Issue: Jan 2005


Supplier Technology



Some Like It Hot

by Rob Wilson

Gaining in popularity in Europe, fuel-operated heaters offer much higher efficiency over conventional idling and remote start.

Pre-conditioning the thermal systems of vehicles in North America has generally been accomplished by starting a car and letting it idle. While remote starting is an attractive option, it is not very efficient from either a fuel consumption or environmental point of view. Another consideration, between EPA and CARB the window of opportunity for remote start may be slammed shut by regulation. The more popular it becomes the faster regulators will want to move on non-necessary emissions.





Increasingly, states are putting laws on the books to eliminate or greatly reduce commercial and consumer idling options. Some 20 states already have some idling regulations in place and specific cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia are actually establishing enforcement agencies.

Though the idea of enforcing idling regulations on consumer vehicles may now seem farfetched, so did an ordinance against smoking in New York bars and taverns as little as two years ago. New York is one of the states that already has anti-idling regulations on the books for passenger cars.

Our introduction to fuel-operated heaters (FOH) for passenger cars came in mid- December via a Webasto FOH fitted in a new Mercedes E320. Webasto Thermosystems North American Business Development Director, John Thomas, went over the technical features, functions and operation of the system and turned the car over for one week.

During the trial period the test car was not garaged, but exposed to moderately cold Michigan weather and one light snowfall. This particular system could be activated by timer or by key fob, but telematic, Onstar or cell phone style activation can also be furnished. One could, for example, step off a plane and call a cold car sitting in a parking lot and activate the pre-conditioning system.

The FOH system on our E320 performed flawlessly in any mode available to us. The light snow melted from the glass surfaces in about 20 minutes and the vehicle interior heated to 68 degrees F in the same time.

The system burns a small amount of fuel, either gasoline or diesel, in combustor fitted with a glow plug. The energy generated, about 5 kW, is used to warm engine coolant and heat the vehicle to the desired temperature. Since the FOH also commands the vehicle ventilation system, it can and is also used to evacuate hot air from a closed vehicle in hot summer months. The system contains its own fuel pump, air intake and exhaust including a small muffler, and operates independently of the engine. The heater is self-regulating and monitors all FOH- related functions. If accidentally started in a closed garage, the amount of carbon monoxide generated is extremely low compared to an idling IC engine.

Webasto estimates overall emissions from the FOH are approximately 1 percent that of an idling engine and fuel consumption is about 0.10 gal/hr versus 0.50- 1.0 gal/hr for an idling vehicle. The pre-conditioning cycle is usually set at 30 minutes.

Perhaps the most compelling driver for FOHs will be the growing need for supplemental heating on vehicles. According to Webastos Thomas, because European engines are smaller and more efficient, they reject less heat to coolant and so they are increasingly inadequate for maintaining engine coolant temperature and passenger comfort levels. Supplemental heating is already an important market driver in Europe, and Thomas feels it will be in North America as well. So the FOH fits in very well there, and also provides the convenience of pre-conditioning.

Over 1 million FOH systems are being sold annually for commercial and light-duty vehicles, the great preponderance in Europe. Keeping in mind that more light-duty vehicles are garaged in North America than in Europe, the markets certainly have differences, but the option retake rate in Europe, those who have had FOH and will repurchase FOH with their next car, is 73 percent. European buyers indicating a high probability of retaking the option on their next car is claimed to be 19 percent.

The price point for the option in Europe to the consumer on an OEM-installed FOH is between $1,000-$1,400 depending on bells and whistles. Webastos Thomas believes the price point for the North American market would be between $700-$900. In Europe, the OEM-installed FOH option is available on most popular models. Currently, the only passenger vehicle currently offering the Webasto factory-installed FOH in North America is the Porsche Cayenne.

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