By BEN MITCHELL
The White Salmon Valley School District hates idleness.
No, that's not a reference to lazy students, although, there's something to be said for that as well.
About four years ago, the district put up several signs by the student pick-up and drop-off areas in front of each school that designated them as "No-Idle Zones." The signs -- which depict a child and parent being enveloped in a cloud of car exhaust -- were erected in an attempt to urge parents to shut off their engines while waiting for their children to be released from school.
Up until recently though, the district hasn't always been able to practice what it preached.
Almost all the school buses owned by the district are powered by diesel engines, which, while usually more powerful and efficient than spark ignition engines, have a notoriety for being both difficult to start in cold weather and taking longer to warm up. As a result, the engines would have to idle for several minutes if the buses had been turned off for too long, wasting fuel and belching diesel exhaust into the air.
Those days are gone.
Two weeks ago, Superintendent Dr. Jerry Lewis announced that 12 of the district's 17 large buses had been retrofitted with fuel-operated heaters that will not require engine idling. The project was funded through the Department of Ecology's Clean Diesel Program, which provided a $47,000 grant directly to Thermo King (a Minnesota company famed for inventing the mobile refrigeration unit) to complete the work.
"Basically what this will do is it will heat the engine so we don't have to idle it in cold weather," explained Susan Tibke, the district's transportation supervisor.
The heater will produce less emissions and use significantly less fuel. Tibke said that a typical school bus uses around a gallon of diesel for every hour that it idles.
The heaters, on the other hand, will use a fraction of that -- 3/100 of a gallon, to be precise. In kitchen terms, that equates to about two or three tablespoons of fuel every hour. Tibke said that the heaters will be set on timers to go off in the winter two hours before the buses need to be driven.
A gallon of wasted fuel per hour of idling may not sound like much, but it all adds up, especially when that's extrapolated over the district's 17 full-size buses.
"If all our route buses ran five minutes, two times a day, that's 270 gallons of wasted fuel a year," said Tibke.
"There's also not a lot of money around, so we're also trying to save taxpayer dollars," added Tibke.
With diesel over $4 a gallon, that equates to an annual fuel savings over $1,000. Factor in field trips and away games and that number climbs even higher.
The district will also save money by cutting down its electrical bill. Jim Meyer, head mechanic at the district's Sharon E. Schalk Transportation Center, said that in the past, bus drivers would use block heaters to warm the engines on cold days. With 20 buses running the 1500-watt block heaters for four hours a day, that also adds up. Meyer also noted that the block heaters would burn up at a rate of about six per year. At $90 a pop, that's another $540 of savings for the district.
What the grant really stresses though is the importance in curbing emissions. The DOE reports that diesel fumes contain 40 carcinogens and comprise over 80 percent of the cancer risk from air toxics in the state. Tibke explained that young kids are the most susceptible to air quality issues.
"For their body sizes, they actually breathe in more air than [adults] do," she said. "So, it's more damaging for them."
The heaters could also result in a reduction of grumpy, cold kids in the mornings.
"The buses should be a whole lot warmer in the winter," said Meyer.