Puffing — Where Is It Illegal And Why

Julia Schneemann | | BrainsBrains
Snow crystals on a frozen window screen, picture: Julia Schneemann

It is a cold, snowy morning in Colorado, and your car is parked outside. The thought of standing in the cold and scraping the windows is not the most appealing, so you decide to turn on the car and let the engine do the hard yards for you while you have a cup of coffee inside. Seems like a great idea? Well, it ain’t.

Leaving your car running idle unattended is referred to as ‘puffing’ — referencing the puffs of fumes coming from the car exhaust in the cold — and it is banned in Colorado. If you are caught leaving your car idling unattended, you could be fined $60 in Colorado. Colorado is not alone in this practice. Puffing is illegal in 30 other states, including Texas. It is also banned in many other countries, like Germany and Switzerland, to name a few, where similar fines are applied for offenders. The fine in Washington DC can be up to $5,000.

US States where puffing is illegal:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Delaware
  • District of Columbia
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

Leaving your car idling increases the risk of car theft considerably. The Denver Police Department blames the widespread habit of puffing for Colorado having the highest per capita car-theft rate in the US. This is also a big problem in ski towns like Vail. “More vehicles are stolen in Eagle Country from puffing alone than anything else,” Avon Police Sergeant John Mackey was quoted as saying. Leaving your car puffing invites thieves with an easy steal, he reiterates.

Don’t use puffing to defrost the windscreens. image: snowbrains

The Denver Police Department wants car owners to know that it puts them at risk of having their car stolen and is also harmful to the environment. Therefore, vehicles with remote control are not exempt from this law. If your vehicle is idling for more than five minutes, you can also be fined $60 in Colorado under this law. Laws vary from state to state, so make sure you check the rules of your state.

The environmental cost of puffing

There are roughly 275 million cars in the US. An idling car consumes, on average, 0.8 to 1.2l an hour or 0.2-0.3 gallons an hour. Consumption is higher if you run seat heating, window defrosters, and fans. Suppose half the car-owning population of the US practices puffing, i.e., runs their car for ten mins to warm up every day during the three winter months. In that case, that equates to two billion liters or 528 million gallons of gas wasted per year and an additional 9.2 billion metric tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. Cutting puffing, or any unnecessary idling, could considerably cut US CO2 emissions.

Myth Busters

There is a persistent myth that cars need to idle in winter in temperatures below 32°F. A 2009 study on idling found that most Americans still believe this to be true. However, this was only the case long ago when cars had carburetors that needed to warm up to work well. However, since the late 80s and early 90s new vehicles have used electronic fuel injection. Warming up a vehicle for more than 30 seconds has no benefit to the engine. “The engine will warm up faster being driven, which will allow the heat to turn on sooner, decrease your fuel costs and reduce emissions,” the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphasizes.

What can you do?

If possible, park your car in a garage or under cover. Minimize idling your car, as driving your vehicle warms the engine faster and allows the heat to turn on sooner, thus decreasing fuel costs and emissions. Switch off seat warmers or window defrosters when not needed.

Driving on snow
Driving is the most efficient way to heat the car, picture: Julia Schneemann

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