Getting into a frozen vehicle is a bit like having a rock for a driver's seat and four square wheels on the car.
After multiple mild winters, this latest mercury drop can make even the hardiest Minnesotan consider a technology upgrade - such as a remote car starter.
"Every time it gets cold the phones light up like a Christmas tree," said Ben Larson, owner of The Sound Connection. Larson said his Brainerd business has actually been installing remote starters steadily since November. In the last four to five years, Larson estimates they've installed between 800 and 1,000 starters on average each year.
On the very basic end, the remote starter allows you to stay warm and inside while starting your vehicle with a push of a button. But there are options to do much more. Costs vary depending on retailers, vehicles and options.
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Larson said the technology has come a long way since remote starters were introduced. Improvements include better installation techniques and greater safety features, he said. The advantages of getting into a warm and running vehicle isn't just about creature comfort. Vehicles operate better if they have time to warm up the works before being put into motion.
Remote starters can operate vehicles at distances of 800 feet to 2 miles, Larson said. Two-way remotes go even further by creating conversations between car and driver.
"You can actually call your car from your phone and start it," Larson said of the CompuTrack technology. That feature has come in handy for business travelers who can start their vehicles just before their plane lands.
Vehicles can be locked and unlocked by the remote, sliding van doors opened and trunks popped. On the basic level, a two-way remote lets the driver know if the vehicle actually started whether it chirps, lights up, vibrates or displays a visual of the auto.
Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist
Major car manufacturers, like General Motors and Ford, offer a factory-option remote starters. Larson said having the remote starter a standard feature from a car manufacturer helps establish confidence in the technology. Area installers said aftermarket versions may provide more features than factory models.
On days when the air temperature is in the double digits below zero, the vehicle can be programmed to start itself every three or four hours and run for 15 to 25 minutes. Vehicles can be set to start based on time or temperature, Larson said.
And its usefulness doesn't end on cold days. Vehicles can be programmed to start and run the air conditioning if the temperature hits 102 degrees, cooling down that hot car just before its quitting time at the office.
Basic starters can be built upon as people want to add features. Larson said it's as simple as getting new remotes and a little reprogramming.
Costs vary on the type of remote starter someone wants and what kind of vehicle they drive. Larson said the most basic starter with installation is about $159. Prices can go up to $720 with a complex car and the greatest range possible. Less expensive two-way remote starters are about $275 installed, Larson said.
At Best Buy, Matt Christensen, services manager, said remote starters have been popular all winter, not just for the recent cold snap.
Best Buy installs an average of five or six remote starters a week from October through March. Prices may range from $169 to $500 installed, depending on what the customer is looking to get.
At Radio Shack in Baxter, Doug Hafner, sales specialist, said prices may range from $230 to $330, depending on whether people want a one-way or two-way remote.
Hafner said the colder than usual weather this fall helped fuel early sales. Radio Shack started installing remote starters nine years ago. Hafner said they installed about 450 remote starters last year. They don't install the technology on vehicles with manual transmission, he said.
Remote starters have safety features designed protect the car and deter theft.
"Even if it's running you still have to have the key to drive it away," Larson said.
Stepping on the brake is enough to shut the car off. Hafner said installation integrates the starter to work with a vehicle's existing safety features.
"It's actually beneficial for insurance purposes as well," Christensen said of remote starters, adding higher end remotes with parental controls will even monitor heavy braking and some insurance companies will provide discounts if the technology is added.
Larson said the engine sensing is now much better than the early days. The remote starter will try to start the car three times. If it is too cold or the battery is dead, the controls shut the car off so it doesn't damage the electronics, he said.
There is one catch. In order to work, there has to be gas in the tank. And people will likely use more gas with a remote starter than they did before, Christensen said.
"It should have a professional installation," Christensen said. "It's not really a weekend project you can do. You have to have a high understanding of automobile electronics."
In December, Hafner said they put their first remote starter on a fuel-injected snowmobile. As a theft deterrent, the snowmobile will shut off if the throttle is activated and notify the driver via the remote control key fob.
Recent plunging temps do help sales, Hafner said.
"The cold weather it puts it in their head. They have to have it."
RENEE RICHARDSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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