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Is a Cold Start Detrimental to My Vehicle’s Engine?

Many people feel that driving a car with a cold engine can cause damage. The idea makes sense as our muscles and joints don’t like operating when cold either. But does a cold start really hurt your engine?

Today, we’ll explain what a cold start is, how it can affect your vehicle, and what you can do about it. Let’s get started!

What Is a Cold Start?

A cold start is when you start a vehicle engine below its operating temperature. This happens almost every time you start your car after it’s been off overnight. While this is the technical definition, many people are talking about starting the engine when the temperatures are below freezing when talking about a cold start.

The operating temperature of an engine is the temperature at which the fluids and mechanical pieces are intended to operate at. This temperature is maintained by the cooling system of the engine and the thermostat.

If you start your vehicle and notice the idle RPMs run higher than usual, the engine usually isn’t at the appropriate operating temperature. The computer causes RPMs to stay above average until the engine reaches its normal operating temperature.

Do Cold Starts Damage Your Engine?

The answer to this is a bit complicated. It is possible that a cold start can increase friction a little bit in your engine. This is mainly because the engine does not have any oil pressure and most of the oil has drained away from components that need it. For a brief moment when starting a cold engine parts operate without as much oil as when the vehicle is running. However, oil pressure comes up very rapidly and begins lubricating the engine. The most critical thing when starting an engine is to make sure the oil pressure comes up within seconds of starting it.

Now let’s dive into the big question of if you should idle an engine to warm it up or not before you drive.

Man unlocking his car that is covered in snow
Before you head out on the highway, make sure to allow your car to warm up first.

How Long Should You Wait to Drive Your Car After a Cold Start?

If you need to start your engine during cold temperatures, you should allow it to idle for at least 30 seconds. This is usually sufficient time for the oil to properly lubricate the engine. It is not necessary to idle an engine to let it warm up to full operating temperature before driving. In fact, idling the engine when cold without increasing its operating load can increase the time that the oil remains cold and can cause further friction damage. Cold oil is far worse at lubricating and the quicker it warms up the better. We don’t recommend driving aggressively, but putting a load on the engine helps it warm up quicker.

Many modern engines even have a high idle or even a turbo backpressure feature that can help the engine warm faster. If you notice your engine running a high RPM or sounding weird when starting in the cold it may be the computer helping the engine warm quickly.

Is It Bad to Drive a Car Immediately After Starting It?

If the outside temperature is above freezing starting your vehicle and driving immediately isn’t likely to cause any damage. The oil in the engine is usually warm enough to lubricate the moving parts and avoid friction. However, it’s not a good idea to make it a habit because it’s not healthy for your vehicle in all weather conditions.

When your engine is cold, it needs time to warm the fluids to a safe operating temperature. Starting your engine on a cold day and immediately jumping on the highway is terrible for your engine. Letting your engine run for 30 seconds and then driving gently for several minutes will help bring it to the proper temperature.

The only exception to this is with carburated engines, but no cars made today use carburetors. Carburetors need to be at proper operating temperature to properly mix fuel and air and will cause and engine to run improperly if they are iced up or very cold.

Man waiting in car in the winter while the engine warms up
When temperatures drop you will need to let your car idle for at least 30 seconds to warm up.

Is Shutting A Cold Engine Down Bad For It

While using a cold engine might not be so bad, shutting it down too quickly can be. An occasional quick start to move a cold car is ok, but driving it just down the street and shutting it down every day without letting it warm up is likely to cause severe damage. In fact, we have seen engines that have operated like this that have had failed trunnions, stuck piston rings, and internal rust among other catastrophic failures.

The reason for this can be cold oil improperly lubricating or moisture that does not properly evaporate. Both of these can cause a lot of damage. If you have a stored vehicle and want to start it occasionally it’s best to make sure it gets fully to operating temperature before shutting it down.

Is It Bad to Let Your Car Idle for 30 Minutes?

In areas with harsh winters, many drivers will use remote starts to run their vehicles and let them warm up. While letting your vehicle warm up for a few minutes can be suitable for the engine, some drivers will let it idle for 20 or 30 minutes. In general, this should not cause any damage, but it’s still not something we recommend.

Not only are you wasting your gas and creating more pollution, but you could create a hazardous situation. If your vehicle has an existing mechanical problem, it can overheat and cause a fire. Letting a car idle for long periods can also damage the head gasket, cylinder rings, and spark plugs on a vehicle.

If you want to get the inside of your vehicle warm, the best way to do it is to drive your car gently. The engine will warm up, and your heater will produce hotter air. You’ll quickly be cruising around with a balmy interior.

Pro Tip: As the temperatures drop, you’ll need to know How to RV in Winter to stay safe and protect your home on wheels.

Snow covered car warming up so there is no cold start engine issues
Don’t let your car idle in the cold for more than a few minutes.

Tips for Starting Your Car in Cold Weather

Starting a car in cold weather can be challenging. However, it’s not an impossible task if you follow a few essential tips. Let’s look at a few things you must remember when starting your car in cold weather.

Have the Right Battery

If anything helps put a failing battery out of its misery, cold weather will do the trick. Many drivers quickly discover that it’s time to replace their vehicle’s battery during the first cold spell of the season. Cold weather and batteries typically don’t go together, especially a battery nearing the end of its useful life.

You must have not only a capable battery but one with a cold-weather design. Because a battery can lose approximately 30% of its strength when the temperature drops below freezing, you want a battery with plenty of cold cranking amps (CCA). You typically wish to do something between 300 to 500 CCA. However, some of the most capable winter batteries will feature 600+ CCA.

Pro Tip: We ran some experiments to uncover the Best RV Battery For Your Money to ensure even the cold weather won’t stop your adventures.

Avoid Electronic Accessories

If you’re worried about your battery’s ability to start your car during cold weather, you’ll want to avoid using electronic accessories when starting it. Radios, defrosters/fans, and lights all require power and will suck energy away from your battery when trying to turn it over. Make sure to turn all of these accessories off before trying to start your vehicle.

If Applicable, Use a Block Heater

If you live in a freezing location, a block heater may be an item you need to purchase. The block heater serves as a pre-heat for the engine to help it warm faster, improve oil circulation, and ease the load on the car battery.

Using a block heater is also better for the environment. This is because by using a block heater, you don’t need to let your vehicle idle for nearly as long to bring it to a safe operating temperature. An idling car creates unnecessary pollution and wastes fuel.

block heater used on cold morning
On very cold mornings we will run a block heater before firing up

Turn Key to the “On” Setting Before Starting

Many drivers hop in their cars and turn on the ignition. However, it’s best to turn the key on instead, fasten your seat belt, and then turn the ignition all the way on. Turning the key to the on position allows the car’s sensors and engine control module to sense the conditions and make any necessary adjustments. 

Avoid Engaging Starter Too Much

If your car is struggling to start in the cold, the worst thing you can do is to keep trying to crank it. Engage the starter for no more than 10 seconds, and then wait a minute or two before trying again. If you keep trying to start your vehicle, you’ll kill the battery. You’ll need to charge it before you go anywhere.

In addition, you could cause the starter to overheat and ruin it. If your car doesn’t turn over within a few seconds, you want to back off and give the starter a chance to cool down. If you damage your starter, you’re likely not going anywhere until you replace it.

Are Cold Starts Bad? Should you Idle or Just Drive to Warm Up?

Protect Your Engine in Freezing Temperatures

There are some parts of your vehicle that you don’t want to replace. Your engine is one of them. Freezing temperatures can be highly hazardous to your engine. Luckily, if you follow the tips we’ve shared, you’ll protect your engine when starting your car in freezing temperatures. You and your vehicle can safely battle winter and survive.

What are your primary maintenance concerns regarding your car in cold weather? Tell us in the comments!

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About Tom Morton

Tom, a Pacific Northwest native, is our technical genius. Born in Washington and raised in Alaska before settling in Michigan. He's the man who keeps our operation running, both figuratively and literally.

With a background in Electrical Engineering, Tom specializes in RV solar systems and lithium batteries. He made history as the first documented individual to use a Tesla battery module as an RV battery. Tom has personally assisted countless RVers with system installations and has educated thousands more through his videos and articles.

Cinematography is another of Tom's passions, showcased in his work on the Go North series. You can see his camera skills on display in The RVers TV show on Discovery Channel and PBS where he also stars as a co-host.

Tom's mechanical expertise extends beyond RVs to boats, planes, and all things mechanical. He's renowned for taking on maintenance and repair projects single-handedly and is often spotted underneath RVs, making him the technical backbone of our endeavors.

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Brian O

Tuesday 9th of May 2023

No offense, but this info on coldstarting and putting a load on the engine is 100% false. 1 huge factor is the combustion chamber. Putting a load on a cold engine will just cause the pistons too expand more rapidly then the block and if you put too much of a load on it you could have a cold seizure. This can happen with or w/out the presents of engine oil. I have see it a few times over the years. If you would like to know more shoot me an email and I will dive a little deeper for you.

Mortons on the Move

Friday 12th of May 2023

Were not recommending putting high loads on the engine or immediately operating without oil pressure by any means. However I am interested in the science or loads you are talking about. I could see the pistons warming at a different rate for sure tho. My detroit diesel manual specifically talks about loading the engine after about a minuet of cold operation. This of course is done with high idle and turbo backpressure for a while before driving to get the temp up before driving. Its just too big to warm quickly. The engine even automatically does this, I can watch it load to about 30% all on its own when its cold.


Saturday 24th of December 2022

Do your recommendations apply to diesel engines, or only gasoline?