Still idling your car? Here’s why you’re in the minority in Utah.

Utah Clean Air Partnership research shows more people aren’t running their cars and are taking other personal actions

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) An inversion is seen over downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

If you’re idling your car, not lowering your thermostat a few degrees or not taking personal action to improve the state’s air, you’re in the minority in Utah.

UCAIR’s research shows the following:

  • 75% of Utahns reported never running their car while it’s not being driven, an increase of 3% from last year.

  • 84% reported lowering their thermostat by two degrees, an increase of 7% from last year.

  • 94% of Utahns say they are familiar with personal actions they can take to improve Utah’s air, an increase of 5% from last year.

Utah Clean Air Partnership began in 2012 and is a nonprofit that, along with its partners, educates Utahns about air quality issues and provides grants which help organizations reduce their emissions.

Executive Director Kim Frost laid out the numbers at the organization’s 10th Anniversary Celebration at the Union Event Center on Wednesday night.

Utah could use a few less emissions: in 2019, Utah emitted 19.2 metric tons of energy-related carbon dioxide per person, compared to the U.S. average of 15.7 metric tons per person, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Salt Lake, in particular, is known for its notoriously bad air quality, visible every winter when the inversion traps pollutants in a hazy smog.

Ozone is the main ingredient in that smog, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it has a detrimental impact on everything from vegetation and ecosystems to your health.

Salt Lake City has never met federal attainment levels for ozone, according to IQair.

And although the Salt Lake City metropolitan area reached its “lowest ever” measurement for short-term particle pollution this year, a 2022 American Lung Association report states, it still ranks within the top 25 worst cities for such pollution nationally, claiming the 20th-worst rank, better than the 17th-worst rank it held in last year’s report.

And in the 2021 State of the Air report, created by the American Lung Association, Salt Lake County ranked 12th on a list of the 25 U.S. counties most polluted by ozone.

Salt Lake even had the worst air quality in the world on Aug. 6, 2021, when smoke from West Coast wildfires blew over the state.

UCAIR is trying to change that.

Updating equipment

In addition to promoting personal responsibility for the state’s air quality, Frost said that UCAIR has helped Utahns update more than 11,200 pieces of gas-powered equipment such as lawnmowers and snow blowers to battery-powered models, with support from the Utah Division of Air Quality and other partners.

The same programs have recycled nearly 6,100 pieces of equipment.

For instance, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality runs the CARROT (Clean Air Retrofit, Replacement, and Off-Road Technology) Program. Potential participants enter a lottery, and if their names are drawn, receive a $299 coupon code to buy an electric lawn mower in exchange for recycling their gas-powered mower. This year’s lottery concluded in April.

Running a gas-powered lawn mower for an hour is equal to driving a car 196 miles, the DEQ website states.

UCAIR has worked with public and private sectors to replace polluting wood-burning stoves with low-emitting gas stoves, and has exchanged thousands of high-emitting gas cans for safer, cleaner models.

UCAIR periodically holds free gas can exchanges where residents of specified counties can trade their pre-EPA standard gas cans (anything made prior to 2009) for EPA-compliant gas cans.

The EPA estimates that pre-2009 gas cans emit around eight pounds of harmful chemicals each year due to evaporation through secondary vent holes and permeation of vapors through container walls. The EPA-compliant cans have thicker walls and a single venting hole.

“[We] breathe this air every day,” UCAIR Board Chair Emily Schilling said while speaking to the nearly 500 guests. “We have to find solutions today for tomorrow’s air quality.”

Tier 3 fuel

UCAIR has thoughts on what those solutions could look like. In an interview, Frost said the importance of Tier 3 fuel can’t be overstated.

Tier 3 gas is a cleaner-burning fuel that reduces vehicle emissions without compromising cars’ performances.

“If we could wave a magic wand and have only Tier 3 vehicles on the road, fueled with Tier 3 fuel, it would have the emissions equivalent of taking four of every five cars off the road,” Frost said.

Tier 3 fuel has less sulfur, so it burns cleaner.

In cars made after 2017, it slashes emissions by 80%, while in older cars the benefit is about 13%.

It’s not difficult to get, either: gas bought at Sinclair, Speedway, Exxon, Chevron, Texaco and Shell is Tier 3. A map of all Tier 3 gas stations in the state is available at tier3gas.org.

Frost also said more construction companies are embracing cleaner technology, such as ultra-low NOx water heaters (which emit lower levels of nitrogen oxide than standard gas water heaters), improved insulation standards and solar technologies.

These innovations make buildings more energy-efficient, which in turn reduces emissions, she said.

In the coming months, UCAIR will focus on teaching people about summertime ozone.

“Utahns are very educated about our winter inversions and what they can do to reduce emissions during the colder months,” Frost said. “We plan to let everyone know we have perhaps an equal challenge in the summer with ground-level ozone. It’s not as visible, so it’s not as top-of-mind.”

Many personal behaviors that reduce emissions during winter will also work during summer.

From taking public transit to teleworking to mowing lawns in summer evenings instead of mornings — all can reduce emissions that contribute to ozone formation during the heat of the day, she said.