Minnesotans might love being able to start a cold car with the push of a remote starter from the house or office, but they won't be warmed by the installation fee. If you're considering giving a remote car starter for the holidays, you should know that it can be a gift with a gotcha. You'll be doing the gift recipient a favor if you buy the remote start from a place that also installs them, such as Best Buy, Ziebart or Dealer Automotive Services in Hopkins.

"Remote starts are absolutely not for do-it-yourselfers anymore," said Bob Peterson, owner of New Brighton Service in New Brighton. The units are easier to install in older vehicles without anti-theft devices, he said, but weekend warriors who want to give it a shot should have electrical experience. "The biggest problem I see is connection failures. Guys use crimp connectors when they should be soldered."

Peterson says that he doesn't like to install the starters because it takes a long time to do a decent job and the price gets prohibitive for many consumers. He charges $200 to $250 for vehicles without an anti-theft system (usually models manufactured before 2000) and almost twice that amount for newer vehicles. It's getting difficult to find mechanics willing to install them because they can be so laborious, Peterson said.

Dealer Automotive in Hopkins has been doing 20 remote installs a day, said owner Steve Rush. His prices for the remote and installation begin at $210 for most vehicles manufactured before 2000 and $280 and up for most vehicles made after 2000. The most common system Rush sells, which will also lock and unlock doors, is $450 installed. Higher-end units can also turn on lights and rear-window defrosters, send confirmation that the engine has started and set running times. Some BMW, Saab or Volvo models cost even more because of a complicated installation, if it can be done at all, he said.

Rush won't install some brands commonly available at discounters. "I only install brands from manufacturers that will stand behind the product and take care of the customer, whether it's for parts or replacement." There is plenty of opportunity for problems. Most car keys have a transponder in them that makes it a challenge to remotely start the vehicle without the key in the ignition. If a do-it-yourselfer cuts corners, electrical problems such as "check engine" lights can plague the driver.

Most remote start systems will shut off a running engine automatically after 10 minutes without a key in the ignition. But how long should you let your car run if you want to be good to the engine and the environment? Most car experts say today's vehicles don't need to be idled to warm up the engine. The EPA says that idling for long periods in cold weather causes excessive engine wear as well as pollution, although the gasoline usage of an idling car is small.

According to Greg Pratt, an air quality research scientist at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, warming up a car is unnecessary and a bad idea because of the resultant air pollution. It's also a safety issue for motorists who idle their car in an attached garage with the door open. (Never let a vehicle idle in a closed garage, where carbon monoxide can present a health threat.) Still, vehicles parked outside might need to idle longer to defrost windows. Consumer Reports estimates that a 10-minute warmup for a Buick Lucerne V-8 costs 36 cents.

A Minneapolis ordinance limits vehicle idling to three minutes under normal weather conditions. In extreme temperatures, below zero or above 90 degrees, motorists have up to 15 minutes to make their car interior comfortable, said police Sgt. Jesse Garcia. Those with remote starts will not be tagged under Minneapolis' open ignition ordinance.

But it's illegal in some cities to start a car with the key and leave it unattended. It's a temptation for thieves looking to help themselves to a car or personal property. Since remote starts work without a key and the doors must be locked before starting remotely, no ticket would be issued. Lawbreakers are subject to fines of $45 in Minneapolis for violating either ordinance.

If you're considering buying a new car, ask about a factory-installed remote start. Honda doesn't offer one, but for a Chevy it costs about $300, Ford about $400 and Toyota about $500.

Want the latest in remote starters? The Viper SmartStart allows users to start their car with the push of a button on an iPhone or iPod Touch. The $500 price includes installation, but be prepared for the $30 annual subscription to Viper's SmartStart service. It's the gift that just keeps on, er, taking.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.