Send Letter to Editor

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Green(er) Machine logo

Use 'em for transportation whenever you can. It's easy: Put one foot in front of the other and go. Best of all, you never have to worry about locking your keys in the car.

The Green(er) Machine

Volatile hydrocarbon vapors are released into the air when you fill your tank. Whenever possible, patronize service stations with vapor-recovery nozzles on gas pumps. Take care when the tank is nearly full – those little drips and drops of spilled gas are a major source of pollution.

Did you know it's best to refuel by moonlight? (More romantic, too.) Gasoline generates fewer hydrocarbon vapors when it's cool and dark outside. Detergent gasolines keep engines running cleaner and emit fewer pollutants. And that dastardly gas cap you always leave on the roof of the car? Try to remember to screw it back on, because it prevents vapors from escaping into the atmosphere. Also, if you forget to replace it or you don't tighten it until it clicks several times, it could signal your car's computer to turn on the "service engine soon" light on the dashboard.

Besides oil and gas, there are other essential automobile fluids, including antifreeze, brake fluid, and transmission or power steering fluid. Check all fluids regularly. When they need to be changed (see your owner's manual for the recommended maintenance schedule for your vehicle), collect the old fluid in a leak-proof container with a lid and bring it to a service station or auto repair shop for recycling. You may be charged a small fee. By the way – please don't mix these or any other liquids with used oil you want to recycle. (see "OIL") Easier yet, bring the car to the service station and let the technician change those fluids for you.

There's one more fluid worthy of mention. During the summer months, dilute your windshield wiper fluid with water. Half-and-half or even 75 percent water will still give the desired results. don't forget to switch it back before the freezing fall temperatures!

Illustration © Rich Malone

Burning gasoline, oil and coal releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. The CO2 collects in the atmosphere, where it acts like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping heat and reflecting it back to Earth.

Scientists believe that the CO2 collecting in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion has raised the planet's temperature and will continue to do so. This "enhancement" of the greenhouse effect not only tampers with the global thermostat - it confounds other climate cycles, too. While Wisconsinites might very well welcome warmer winters, climate changes caused by this warming could be devastating for many parts of the world, including Wisconsin. Polar ice could melt, raising sea levels and swamping coastal areas. Increases in global average annual temperatures of only a few degrees could disrupt rainfall patterns and create deserts in major crop growing regions (like Wisconsin). This could seriously affect agriculture, water resources, forests, fish, and other living things.

Cars and other motor vehicles are responsible for about one-third of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere in the U.S. For every gallon of gasoline burned, about twenty pounds of CO2 is emitted.

A car powered by fossil fuels emits more than its own weight in CO2 each year (depending on its fuel efficiency and how many miles it is driven). Ever try to pick up a car? Take it easy on yourself AND the air – get the most fuel-efficient car you can afford.

This is what happens when a) you consume pizza, a jumbo burrito and a bowl of chili in a single sitting, or b) you drive. Briefly, here's what's going on in a four-stroke, internal combustion engine (like most cars have):

Illustration © Rich Malone

When you step on the gas pedal, volatile flammable gasoline, one of the many products refined from crude oil, is mixed with air. The vaporized gasoline is channeled into a cylinder, a tube sealed at one end and blocked at the other by a movable plug called a piston, which is attached to a crankshaft that changes the piston's linear motion into rotary motion. Most cars have three, four, five, six or eight cylinders.

As the piston moves up the cylinder, it compresses the gas/air mixture. When the mixture is tightly compressed, the spark plug produces a spark that ignites the mixture trapped in the cylinder. The gas burns and expands, increasing the pressure on top of the piston and forcing it down, turning the crankshaft. The rotation of the crankshaft moves the piston up a second time, an exhaust valve opens at the top of the cylinder and the gases created from burning the gasoline vapor rush out with a loud noise. These four cycles (intake, compression, power and exhaust) are repeated several hundred times a minute in each cylinder.

Gases that don't burn completely pass through a catalytic converter and other pollution-control features, where they are burned completely and the byproducts are released out the tailpipe. (see "EXHAUST" and "ON BOARD COMPUTER") These exhaust emissions are what give environmentalists (and anyone else who breathes) a different kind of internal combustion.

Slimy spots on the driveway mean it's past time to check the engine, transmission and radiator for leaks. When it rains, oil and other automotive fluids are washed off pavement and into storm sewers, lakes and rivers. And, automotive fluids aren't cheap – why let them drip away? Plug those holes!

Back to top

Miles per gallon, a measure of how efficiently your car uses gasoline.

Lump America's gas guzzlers and gas sippers together and you arrive at an average of 24 miles per gallon (mpg) per car nationwide. That's better than the 10-mpg gashogs of the '60s and '70s but more people are driving more miles today, which offsets the benefits of higher mpg. Also, the popularity of SUVs (sport utility vehicles) and other large vehicles has exploded, and consumer demand for these greedy beasts is threatening to drive the national mpg back down to pre-1980 levels.

Our cars are thirsty rascals, soaking up billions of gallons of gasoline nationwide each year. Oil consumption has grown about seven percent per year for the past 50 years. At this rate, consumption doubles every ten years – an exponential growth rate. Here's the pitch: If each driver could reduce gas consumption by only 10 percent – a measly 10 percent! – we'd save more than eight million gallons every day.

Keep tabs on your mpg. Fill the tank until the nozzle clicks. Write down the number of miles on the odometer. Next time you fill up, do the same thing. Then divide the number of miles you've gone since the last fill-up by the number of gallons you just put in. That's your mpg. When the mpg drops by more than 20 percent, it's time for a check-up – and by now your "service engine soon" light may be on to remind you. (see "ON BOARD COMPUTER")

Go for the highest mpg in the vehicle that will best suit your needs.

Avoid buying a light truck unless you really need it. Pickups, vans, minivans, and sport utility vehicles (SUVs) are less fuel-efficient and pollute more than passenger cars.

If you have Internet access, check out EPA's Fuel Economy Guide ( for your preferred model year to help narrow your search or to investigate a particular model. You can also browse other sites for various "green guides" containing information about emissions by specific vehicles and other helpful hints for choosing a car [e.g., Consumer Reports, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE), etc.].

Low or dirty oil (or low and dirty oil) hurts engine efficiency and may increase harmful emissions. Check the dipstick regularly and change the oil as recommended by your owner's manual (usually about every 3,000 miles or three months).

Americans use more than a billion gallons of motor oil each year. Over a quarter of that oil is discarded into places where it doesn't belong, like lakes, streams, wetlands, backyards, storm sewers, open fields and road shoulders. Not a good idea – a single gallon of used oil, if improperly managed, has the potential to contaminate up to one million gallons of drinking water!

Most automotive service centers recycle used oil. With a minimum of reprocessing, oil can be used again in cars or burned as a high-energy industrial fuel.

Do-it-yourself (DIY) oil changers can recycle oil in four simple steps:

  • Drain the oil into a pan large enough to hold as many quarts as your vehicle's crankcase. (The average car uses about five quarts.) The pan should be clean, and not have been used for paint, solvents, antifreeze or anything else that might contaminate the oil.

  • Using a funnel, pour the oil from the pan into leak-proof containers with lids – clean plastic gallon milk jugs work well. don't mix that oil with anything else. If you change the filter, empty the old filter by inverting it over the pan and letting it drain overnight. Plug the hole of the old filter with paper towels, and put it in the box the new filter came in. Put on the new filter, put in the drain plug (very important) and add the new oil to the crankcase.

  • Bring the old oil and the old filter to a used oil collection site. It may be at a service station, auto parts store, quick oil change business, oil retailer, or city or county vehicle maintenance shop. For the site nearest you, contact your county or town public works department.

  • Pour the oil in the collection tank, properly discard the old filter, cap your containers, save them for the next change, and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Blink. Your car is talking to you. The light on your dashboard may say "check engine," or "service engine soon," or something similar. Your technician may refer to this as a "malfunction indicator lamp" or a "MIL light." This is your car's way of telling you something is wrong.

Since 1986, cars have been factory-equipped with on-board computers designed to notify you at the first sign of trouble. Your technician may refer to these systems as "on-board diagnostic" (OBD) systems. OBD systems monitor your vehicle's operation and performance to keep it running cleanly and efficiently. OBD can also give you advance warning to perform maintenance and help you avoid costly breakdowns. When your MIL light comes on, your car's computer will generate an internal code that will give a properly trained and equipped technician an idea of where to begin looking for the problem.

For proper service procedures, read your vehicle owner's manual. It is usually OK to drive your vehicle short distances with the MIL light on until it can be serviced, unless the light is flashing, another warning light comes on, you detect a strange noise or smell, or the vehicle is generally running poorly.

O3. There are two kinds, chemically identical: Good ozone, a naturally occurring layer in the stratosphere, and bad ozone, produced at ground level by car exhaust and other pollution. The stratospheric ozone layer prevents cancer-causing ultraviolet rays from reaching the Earth. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) leaking from auto air conditioners poke holes in the layer, allowing more UV rays through. (see "AIR CONDITIONER")

On hot, sunny days, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides emitted from autos form ground-level ozone. (See "EXHAUST") Humans, designed to breathe O2 (oxygen), don't take well to ozone's additional atom. Children, the elderly and people with respiratory ailments like asthma have difficulty breathing when ozone levels are high; many are forced to stay indoors. Even healthy people exercising outdoors during ozone alerts may be gasping for more air than usual.

Clean Air Act: the 1970 law cleared much of the smoke from America's skies, but we can't stop there. Amended in 1990, the act sets tougher limits on auto emissions and proposes transportation controls, especially for southeastern Wisconsin and other urban areas where ozone is a problem.

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.

Back to top

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.