two mornings, the thermometer at the Public Works Department has read -32F. We may get back up to -20F by late afternoon, and the weather prediction for Monday calls for a wind shift that will bring us southerly breezes and temperatures well above zero. With our big sled dog race, the Kuskokwim 300, happening next weekend, a warm-up will be most welcome—as long as it stays below freezing. The best thing about twenty below is how balmy it makes zero feel when you warm up to it.



Anonymous mpb said...

The recommended plug-in temperature to prevent pollution (and wear and tear) is actually plus 20 degrees F and lower, although most in Bethel seem to believe it is minus twenty. It only take about 2 hours to get what you need. The reason for plugging in is to prevent the carbon particles and smog from whooshing out when the engine is cranked. Fairbanks at 40 below F gets a lot more frozen smog (ice fog) than we do (and has temperature inversions), but Bethel has had such in the past few years. I always wonder at folks who leave their vehicles running at the stores, especially since I am a pedestrian. That stuff is noxious and vehicles stay warm in the time it takes to shop anyway.

A recent published study found children are still affected by living near roadways-- it is because of the particulates and not the long-absent leaded fuel.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 7:18:00 PM  
Blogger ERnursey said...

When I moved to far upstate NY many years ago from sunny cali I was driving along one day when my car died, sounding like it was out of gas. I knew I wasn't out of gas. I called AAA and the driver told me my gas line had frozen. Coming from a state where it rarely gets below 30 I knew nothing about dry gas! Who knew gas can freeze. I sure don't miss those days but I will agree, the remote car starter is the greatest invention ever.

Saturday, January 12, 2008 8:46:00 PM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Wow. The most commonsense things never occur to you until you're tossed into the situation. How is the electricity generated? Frankly I would think nuclear power would be the most economical, and/or do you have trash-to-steam plants?

Sunday, January 13, 2008 5:40:00 AM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

ernursery--AAA's response to you about your gas line freezing makes no sense to me. It just doesn't get cold enough for that to happen in upstate New York, or in upstate Alaska. Gasoline doesn't freeze at humanly-survivable temperatures. Now you've made me wonder exactly what temp it does freeze at; I'm thinking something like -150F. I have three gas cans outside right now at -30F that are sloshing just fine. More likely you had a vapor lock or something (auto mechanics not being my strong suit).

Dino--we have a single power plant which has several diesel-burning generators. It is generally reliable; parts of town occasionally lose power, but not often and not for long. Sometimes we have "Bethel Brownouts" where the power dims down for a short time, but not usually for long.

The long-timers here love to tell about the time in the mid-1970s when the power plant burned down in the midst of a -40F cold spell. The entire town gathered around to watch it burn. For about 4 days Bethel had no electricity at all. All commercial activity stopped and people lived in their steam baths (easily heated with a small wood stove) and partied for four days. The National Guard flew in emergency generators to get things going again.

Sunday, January 13, 2008 12:00:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

ERnursery--thank you for spurring me to learn something! The best answer I found about the freezing point of gasoline is that because it is composed of different elements, the various parts freeze at different temps. It starts to freeze at -97F, but some parts will not freeze until -300F. If you had purchased bad gas contaminated with water, that part would freeze at +32F and could have been your problem, which is where the DryGas product comes in. We add a bottle every time we fill the gas tanks on our trucks.

Sunday, January 13, 2008 12:14:00 PM  
Blogger Bardiac said...

A long time back, one of my friends grew up in North Dakota, and told me about plugging in the family truck, and it blew me away. Then I moved here, and sure enough, every so often I see a truck with a plug thing.

"They" warn folks around here to keep gas tanks at least half full during really cold weather to prevent problems with water condensation or something. Brrr!

You folks make the midwest seem relatively warm. BRRRR!

Monday, January 14, 2008 7:48:00 AM  
Blogger SeaSpray said...

This was so interesting. I called my husband over to show him and discuss it. It is a different world up there. :)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 1:09:00 PM  
Blogger woman north said...

Tundra Pa,
what kind of timer are you using? I'd be keen to find out as I'm not sure that a typical household electrical timer will withstand the temperatures where I'm living in Canada (just south of the Beaufort Sea). They're much the same as what you are experiencing in Bethel (it was -39C the other day) and I would love to be able to unplug my truck for part of the night.

Thursday, January 17, 2008 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Woman North: it's called an Intermatic Heavy-Duty Raintight Outdoor Timer. Our hardware store sells them for $25.99, and they work great!

Thursday, January 17, 2008 5:30:00 PM  
Blogger Doctor S. said...

It may sound odd, but I think that plugging it in at night and such things are fun. There is something cool about living some place where you need special skills and knowledge. It's fun to have that extra bit of interesting challenge to life. I love the story about how people used the blackout as a chance to sit around and party. It just goes to show how things like electricity have just made our lives more complicated. Imagine being able to go to sleep when it gets dark, and not having to get up before the sun! Imagine, sitting around a fire with friends and family each evening instead of working. I guess I picked the wrong profession for that!
I'm going back to Alaska this summer, this time for good! I will finally be an attending physician. I'm going to get a 4-wheel drive, complete with jumper cables, cold weather survival gear, a winch (to pull out the chevys ;)), a battery blanket heater, an oil pan heater, a freeze plug heater, and maybe an electric heater for the interior. Check out my blog:

Monday, April 21, 2008 12:10:00 PM  

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