Ask the MPCA: Exhausted by idling vehicles

Close up of exhaust from tailpipe of idling car in a parking lot.

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Questions

Q: A bus company recently moved in across the street from my house and often has as many as 30 diesel buses idling on their property. It’s a daily nuisance, especially in cold weather when the buses may be “warmed up” for up to an hour. The smell and the noise has been horrible! We don’t know where to turn.

Q: At my apartment complex, we have vehicles idling for up to 45 minutes within a few feet of our apartments. My residence fills with diesel exhaust and so does the stairway. Is there an ordinance that can be enforced by police? I hate to be a grumpy neighbor, but I am a senior trying to protect my health.

Answer

Being regularly exposed to concentrated vehicle exhaust is concerning! Exhaust from gas- or diesel-fueled vehicles has significant effects on human health, and vehicles are a major source of air pollution in Minnesota. Vehicle emissions contain fine particles and contribute to the formation of ground level ozone (smog), which can trigger health problems such as aggravated asthma, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses. Idling vehicles also create “hot spots” of pollution because they are stationary.

Diesel vehicles have particularly harmful emissions with a high volume of fine particles and toxic pollutants. Older diesel equipment can also produce as much as 97% more fine particles than newer models. Nationwide, fine particle pollution causes more than 15,000 premature deaths each year. Elderly people, children, and those with existing heart or lung disease, asthma, or other respiratory problems are most sensitive to the health effects of fine particles.

Minnesota doesn’t have any state rules about idling, but we have some recommendations on addressing these problems:

Speak up: Approach the business or individual to explain the problem you’re having. Businesses are often concerned about being good neighbors, and may be willing to cut down on idling, retrofit the vehicles with pollution control equipment, or take other steps. Ask your apartment manager what they can do. Can they institute a rule about idling? Or assign parking spaces further from the building?

Make a practical appeal: Suggest alternatives for business owners. Idling wastes money. In addition, the vehicle emissions are especially harmful to employees working in the facility and may cause illness or absences. Some bus and diesel trucking companies have realized significant cost savings by plugging in to electrical power for pre-heating vehicles in winter months.

Some newer diesel vehicles recommend NOT idling for long periods of time, because it’s detrimental to the operation of the engine and emission control equipment. The MPCA periodically offers grants to replace heavy-duty diesel vehicles with newer or electric models. Learn more on the Volkswagen settlement grants page.

For neighbors who idle their cars for long periods, let them know that fuel-injection cars built in the past 20 years don’t need time to warm up like older models with carburetors. It’s better to run them for 30 seconds or so and let them warm up while they’re moving. Even diesel cars only need a few minutes to warm up — up to seven minutes when it’s below zero and less when it’s warmer. If car owners are idling to warm or cool the car interior or defrost the windshield, they can purchase portable heaters that can do that without using the engine.

Call the city: Most cities have general nuisance ordinances that cover odors and noise. Google “general nuisance ordinance” and the name of your city to learn more. Some local governments have ordinances that limit vehicle idling. The City of Minneapolis’s anti-idling ordinance has served as a model for other Minnesota communities. Talk to your city about adopting such a rule, if they haven’t already.