Don't Trust Your Car's (or Bank's) Thermometer

With the warm weather I’ve been hearing about LOTS of really hot outlier temperatures being reported from car thermometers; and their owners wondering why they’re so different from official temperature reports. To clarify, let’s look first at how the official temperatures are measured.

There are four general guidelines for accurately measuring air temperatures.
- The thermometer must be outside of direct sunlight., otherwise you are measuring the sun’s intense shortwave energy and not the air temperature.
- It should also be in a well ventilated environment that’s representative of surrounding air, not in an enclosed area.
- Official temperatures are taken at about 5 feet above a natural surface and not a heat-retaining surface like concrete or asphalt. There can be as much as a 25 degree difference between air right above the ground and that at 5 feet.

- And measurements should also be far enough away from other heat emitting sources like walls and vehicles as to not be biased.

Conversely, the thermometers on most cars violate just about every one of the above guidelines. They are usually located under the front grillwork or adjacent body panel, only a foot or two above the highway or parking lot. Especially when a car has been sitting it is measuring the air heated by the parking surface plus any residual heat being given off by the vehicle itself. Even when a car is moving the temperature readings are upwardly biased by the heat given off by the roadway and the vehicle. It’s been my experience that car outside temperatures at startup on a warm day can be more than 10 degrees to toasty, and even while they seem generally to be at least 5 degrees too warm.

Similarly, the readings from locations like bank thermometers and some backyard thermometers don’t do a good job of accurately capturing the air temperature for some of the same reasons.

So when you next start up your car and see a dashboard outside temperature reading of 120° you can take solace in the fact that it’s probably only 105°!

Jan Null, CCM
Golden Gate Weather Services