Guest Opinion: Ways to drive improved air quality |

Guest Opinion: Ways to drive improved air quality

Zac Sutherland

This is Air Quality Awareness Week. When we measure air quality in Garfield County, we look at ozone levels, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Driving our cars can have a significant impact on overall air quality, and most of us do it daily. In fact, the EPA estimates that nearly half of all air pollution comes from mobile sources, with automobiles being the main culprit.

Automobiles impact air quality in a number of ways. Most of us, myself included, are still driving vehicles with an internal combustion engine, which runs on fossil fuel. These engines emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Traditional engines also emit several different carcinogenic VOCs, particulate matter (which can damage lungs), such as soot and tiny pieces of metal, as well as carbon monoxide and ozone (which can cause or worsen breathing issues).

As traffic continues to increase in our valley, let’s look at some ways to minimize the environmental damage our vehicles can cause. You might also save some money in the long run.

The first, and perhaps most obvious solution is to drive less often. In Garfield County, we have the benefit of incredible trail systems, bike paths, sidewalks and a great rapid transit bus system in RFTA. I consider these options whenever possible. If none of these work in your situation, consider carpooling. Being in a carpool for work allows us to keep gas costs down, minimize mileage and wear and tear on our cars, as well as a few days a week where we can sit back and relax on our commute.

If you’re primarily using your own car for transportation, is your check engine light on? Often, this is due to issues that can impact your emissions. Getting a check engine light checked out and the problem repaired will reduce your overall harmful emissions. The catalytic converter is responsible for taking care of carbon monoxide and VOCs. If you have a rattling or loud exhaust, it’s worthwhile to get it repaired or replaced if necessary. The oxygen sensor on a car is responsible for checking your oxygen/fuel mixture. If this does not work properly, you’re using more gas than you need to be. In fact, a malfunctioning oxygen sensor can cost you up to 15 percent of your overall fuel economy. An automobile’s emissions control system not only reduces VOCs, but improves overall gas mileage as well. Fixing any of these known issues on your car or truck will not only improve overall air quality, but also help you save on gas.

Perhaps your car or truck is running OK, but it’s time to do some routine maintenance. Here are a few things to consider. Replacing the spark plugs, transmission fluid, properly aligning and inflating your wheels and tires, replacing old air filters, using the proper grade of motor oil or replacing sticky brake pads will increase your fuel economy by a few percent for each fix. If you have several of these maintenance issues, it will have a much bigger impact on overall fuel economy. The less gas we use per mile traveled, the less air pollution we cause (and more money we save overall).

Maybe you’re ready for a new car or truck. There are many newer vehicles with technology that further improves fuel economy. Ford’s Ecoboost engines, for example, still give you great acceleration and towing power without sacrificing fuel economy. These types of efficient vehicles burn less fuel, and therefore have lower emissions.

If you really want to go all out, a hybrid electric vehicle might be worth considering. Hybrid electrics come in plug-in and non-plug-in models. The non-plug-in uses regenerative braking to charge an onboard battery. This battery works alongside a traditional gasoline engine to power the car. This stretches the fuel economy significantly further in most models. A plug-in electric vehicle uses a charging system that can plug into a garage wall for overnight charging, as well as public quick charging stations that are found along the Western Slope. In fact, there are now over 40 public charging stations from Breckenridge to Grand Junction, many of which are free to use. There are also tax rebate programs available for electric vehicles, which can shave off several thousand dollars from the overall price of the vehicle.

Whatever situation you find yourself in with your existing vehicle, we have dozens of ways to lessen our impact on the air we breathe.

Zac Sutherland is an environmental health specialist with Garfield County Public Health.

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