In a Hurry to Get There?

10 Tips to Improve Fuel Economy

I often tell myself that I am not as old as a recent birthday would have me be. However, there are many things that remind me - not always in a totally unpleasant way - that time is really flying past...

As a teenager who once lived near Pasadena, California, I remember working at a Shell gas station there one summer, trying to earn some additional spending money for college. I was pumping premium gas (self-serve was unheard of at that time) for $0.34 per gallon. How's that for cheap gas...

Cars on the Interstate

That’s all a distant memory; and it is unlikely we’ll ever see that price again! But even though recent years have provided me with gasoline prices far more frightening to me than getting a bit older, it’s far better to consider ways to make our dollars go further when it comes to buying gas. With little to do to compensate other than ride a bike or walk, what is one to do when trying to plan and budget for that summer vacation with the family?

As an example, I used to own one of those lower mpg vehicles. I bought it because I needed a vehicle to tow a boat up to my favorite lake, which is pretty much all I use it for now. Thirty years ago, I didn't care about the fact that (A) the lake was 600 miles away and (B) that even back then, my vehicle only got 15-16 miles per gallon while towing.

But consider this: in the summer of 2004, gas averaged about $2.00 per gallon. My usual round-trip runs a total of about 1400 miles. That required about 90 gallons of gas at a cost of roughly $180. Prices since then have increased, but – in general – all vehicles now get far better gas mileage. And that is the good news! The other side of that coin, unfortunately, is that the cost of vehicles has increased... My hope is that you may now be a bit more interested to know just what are those little things to help ease the pain of the high cost of traveling by car, van, truck or some other vehicle?!

1: Check Your Tire Pressure

One can start by insuring that one's tires are properly inflated. Safety is an obvious issue; but keep in mind that under-inflated tires will flatten out under load and can cause steering problems at best. Under-inflated trailer tires become unsafe; they overheat, wear unevenly, and failure can easily occur. (See my article about Towing and Trailering.) Tires that are allowed to run at 20% under recommended pressure will cost you a 15% decrease in gas mileage. They will wear faster, causing need for replacement to occur earlier. In my case my “new” gas bill would cost me a whopping 18% more in fuel costs. So... Here are some suggestions:

Spend a few bucks on a good air gauge and insure proper inflation is the rule and not the exception. Check your owner's manual or call your mechanic to see what the recommended tire pressure should be. You can also simply look on the tires and see what the maximum allowed pressure is and increase your pressure accordingly. Make certain to always add air when the tires are cold. As an example, my tires indicate a maximum pressure of 44 psi under maximum load. On a trip -- with the car loaded -- I inflate them to about 39 psi. It really helps gas mileage!

2: Change Your Air Filter

The second thing one can do is to insure that a clean air filter is installed. A dirty/clogged filter can reduce mileage by as much as 10%. Even if one thinks that number is high, what would another 5% reduction in gas mileage add to my fuel bill? (About another $20!)

The price of an air filter -- especially if you buy and install it yourself (which is easy) -- will more than pay for itself in increased gas mileage.

3: Slow Down!

Slow down! I know you are in a hurry to get to that cabin and go fishing and water skiing... but high speed alone -- without any other issues -- can cause your fuel bill to skyrocket.

Every summer I drive north to my favorite fishing hole and every summer it seems as if folks are driving faster and faster. It’s an American thing: Bigger, Better, FASTER! That's the way we think and that is therefore the way we drive. We just have to get there as fast as possible.

Consider this: Over one-half of the energy required to move your car down the road is spent pushing air out of the way. The faster you drive, the more the aerodynamic drag and rolling resistance increase. And, the fuel economy rapidly decreases at speeds above 60 mph.

Each 5 mph over 60 mph can cause as much as a 7% decrease in fuel economy. Ignoring the safety issues for a moment, high speed driving will hit you hard in the wallet! It is basically the same as paying an additional $0.10 - $0.20 per gallon for gas. At 70 miles per hour with a dirty air filter and tires under-inflated by 20%, 15.5 mpg is effectively reduced to as little as 11 mpg. Think that's too low?

4: Keep Your Vehicle Clean

Keep your vehicle clean and waxed to reduce drag and therefore increase fuel economy. And as for the air conditioner issue... today's vehicles are much better at cooling without affecting gas mileage -- in part due to the engine size. On long trips at constant speeds, using the AC is better than driving with the windows open because of the increased drag caused by open windows at highway speeds.

5: Use Your Cruise

Use cruise control, if you have it... especially when driving on flat and level roads; however, the engine works too hard to quickly get back up to speed when climbing hills, so release the cruise for those times.

6: Reduce Your Load

Take excess and unneeded items out of both your car and your boat. Reducing the amount of extra "baggage" will also reduce your fuel consumption!

Fill 'er Up

7: Use the Web

Check websites like gasbuddy.com before you leave to find out where the best gas prices are -- even a few cents a gallon can really add up over the long haul.

8: Maintain Your Vehicle

Try to keep your vehicle tuned and well-maintained. Clean spark plugs and clean oil help to make your vehicle run more efficiently and produce better gas mileage... your car will also last longer!

9: Double-Check Your Route

Don't always count on your GPS.  Make certain you have the right maps in your vehicle as a backup plan in the event of an accident, road construction, bad weather, etc.

And make certain you are traveling the shortest possible distance with the fewest number of stops - needless idling and extra miles waste a lot of fuel!

10: No Jack-Rabbits Allowed

You've heard it many times before, but "jack-rabbit" starts and hard breaking stops will hurt your pocket book both at the pump and at the repair shop when the breaks need to be replaced.

And allow yourself ample space around your vehicle to ensure your safety.

As always, my concern is to see that you and your family get to where you are going and back home... safely. But with a little forethought and vehicle maintenance, you just might get there and back more economically as well.

And then you may just have that extra cash available that would have been left on the highway as tire rubber, gas fumes and frustrations. Follow these tips and have a great vacation!

See you On the Lake!

R. Karl