By on April 7, 2014

Frozen in KC writes:

Long-time reader, first-time questioner with a 2005 Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer 4×4 question: My local Ford dealer says there is no block heater available to install on my Expedition. As you may know, it has been extremely cold in the midwest lately and my Ford is in the driveway. I have an outlet nearby and would love to be able to start up an already-warmed engine in these bitter cold mornings, not just for my comfort, but for the longevity of the engine. I’m pretty handy, but not an advanced mechanic.

Can the Best-And-Brightest possibly be of assistance? Thanks!

Sajeev answers:

Just because a dealership can’t install an OEM part doesn’t mean the aftermarket can’t hook you up. With something like this part.

So you can indeed install a universal engine block heater on a 4×4 Expedition, but is it worth the trouble? Maybe not. Run synthetic oil to ensure the best engine protection below freezing.  Maybe put a remote start for your convenience.  And since it’s an Eddie Bauer, heated seats might be in play too. Those three items are more than adequate for most KC winters.

I mean, this Expedition doesn’t Traverse the frozen Tundra of the Yukon Territory. (childish giggling) 

I can understand the luxury vs. necessity of having an engine block heater, so the question remains: it is worth it to you?

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice. 

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57 Comments on “Piston Slap: A Frozen Expedition South of the Yukon’s Tundra?...”


  • avatar
    eggsalad

    What may also surprise you is what a block heater does to your electric bill. If you do find one, install it on a timer so it powers on about an hour before you intend to leave.

    • 0 avatar

      While researching this Piston Slap, I read that parking structures/lots that have block heater plugs actually cycle on/off for this reason. Not cheap.

    • 0 avatar
      st1100boy

      Growing up in North Dakota, I know a thing or two about block heaters. They are indeed expensive to run. A timer is a good idea, or simply plugging it in as soon as you wake up and letting it run while you get ready. 30-60 minutes of run time is usually enough. Our rule of thumb was to only use the block heater when the mercury dipped below 0 F, and that was with old school carbureted engines. With a modern, well maintained vehicle, -10 or so is probably more like it. For example, I started my ’12 Mustang at about -10 once this winter, no block heater, no problem. I’m thinking a block heater in KC is overkill.

      • 0 avatar

        The rule of thumb here in Saskatchewan is 3-4 hours in the really cold weather (which can approach -40 C/F). st1100boy must live in the banana belt of North Dakota. :)

        You can start a modern engine at pretty cold temperatures, but having warmer oil results in less wear and tear. I tend to plug in if the temperature is dropping below about -15 (converted, maybe 5 F or so). The car certainly doesn’t throw heat immediately but it warms up a lot faster, and it starts a lot more easily.

        One other piece of advice for cold weather: prolonged idling to warm up the engine is worse for it than just letting it run 30-60 seconds (30 is enough for most US “cold” :)… my MN/ND/MT/AK friends excepted) and then gently driving off. Your vehicle will warm up faster from operating than it will from sitting there idling, improving your fuel economy (0 mpg while idling :) ) and reducing unnecessary wear.

        If you routinely get below 5 F there I’d get a block heater – they’re cheap. But yes, use a timer, and select your days.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          I find that -20C (-5F) and colder is where a block heater comes in handy. I also use a timer and my work site has timers built into the parking lot (20 minutes/hour).

          As far as the dealer saying there isn’t one available to install, they may be referring to an OEM part. The “Polar Vortex” may of pushed everyone to get block heaters so parts may be on back order.

          The aftermarket should have something. The 5.4 V8 has been around a long time.

  • avatar
    PonchoIndian

    I’d be truly surprised if a block heater made any actual difference in the life of your engine. It may warm it up quicker for your personal comfort, but unless you need to heat the engine to get it to actually turn over I think the cost of electricity would far outweigh any benefits you might see in engine longevity.

    • 0 avatar
      jethro78

      This manufacture of block heaters makes some interesting claims:

      http://www.defa.com/en/automotive/warmup/products/engine_heaters/

      I believe that most block heaters are about 600 watts.

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        The one in my old 5.7L Suburban was ~1500 watts IIRC. If left on consistently, the difference in the power bill was noticeable. The timer paid for itself a few times over.

      • 0 avatar
        PonchoIndian

        Fair enough.
        I can’t say I’ve ever used a block heater, I just find it hard to believe that it will really make a difference in gas engine longevity over say 200,000 miles of ownership. I’ll bet using a quality synthetic oil with a 0-20 or 0-30 viscosity will be cheaper an more beneficial in that 200K miles of ownership.

        I suppose if you stand back and look at it, the overall costs might be similar to someone installing an automatic start system and letting the car warm up for 10 minutes on cold days.

        Of course, I could be completely and utterly wrong.

        • 0 avatar
          Lou_BC

          I’ve had vehicles fail to start at -30C to -49C. I’m sure that it is hard on them since a vehicle won’t turn over without it.

          A long time ago I read a story about a guy with a SBC powered pickup who lived in the Southern USA. He delivered newspapers. He put a million miles on it. Canadian experts said that sort of feat would be unheard of in Canada due to an engine never truly getting to operating temperature.

          The more quickly it heats up the longer it will last.

  • avatar
    NormSV650

    Oil pan heaters were around $100 and used 100 watts. They were RTV to the oil pan and heated up the oil instead of half. Way up the block where is no fluids during key off.

  • avatar
    geozinger

    The old timers from Minnesota used to swear by a 100 watt light bulb in a drop-light under the engine. I would have to imagine something like that would still work today.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      As long as it’s an incandescent bulb–those things get hot.

    • 0 avatar

      That worked for frozen carbs…probably not as beneficial these days.

      • 0 avatar
        Drzhivago138

        “Aghh, it doesn’t matter how hot the injector pump gets, I still can’t get Gertie to start! Damn gub’mint laws…makin’ us all get fuel injection…ggrrmrmmgmmgh…”

    • 0 avatar
      Tinker

      And where will you find a new 100 watt incandescent bulb today? Forbidden to sell you one.

      • 0 avatar
        Zoom

        Not true. There is no “ban” on incandescent bulbs, but the regs will make them obsolete at some point, when the alternatives get cheaper to buy a operate. The regulations cover 40 to 100 watts only. The regs also don’t cover types like rough service, 3-way, appliances, etc. Buy a standard 150 watt, or a 100 watt rough service bulb.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          [Citation needed]. I know this is TTAC, but come on.

          FWIW, my father (who is unilaterally convinced that climate change is a scheme concocted by rich liberals to get richer…not a can of worms we need to open up here) will not buy twisty fluorescent light bulbs because “they don’t last as long as they should for what we’re paying for them.” And granted, a lot of our bulbs are in spots that get turned on and off rapidly, or end up being exposed to subzero temperatures, which would shorten their life, but in average situations (97+% of the population), they do last longer. But Dad’s always had reason to distrust marketers pushing new tech (false claims and even outright lies), particularly so in the agricultural field, and it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

          Another thing he doesn’t particularly care for is the fact that he can’t put them in the regular “metal garbage” like incandescents ’cause of the mercury. Which I do agree with–how the hell can you manufacture a light bulb with heavy metal and still pass it off as “environmentally friendly”?

          Hopefully LEDs can solve both these problems.

          • 0 avatar
            Luke42

            As far as I can tell, the amount of mercury in a modern CFL is about the same as the mercury found in two cans of tuna.

            The people who care about saving the environment care about this, though. But the slightly smarter people who care about saving the environment realize that the amount of power saved by the bulb prevents a greater amount of mercury from being emitted into the environment by power plants. As you can imagine, this has lead to some green-on-green strife.

            LEDs seem to be much better. I’ve had great luck with the yellow Phillips ones, both in terms of reliability and the character of the light. But they are expensive. I don’t mind paying the early adopter premium, but not everyone should do this just yet.

          • 0 avatar
            Hillman

            Look into LED’s. Get a good quality American made one and it is worth the upfront costs IMHO. They are not affected by humidity and frequent on/off usage as CFL’s are.

          • 0 avatar
            JimC2

            What a shame! (Regarding your Dad and compact fluorescents.) I’ve had about a dozen of them for the past ten years (brought them with me for two moves- remove and store the incandescents when I move in and replace the incandescents when I move out). One has burned out (?!?) and one I smashed by mistake. I’m pretty sure these suckers have paid for themselves in:

            -reduced electric bill from cheaper lighting
            -reduced electric bill from less air conditioning (I live in a hot climate)
            -had to replace only that one burned out lightbulb

            Good point about mercury content in tuna (I prefer salmon- ha!) and excellent point about mercury release from power generation (lotsa coal-fired power stations in the United States).

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            The power plant=mercury is slightly irrelevant in my neck of the of the woods, since about a third of our local co-op’s power comes from the Oahe Dam. The windmills which dot the horizon actually don’t contribute much; their energy produced is sold to California (seriously!) for a tax credit.

          • 0 avatar
            945T

            Sounds like my dad. And he’s right. Especially the earlier bulbs, they were total garbage. They’ve significantly improved since they first came on the market.
            We are now adopting the yellow philips led lights and we are happy so far. They’re also better for the on/off response.

          • 0 avatar
            George B

            Here’s a list from Philips of all the different incandescent bulbs that are allowed and “rough service” is on the list.
            http://applications.nam.lighting.philips.com/cmolegislation/index.php#4
            It’s pretty easy to buy incandescent bulbs if you want heat or dimming with a shift down in color temperature.

            Fluorescent lighting and bulbs with mercury have been around since the middle of the 20th century. They got smaller, but the main problem of unflattering color rendering remains. Funny how “blueish” fluorescent HID lights for your car became a luxury feature.

            Heat is the enemy of LED lighting. I probably wouldn’t spend a high price for LED bulbs and then put them in a hot enclosed fixture. Pretty common to see LED traffic lights with dead segments due to heat.

    • 0 avatar
      srh

      I’m not an old-timer, but in the early 90s in Anchorage I used the lightbulb trick with our ’86 Suburban whenever it would drop well below zero.

      My step-mom lived in Denali Park in the 80s without electricity. She had an old Mazda B2000 pickup truck, and on cold mornings (which were quite frequent) she would light a small fire under the oil pan.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    The light bulb works wonders and doesn’t run up your power bill .

    Also there are easy to install coolant heaters you splice into the lower radiator hose , these heat up the entire engine not just the oil .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      A block heater is … heating the coolant. That’s the way they work, by putting a big ol’ heating element right into the coolant reservoir, thus heating effectively the whole block.

      Thus, well, block heater.

      (At least, that’s the way every one I’ve seen or heard of has worked…)

      • 0 avatar
        Lemmy-powered

        Sigivald, you are right, but the coolant heater that splices into the water circuit is also pretty good. In my experience with a Zerostart model on VW TDI, it worked more slowly than a traditional block heater, gradually warming the entire water jacket.

        I’ve run both. Both work, I think the Zerostart used relatively little power.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    Thinning the oil with a little gas ala the Ruskies in WWII works in times of -20 F or below. Got me to work back in the big cold snap of ’96.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Dang it Kenmore, now you made me think of that Kelsey Gramer vehicle “Down Periscope”.

      Lt. Comd. Dodge: Give me all you got, Howard!
      Lt,. Howard, Chief Engineer: Aye, sir! This is what I live for, DBF!
      [pulls out a bottle of whiskey, takes a swig, and pours the rest into the oil tank]
      Stepanek: What are you doing?
      Lt,. Howard, Chief Engineer: Whiskey, thins down the mix. Gives us another 500 RPM’s!

    • 0 avatar
      JimC2

      “Thinning the oil with a little gas ala the Ruskies in WWII”

      Old bush pilot trick way up north, too.

  • avatar
    Onus

    You can get a block heater.

    Also look at the circulating heaters. Those will work a ton better, and are probably easier to install in my opinion.

    Most engine damage is caused during startup.

    Heck i have a diesel and my block heater died during this cold winter. I had to resort to disabling my glow plugs and using starting fluid. Otherwise i would run the batteries down. The glow plugs aren’t in the best shape as you can imagine.

  • avatar
    Halftruth

    Dipstick heater. Cheapest and easiest way to see if you get any benefit from pre-heating the engine (as long as you have a dipstick tube).

    • 0 avatar

      Agreed on the dipstick heater. I used one on my Volvos for years. Made a big difference. I considered buying one this winter when the Saturn started complaining cranking over in subzero temps. Dipstick heaters are cheap (~$30 or less), they only draw about 80 or 90 watts and while they don’t keep the water jacket warm, they do make it easier to start in extreme cold.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Probably not much of a longevity benefit with engines using modern oils that aren’t left to sit weeks at a time. In terms of the cost calculation, there’s got to be some fuel economy benefit from starting out with a moderately warm engine, so that mixtures are already leaned out. 1.5Kw is a lot of juice, however.

    A garage works wonders, if you have one!

  • avatar
    danio3834

    Looks like Ford discontinued the block heater part number for the 5.4L 3V which I assume your Expedition has. The good news is there are lots of aftermarket generic kits available which will work essentially the same, you just need to get one with the right core plug size. The Ford catalog seems to indicate the 5.4L 3v has 1-3/4″ core plugs, a heater kit for this size won’t be hard to get from your local parts chain.

    Installing them can be a b1tch, but it shouldnt be too bad on yours once you take the inner fender liner out.

    • 0 avatar

      I installed an aftermarket block heater in my 4.0 L Ranger, for the hell of it since I was flushing the coolant anyway. Hardest part was putting the inner fender lining back in.

      Just be sure you punch out the right freeze plug and point the heating element in the right direction. The instructions tell you the right way to do it for your particular engine.

  • avatar
    TR4

    Strongly advise using the core/freeze plug type of heater even if installation is more difficult. The tank type units that splice in the heater hose work well if you have a cable operated water valve left open but with vacuum operated valves all bets are off. The lower radiator hose types don’t always circulate the water that well because the engine’s thermostat is closed. Oil pan heaters are good for heating the oil in the pan but not much else. The dipstick type can even “cook” the oil as it is trying to apply heat from a very small surface area.

    • 0 avatar
      05lgt

      Old (well 50) school here from Idaho Falls. Back in the carb days, a drop bulb under the car in a detached garage worked with a jumpstarting charger available. Dipstick heaters coked the oil onto the heater, but if you cleaned it on removal it should have kept the crunchy stuff away from the bearings. If the concern is freezing the coolant in the block (real cold) then all night heat makes sense, but fresh coolant apprpriately mixed with fuel injection and seat heaters and a strong battery should make all this unnecessary.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        @05lgt – I guess that there are people who run just water in their engines but antifreeze or some form of commercial cooling system fluid is a must.
        Frozen water in an engine block could wreck all sorts of things. Best case scenario is the need to replace the frost plugs.

  • avatar

    I ended up going with a Thermo Top E Webastro in my off road Subaru. I spend allot of time in the frozen north beyond Canada and the thing really works the treat. They are a bit expensive but worth it in the long run.

  • avatar
    Juniper

    Living north of Chicago I have had two block heaters. Both in inline sixes with carbs. One was in the lower radiator hose and the other I used the freeze plug type on the side of the block. Both worked great, and I used a timer for a couple hours in the worst part of winter. I also had a SBC and a 4cyl with carbs that never had a problem on cold mornings so no heater. Since then it’s been all EFI and no problems. My ten yr old PT started like a champ sitting outside during this long cold winter so no problem. The “good” car is in an attached garage that altho not heated stays warmer than outside. Block heaters for me are a thing of the past. I lived close to work so never ran up high miles but I keep my cars 10 yrs or so. Never had a wear related engine problem. I also do careful maintenance. Especially just before winter.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    If you are looking to prolong the life of the engine then you need an oil heater. If you are looking for instant heat when you get in the vehicle then the best option is one of the circulating heaters in the heater hose. That pumps the coolant through the heater core and the engine. In moderate temps you’ll even come out to a mostly clear windshield as the heat will rise from the HVAC system out of the defroster vents.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      For this specific case of a 2005 Ford Expedition in Kansas City the heater makes no sense. A large percentage of the engine wear has already occurred, the winters are not that cold most years (lived there), and the modular V8 will outlive the rest of the SUV. We’re talking about a Ford designed in the Jacques Nasser era so the cost and annoyance of failed parts from the lowest cost supplier will send the truck to auction or the crusher long before engine wear becomes a problem.

  • avatar
    mburm201

    Living in the arctic north (MN) for most of my life, I have quite a bit of experience with auto heaters of various kinds. When I get a vehicle, I usually have a block heater installed in short order. They are inexpensive ($15 at Amazon for the well-rated Kat’s brand) and reliable. They can be a bit of a pain to install, but my mechanic handles that. I have a dipstick heater that I bought for temporary use one time, but you have to raise the hood every time to use it, risk dripping oil, and they aren’t supposed to be used with plastic dipstick tubes. A block (frost plug) heater just seems like the most permanent solution. I have my block heater on a timer that starts up about 3 hours before I need to leave for work. I plug in the car when the temperature is below 10f. The car can start well below that, but I have seen how oil pours at zero degrees, and I want my high mileage cars to last as long as possible. At 10c/kwh, the cost is only about 20c/day.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      A block heater does nothing for getting the oil hot so it will flow better on initial start up. Yes it will get up to temp a little sooner but it is the flow of the initial crank that is hard on engine longevity. Get one of the pan heaters either one of the magnetic ones if you have a steel pan or one of the pad ones if it is aluminum.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    Also, to address the actual question – the block heater on most engines, and definitely on the 3V 5.4L Ford Modular in that Expedition, just replaces a freeze plug in the block (the right one, not a random one, but still).

    It should be a relatively trivial operation for any mechanic, or home wrencher (I mean, you’ll have to catch and refill the coolant some, and it might be annoying to *get to* the plug, but none of it’s hard in and of itself).

    Internet shows OEM-like ones for around $30.

    And FordParts will sell you the real Ford one for about $50 – http://www.fordparts.com/Commerce/PartDetail.aspx?n=3dPCvjF0TZiZNCQsXBtn2g%3d%3d&id=269670558

    I suppose it’s barely possible that some magic of the Bauer package means you can’t put it on yours, but more likely it will fit and work perfectly just like any other 3V 5.4L.

  • avatar
    Tree Trunk

    Our Explorer has a dealer installed block heater here in Alaska as well as the Expeditions.

    Don’t know if they are OME or aftermarket though.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    The pour point of Mobil 1 5W-30 synthetic is -42C (about -43F), and it does occasionally get that cold in Canada and the northern US.

  • avatar
    Fordson

    People are missing the point of the block heater. I have one in my 2003 SVT Focus – it was part of the cold weather package, along with heated seats and mirrors.

    The heater is the freeze plug type. It draws 80 watts (oooh – expensive to run!). You do put it on a timer; for best results, give it 3 hours before you leave in the morning. It will heat the coolant to 130 degrees – after it’s been on for 3 hours, you don’t want to put your hand on the cam cover.

    Doesn’t heat the oil? It sure as hell does heat the oil, somewhat, and that helps. Yes, as one commenter pointed out, it will give you a good start toward defrosting your windshield before you even start the car. It also heats up the transaxle fluid somewhat, and since the battery is mounted next to the block and head, and over top of the transaxle, it heats that up, too, which helps it perform and lengthens its life.

    At any temp over 10 degrees F, the temperature gauge comes off the peg as soon as you turn the ignition on, and at that temp it takes just over 4 minutes of normal driving from engine start to full operating temperature. Within 30 seconds after start, the HVAC fan is blowing 70-degree air into the cabin, and when it’s 10 degrees out, that feels pretty damn good.

    If none of that sounds attractive to you, then don’t get a block heater – just use synthetic oil and call it good – I’ll keep my block heater, thank you. Also, the statement in the post itself that having one installed (not much $$, but more labor) is too much trouble that can be avoided by just getting remote start (more expensive parts, less labor) is a joke – it’s going to cost you the same, duh.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Block heaters on cars are typically in the 400 to 500 watt range. I’ve never heard of any lower than that.

      I like to use a block heater as often as possible if it’s below freezing. The engine seems happier, and the car provides interior heat much more quickly.

      It’s far easier to install a block heater than a remote starter. It’s just not as easy to find someone who’s willing to butcher everything around it while hacking it in for minimum wage the way you can with remote starters.

  • avatar
    happycamper

    Someone I know just torched his Explorer and melted the siding on his house by using the block heater. Fortunately, the vehicle was outside and not in the garage.


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