For trucks, stopping but not idling

Rest-area device provides drivers with creature comforts, cuts fuel and pollution costs


Roy Gilbert rolled his tractor-trailer into a bay at the Baltimore Travel Plaza and spent a few minutes hooking things up for the night.

A year ago, he would have left his engine idling - spewing a gallon's worth of diesel exhaust each hour - to keep his cab warm and lighted. But a new truck stop system lets Gilbert shut off his engine for the night and still have access to warm or cool filtered air, 44 cable channels, phone and computer lines, movies and electricity.

"It saves owner-operators like myself a lot of money," said Gilbert, 33, a Garrett County trucker who pays about $2.60 a gallon for diesel and $1.88 per hour to hook his truck to the self-serve system, operated from the cab by a touch-screen and magnetic charge card.

Truckers and environmentalists alike praise the idea.

"There's a lot of strong data to show that diesel pollution is higher near roadsides because of the trucks," said Richard Kassel, director of the fuels and vehicles project for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "If there's a way to eliminate most of that idling pollution, that will prove a real benefit."

Nationally, trucks idle about 1.2 billion hours a year at commercial stops and burn about that many gallons of fuel, according to the nonprofit Driver Education and Idling Reduction Foundation, based in Colorado.

"Diesel is a source of particulate pollution and ozone pollution," said Janice Nolen, director of national policy for the American Lung Association. "To have an alternative, less-polluting way to provide power is a good thing."

Trucking companies also want to reduce idling time.

"Idling isn't the efficient point of engine operation," said Jim Tipka, vice president of engineering for the American Trucking Association. "It produces soot. It's not a good place to be. Nobody wants to use fuel when you're not moving somewhere."

The alternative to all-night engine idling made its debut at the Baltimore Travel Plaza in August. That operation joined 23 other truck stops around the country that offer a proprietary system from IdleAire, a five-year-old company based in Knoxville, Tenn.

"It should do really well when the weather starts cooling down," said Monroe Moy, general manager of the Baltimore Travel Plaza, a 200-space truck stop that has 63 IdleAire slots.

Next year, the Jessup Travel America truck stop in Howard County plans to add the technology to 129 of its 600 spaces.

"It seems to be a very clean program," said Beth Spencer, general manager of the Jessup truck stop. "I assume everyone wants clean air. I do."

Nationwide, IdleAire credits its technology with saving more than 5 million gallons of fuel and keeping 53,000 metric tons of diesel emissions out of the air.

"We are a `green' company. We have some pretty lofty goals," said David Everhart, chief operating officer. "It takes time."

Using the technology is fairly simple:

The driver pulls into a truck stop bay, where a long, flexible section of tubing - with an electronic control unit at its end - hangs from above. The driver rolls down the passenger-side window and puts in place a plastic window adaptor that enables the truck to be attached to the system. From the outside, the control unit is then connected to the window.

Back in the cab, the driver opens the cover of the unit for access to an electronic keypad with a menu screen. The driver can then select from various heating, cooling and electronic options available through the system.

The cost is $1.60 an hour for fleet drivers, $1.88 for independents, plus charges for some extras ($4 movies, for example). Drivers may buy cards or use major credit cards to pay for the service.

Marjorie Buckholtz, who is head of special projects for the Global Environment and Technology Foundation, a nonprofit think tank in Northern Virginia, said she was not aware of any competing system.

And the trucking industry reaction has been favorable, according to Tom Liutkus, advertising and public relations director for the TravelCenters of America chain of truck stops, which has 160 sites. He said the slight drop in fuel sales is offset by a percentage of IdleAire service fees that travel centers receive.

At Baltimore Travel Plaza, workers are available 24 hours a day to introduce truckers to the touch-screen technology and explain how to use it. A small brick building is equipped with a sample module showing the on-screen menu.

"We walk them through all the steps," said IdleAire site manager Tim Tucker.

The system is a hit with Russell Ewing and Linda Verdecchia, both 50, from Erie, N.Y., who drive a DeMarco Truck Lines rig based in Ripley, N.Y. As the couple parked at the Baltimore truck stop on a recent day, Verdecchia said of the technology, "It's great. We love it."

"Wintertime in this area, my truck never shut off" at night, Ewing said.

Damir Ablyazov, 47, a 15-year veteran independent trucker from Brooklyn, N.Y., is also an IdleAire fan.

"That stuff is good. It's good for everybody," he said, showing off the deluxe interior of his huge, red Freightliner. "I've used it in California and Tennessee."

The only downside: At first, he missed the engine vibration he had become accustomed to.

"I couldn't go to sleep without the engine running" at first, but he quickly adapted, he said.

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