Features
Who’s breathing easier?
Idling regulations leave some drivers short of needed power for pressurized breathing machines

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

When Michael Schneider’s head hits the pillow, his CPAP breathing machine hums along with his rumbling diesel engine.

The machine, which is about the size of a shoe box, pushes air through a tube to a mask that Michael straps on before going to sleep.

Since his apnea was diagnosed three years ago, Michael has used the breathing machine to sleep better and to reduce his risk of suffocation. Michael runs to California three times a month, spending a few nights in his company’s truck sleeper each time before returning home to Oklahoma with produce loads.

 “I think the CPAP machine is the greatest thing ever invented – even better than sliced bread,” Michael said. “Before, I always woke up tired. It’s probably something I’ve had my whole life that I just didn’t know.”

Although treatment is going well, he finds himself battling a growing patchwork of local and state idling laws that are at odds with his medical needs.

Truckers are moving toward alternative power sources to avoid idling away precious diesel, but Michael is one of many drivers who have needs that outstrip available technology.

Idling laws have hatched in dozens of cities, counties and states in recent years, including three-minute limits in New York City and St. Louis County, MO, as well as five-minute limits in Massachusetts, Maryland and, most recently, in California.

The laws are intended to cut emissions and noise pollution, but often ignore the health needs of truckers who make their cabs home for days and weeks at a time.

 

A sleep condition

Sleep apnea occurs most often when throat muscles relax during sleep, momentarily preventing oxygen from traveling to one’s lungs, according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site. The condition can be treated with use of a “continuous positive airway pressure” machine, referred to as a CPAP machine.

Once his apnea was diagnosed, Michael immediately began using a CPAP and learned to live with some initial discomfort caused by the machine’s mask.

Michael’s CPAP cost more than $2,000 and is equipped with a humidifier. The machine pulls several amps of energy to provide his airway with his medically prescribed 12 pounds of pressure.

Occasionally, longtime girlfriend Lois will wake him because the CPAP hose has become tangled. Otherwise, he sleeps soundly now.

But powering the CPAP has its challenges – and anti-idling regs aren’t helping the situation any.

Michael and Lois team drive and try to minimize unnecessary stops. When they pull over for sleeper time, the couple needs power for lights, air conditioning, two 54-gallon coolers and Michael’s CPAP machine.

Michael said his employer won’t put an APU on a team-driven truck, and his attempts to run the CPAP on battery power through the night have failed. The machine needs to be used in conjunction with air conditioning in hot temperatures in order to be effective.

 “What most people don’t realize about the machines is that there is an air intake in the back,” Michael said. “If that air is too hot and it’s being sucked down my throat – that will wake me up in a heartbeat.”

 

The state of idling

To further complicate the lives of truckers such as Michael who need power for health-related reasons while their trucks are stopped, anti-idling laws are growing both in number and in scope.

Minnesota, Florida and Pennsylvania are among the states exploring statewide idling bans.

But few states enforce idling laws with the zeal of CARB – the California Air Resources Board, which is a subdivision of California’s Environmental Protection Agency. CARB’s uniformed enforcement officers are charged with inspecting trucks to ensure compliance with the state’s emissions regulations.

Truckers aren’t allowed to idle their engines to power CPAP machines in California beyond five minutes, CARB spokeswoman Karen Caesar told Land Line. CARB suggests drivers use an APU or generator.

According to California’s new idling regs, APUs can be run on trucks with pre-2007 engines, and fuel-powered generators can be run on any vehicle, Caesar said.

Those caught violating CARB’s idling laws face a $300 fine for each occurrence. Exemptions for the law include hauling temperature-dependent hazmat loads, performing maintenance or safety checks, and idling in order to prevent a medical emergency.

Michael said he believes he has legal ground to defend idling his truck based on CARB’s medical emergency exemption. However, Michael said he and Lois have tried to avoid idling by relying on his company Freightliner’s battery system.

Michael found that his hotel load drained the batteries every few hours, enough to risk having to jump start in the morning. He said he’d have to restart the engine every two hours and idle for 45 more minutes to recharge the batteries, a scenario that reminds the driver of his disrupted sleep patterns before he started using his CPAP.

Newer CPAP machines are available with battery power, although it isn’t clear how long the batteries could hold up to a long-hauler’s work schedule.

Chris Brown, project leader for cpap.com, said his company sells some smaller CPAP machines that run on battery power for at least nine hours; however, those batteries lose their ability to hold a charge after six to nine months. Options such as heated humidifiers dramatically boost electricity requirements for some models.

After spending thousands for diagnostic tests and buying his CPAP, Michael said he isn’t ready to make another major purchase and wonders how his power needs would stack up to a battery-powered system’s capabilities.

Even if he eventually overcomes apnea, Michael said he may continue using his CPAP. He’s grown used to living on full rest, Michael said.

Speaking more seriously, Michael said he’ll fight for the right to keep using it.

 “This is a safety issue not only for the truck drivers but for the California highways,” Michael said. “There are a whole hell of a lot of drivers out there with sleep apnea. And not being able to have the proper power going to these machines, they’re asking for accidents.” LL

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com