Calgary

Most Albertans skip plugging in cars on cold days, survey finds

The majority of Albertans skip plugging in their vehicles even on the coldest days, a new poll by the Alberta Motor Association has found.

Block heaters help vehicles start in frigid temperatures but many report not needing them

AMA tow truck operator Todd Wells prepares to boost a car battery using jumper cables. Last December, the Alberta Motor Association hit several records for battery problem calls due to the extremely cold weather. (CBC)

The majority of Albertans skip plugging in their vehicles even on the coldest days, a new poll by the Alberta Motor Association has found.

Plugging in your car's block heater helps warm up the oil so the engine starts smoothly even on the most frigid mornings. Otherwise, your vehicle may stutter or not start at all.

The Alberta Motor Association, or AMA, recommends all drivers plug in their cars at –15 C, but the online survey found seven of 10 Albertans don't.

"Extreme cold pulls the voltage from a battery, making it harder for your vehicle to start," roadside assistance field manager Brandon Klassen​ said Monday. "It doesn't matter if the vehicle's new or old, it may not start once you hit –15 C. If you don't want to get stranded, plug in your car."

Got your block heater plugged in? Then a morning when the mercury dips to –30 C shouldn't slow you down. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

AMA, a 92-year-old membership organization of motorists in Alberta and the Northwest Territories, surveyed 2,304 Albertans from Oct. 22-29.

That survey found that those who don't make use of their block heater say they don't need to.

A third of people who don't plug in say they don't because their vehicle consistently starts. A smaller number say their newer vehicle doesn't need the extra boost. 

Be ready for cold

Klassen said even those drivers should take care this winter.

In last year's cold snap, AMA hit several records for battery problem calls for assistance. In December 2017, Environment Canada issued an extreme cold warning for the entire province and it was dangerous to be stranded in a broken-down car.

In Alberta, winter days are usually between –5 and –15 C but can drop below –30 C at times.

Watch this video on how to prepare for unexpected winter breakdowns:

How to survive being stranded in your car

5 years ago
Duration 1:27
Canadian Wilderness Survival Expert Bruce Zawalsky has tips on surviving being stranded in your car.

As many as 27 per cent of driver reported in the survey that they never plug in, no matter how cold it gets. Others simply wait longer, until it hits –20 or even –30 C.

About 10 per cent of Albertans plug their cars in at –10 C, the survey found. Another 19 per cent follow the guidelines for –15 C.

A tiny cohort takes no risk. One per cent plugs in any time the temperature dips below freezing.

If you're worried about your battery, take alternative transportation on the coldest days, AMA says, so you don't end up stranded.

There are other things you can do to keep your car running, like parking in a garage.

Klassen said drivers will find using synthetic oil will also help with cold start-ups. It's designed to be more effective and flow better in colder temperatures, reducing engine wear.

Get your battery tested before the cold weather hits to make sure you'll make it through the season. Batteries typically last three to five years in Alberta.

AMA also recommends keeping an emergency kit in your car and watching for signs of a weak battery, such as the headlights dimming while idling, digital systems powering down quickly and engines being slow to turn over.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with The Fifth Estate. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

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