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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Green(er) Machine logo

The Green(er) Machine Rap

Motorists, an exclamation:
this site has important information!
About your car,
and what you do when you're behind the wheel.
We're talking habits,
fossil fuels,
exhaust emissions,
Clean Air rules.
So scan the pages,
take this advice,
to make your car
environmentally nice.
If you think
all this is only talk
do the world a favor –

From the roadsters of the Jazz Age, to the compacts of the Rap Age, to the SUVs of the Information Superhighway, cars have been at the center of American life. We favor the automobile over all other forms of transportation, chiefly for the convenience four wheels and an engine provide.

The Green(er) Machine

Convenience, however, is a transitory thing. The comforts of one age become the bane of the next. So it is with the automobile. We now know that the freedom to boldly go wherever the blacktop leads comes with high, sometimes hidden, costs.

We pay dearly for the privilege to drive with smog, ozone alerts, and groundwater polluted by spilled gasoline and oil. We spend billions of public dollars to build and maintain roads and to defend foreign oil supplies, funds that otherwise might be spent on schools, health care or public transportation. We sacrifice urban neighborhoods and rural farmland for highways; lose precious hours commuting or idling in traffic jams; and burn a costly, imported nonrenewable fossil fuel just to pick up a quart of milk and a newspaper. If all the costs of auto transportation were passed on to drivers, a gallon of gas would run more than $4.50.

Yet the gasoline-powered automobile is here to stay – for a while. Magnetic trains, and electric- and hydrogen-fueled vehicles will probably transport us in the not-so-distant future, but until then, we'll have to make do with the internal combustion engine.

This manual features tips and techniques for operating and maintaining your vehicle in an environmentally sound manner. Follow this advice and soon you'll be behind the wheel of a "green" machine.

Turn it off! The A/C consumes nearly a gallon of gas per tankful to keep you cool. So you will save money and reduce your contribution to global warming by turning your A/C on only when you really need it.

Furthermore, many auto air conditioners contain chemical refrigerants that harm the atmosphere if they get loose. Pre-1995 models used about three pounds of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC-12, commonly known as Freon), compared to just a few ounces in a typical home refrigerator. When those CFCs leak out, they damage the stratospheric ozone layer. (see "OZONE")

International agreements have nearly phased out the production of CFCs worldwide, and since 1995 automakers have switched to hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which do not harm the ozone layer. BUT the HFC molecules are even stronger than CO2 at warming the atmosphere, so we still have to keep them under control. (see "GLOBAL WARMING")

What can you do with your current cooler? Have it checked frequently. If it's leaking, bring it to a reputable service station that collects and recycles the remaining refrigerants, as required by state and federal law. Wisconsin regulations don't allow the mechanic to "top off" a leaky system (right now it's the ONLY state with this law) – you can either have it fixed or disconnected, balancing coolness versus cost. Or consider converting old CFC-systems to the new HFCs – it should cost about the same as a repair and you will gain energy efficiency.

Do-it-yourselfers take note: This is a job you should leave to the experts – not only do they have the right equipment and training, they're also the only people allowed by law to work on A/Cs.

If you insist on using the air conditioner, minimize the impact–drive a light-colored car with a light interior and park in the shade. And use those handy inside-the-windshield sun-blockers. It takes more energy to cool a hot car than it does to cool a medium-sized home in Atlanta during the summer!

One final note – make sure the refrigerant will be properly recovered and recycled when you bring your Green Machine to the junkyard. (see "SALVAGE YARDS")

That bulky plastic box of lead, sulfuric acid and hydrogen generates electricity to start your car and run your car lights, heater fan, and stereo. If you have the kind of battery that can be opened, check the water level twice a year and add distilled water if it's low. Sealed units with "indicator eyes" will tell you when it's time to replace your battery. Auto batteries last from two to five years, depending on quality, use, and maintenance.

Recycling old batteries is a breeze. All vehicle battery retailers in Wisconsin must accept lead-acid batteries at no charge from people who purchased their batteries from them. If you bought the battery somewhere else, the retailer can charge you up to $3; but depending on the price of lead, a retailer may pay YOU for the battery. The recycled lead is used to make new batteries, cable coverings, radiation shielding and other products. The acid may be used in new batteries or fertilizer, or neutralized for safe disposal. Plastic casings are recycled into new casings, wastebaskets and other items.

Wear safety goggles and gloves when you pick up a battery, and carry it in a wooden box or leak-proof container. To avoid explosions, don't smoke near batteries. If you drop a battery, neutralize any spilled acid with baking soda or lime, and lots of water.

It's not just for recreation. This practical form of transportation deserves your respect and attention. Across the U.S., occasional biking can save more than 700 million gallons of fuel each year. Try biking to work once or twice a week. Add a wire basket and you can run errands on two wheels instead of four. When you do drive your car, give bicyclists a break – share the road!

Illustration © Rich Malone

Car payments, repair bills, registration, insurance, traffic jams, parking hassles, and POLLUTION – who needs it? Individual car ownership makes less sense when you learn about cheaper, greener options.

A car sharing service makes vehicles available to people on a per-use basis. Think of it as neighborhood-based, time-share car rental. You use the vehicle only when you need it, and pay based on how much you drive. Cars are kept in small neighborhood lots within easy walking distance. When you need a car, simply ring up and reserve it. At the end of the month you receive a bill in the mail as you do for any other utility. Talk about convenient!

Check out the many new car share programs springing up all over the world by visiting You might just get motivated to start a car share service in your community!

When you give your ride a bubble bath, choose mild soaps without phosphates and use them sparingly. (Why? Aquatic weeds thrive on phosphates, and oxygen is used up when the overgrown weeds decompose, leaving little for fish to breathe.) Rinse the suds onto grass to let the soapy water be absorbed gradually through the soil. Avoid washing detergents down stormwater drains – few cities treat stormwater before it's flushed into lakes and rivers. Encourage your favorite car wash to use phosphate-free soaps. Wax the beast every now and then to hold rust at bay. (see "PAINT")

Here's a quick, easy, mathematically elegant way to eliminate rush hour and cut auto exhaust emissions by 50 percent: Put two commuters in a car instead of one. Besides doing everybody's lungs and blood pressure a favor, carpooling commuters save gas and cash; can be relieved of daily driving chores; meet new people; catch up on reading; and witness democracy in action when riders debate the choice of radio station. Some companies provide vans for ride-sharing employees and the Department of Transportation (DOT) offers loans to companies seeking to purchase carpool vans. Call (608) 266-8508 for details. For general ride-sharing information in the Milwaukee area, call 1-800-455-POOL, or visit Wisconsin Department of Transportation. In Madison, dial (608) 266-RIDE.

Nearly half the space in American cities is used to accommodate vehicles. But six-lane highways and cavernous concrete parking ramps make cities less livable and suburbs more accessible. Car commuters converge on downtown workplaces in the day, creating traffic jams and smog, then abandon the city at night.

More compact, pedestrian-designed urban spaces with a mixture of residences, offices, stores and parks shorten the distance people must travel to work and shop. Safe bicycling and efficient mass transit then become more viable. Work for measures to control urban sprawl in your community and urge planners to consider sound urban design in future transportation policies.

The time when we all can say "no tanks" to gasoline may be coming sooner than we think. Cleaner burning fuels such as propane and natural gas are already being used in motor vehicles. Battery-powered electric and hybrid-electric vehicles (packing an electric motor, a gasoline or diesel engine, and a fuel tank) are available from several major auto manufacturers. Solar powered electric cars or fuel cell vehicles powered by hydrogen will whisk motorists down the road in five or ten years. Give new fuels and technologies a try as they become available. And encourage your elected public officials to support research into alternative fuels.

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Idling wastes gas and can damage pollution control equipment. Most cars need only warm up for a minute or so to allow oil to circulate. Turning off the car and starting it again uses less gas than idling for a half-minute or more. A few more tips:

  • Combine errands into one trip. The engine uses less gas once it's warmed up.

  • Accelerate and decelerate slowly and smoothly. You'll save up to 2 mpg. Anticipate stops and coast up gradually: It takes 20 percent less gas to accelerate from 5 mph than from a full stop.

  • Drive the speed limit on the highway. At higher speeds, you'll burn more gas for each mile you drive.

  • Use cruise control with discretion. Use it sparingly when traveling over varied terrain. In mountainous or hilly regions, you'll waste less gas if you hold a constant throttle position instead of using cruise control. To do this, just maintain a steady foot angle.

  • When you're driving in summer, close the windows and turn on the fresh air vents. At speeds over 40mph, the drag caused by open windows eats up more gas than a working air conditioner.

  • Shift! Shift a manual transmission into the highest gear as soon as possible to use the engine most efficiently.

  • Perform regular maintenance. Keep your engine running at peak fuel efficiency with regular tune-ups and by responding promptly to the "service engine soon" light on your dashboard. (see "ON BOARD COMPUTER")
Illustration © Rich Malone

Produced when gasoline is burned in an internal combustion engine. (see "INTERNAL COMBUSTION") The main offenders:

  • Carbon monoxide: An invisible, odorless, poisonous gas emitted when engines burn gas inefficiently and when cars are idling or moving slowly in traffic. Levels are highest in urban areas just after morning and afternoon rush hours.

  • Carbon dioxide (CO2): Humans and animals inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide; plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Large-scale burning of coal, oil and gasoline have overloaded the air with CO2. (see "GLOBAL WARMING")

  • Hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides: Cars discharge hydrocarbons (organic compounds present in gasoline) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). In the presence of sunlight, these compounds form ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog. Children, the elderly, people with respiratory ailments and healthy people exercising outdoors may have difficulty breathing when ozone levels are high.

  • Particulate matter: Exactly what you'd think – particles. Burning any fuel – gas in a car, diesel in a truck, leaves in a pile, or garbage in a barrel – releases sooty particles. Some of the particles are so small that they are invisible to the naked eye. When you breathe in these fine particles, they clog your lungs. The smaller the particle, the more harmful it is because it can creep deeper into your lungs.

Nitrogen oxides and other compounds, notably sulfur dioxide, contribute to acid rain. Acidic precipitation destroys forests and raises the pH of freshwater lakes, making them less hospitable to fish and other aquatic life.

F.Y.I. Registered vehicles in Wisconsin counties that don't meet federal air quality standards are required to pass emissions tests. (see "TUNE-UP") If you aren't sure about your county, visit Air Management at Department of Natural Resources.

The U.S. continues to improve emission standards, but the vehicle population of the U.S. is growing more than six times faster than the human population, offsetting most of the pollution reductions. And each time the laws are strengthened, years must pass before the entire fleet of U.S. cars actually meets the new standards. But how many cars will be on the roads then? Only you can decide.

For more information about making your car a Greener Machine, visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

To order printed copies of the Green(er) Machine, send an email message to Elisabeth Olson requesting publication number CE-053-00. Include your name, address and number of copies desired.

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Produced by: DNR Bureau of Communication and Education
Written by: Maureen Mecozzi
Illustrations by: Rich Malone
Revised by: Mittsy Voiles with contributions from Lance Green, Jerry Medinger, Eric Mosher, and Josie Pradella of the Wisconsin DNR; and Brian Buckta of Braun R&D.
Reviewed by: Anne Bogar, Sara Burr, Eva Larson, Maureen Mecozzi, Kelly Mella, Al Stenstrup, Greg Swanson and Anne Urbanski of the Wisconsin DNR; David Biegel, Peter Jensen, and Don Schinker of Madison Area Technical College; and Mike Shucha of Waunakee High School.