Photo of cars and trucks driving on a snow-packed road while more snow falls.

That nip in the fall air is a reminder that colder temperatures and snow-packed roads are just around the corner. Start preparing now to make sure your alternative fuel vehicle performs reliably this winter and you get the best fuel economy in cold weather.

Alternative Fuels Performance

Despite some myths to the contrary, many alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) are proving they can easily handle winter weather, including subzero conditions on the most challenging of roads. Here are a few examples.

Biofuels. Misconceptions abound for using ethanol or biodiesel in low temperatures. But as the Minnesota Department of Administration reports, no problems have arisen from using E85 in their flexible-fuel vehicle fleet. The truth is that many vehicles using biofuels are operated in the colder parts of the country and report very few problems. Several measures can deter potential engine issues, such as using the right biofuel blend for the local and regional climate and ensuring fuel is used that meets the industry standard for biodiesel, American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) D675 fuel. In addition, to prevent fuel from gelling when temperatures drop, fuel providers will often incorporate a cold weather additive into diesel fuel.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles. Custer Gallatin National Forest is helping to dispel doubts about operating plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) at below-freezing temperatures. The Forest uses the vehicles every day, including in winter months, and drivers report no difference in drivability between the PHEVs and their former conventional vehicles. Park staff also sees about the same battery range in the winter as they do in the summer. When the PHEVs are not in use, they are housed in a parking garage where they recharge overnight using Level 1 outlets powered by rooftop solar panels.

Compressed natural gas. Compressed natural gas (CNG) powers the buses of the Roaring Fork Transit Authority over slick roads and steep grades on the lofty roadways of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Since 2013, the CNG fleet has proved to run as well as its diesel predecessors, providing the same torque and horsepower while logging more than 3 million miles in less than two and a half years. How do they do it in such severe conditions? Before they were put into use, the new buses were retrofitted with CNG engines designed for high altitudes and low temperatures. Engine block heaters help with the challenge of frigid winter temperatures, as does an indoor fast-fill CNG station.

Fuel Economy

Wintery driving conditions can reduce the fuel economy of any vehicle—including AFVs—for a number of reasons. Fortunately there are measures that will help you save money during the cold months, such as these:

  • Don’t use seat warmers or defrosters more than necessary.
  • Use the type of oil recommended by your manufacturer for cold weather driving.
  • Remove accessories that increase wind resistance, like roof racks, when not in use.
  • Avoid idling to warm up the engine and cabin. (It’s not only cost-effective, it helps keep the air cleaner to breathe.)

With the right information and a few prudent actions, your AFV should get you through the winter reliably and economically.