Gasoline Prices and Fuel Economy

The price of gasoline is a sore spot for most families and regardless of today’s price, the overall trend has always been upward. Whether it’s daily drives, long commutes, vacations, or recreation, it all adds up. When making our frugal plans, many of us neglect to recognize the savings that can be reaped from following a few small tips. It doesn’t matter if your car gets 35 MPG or 16 MPG, if you are not following these tips, you are burning money for no reason.

The average non-commercial driver in the United Sates drives about 15,000 miles! If the average cost of gasoline is $2.75 and the average car in the U.S. gets a theoretical ~23 MPG then the average single car family spends about $1,794 on fuel! Now if that average MPG is really closer to 17 or 18 because the average person does not follow these simple tips and tricks, that cost becomes $2,427. Do you want to find an EASY way to save over $600 a year on gasoline? Read on:

Driving Habits

Race Much? – You are not in a race, so stop driving like you are at the race track. Drive in calm, relaxed and alert manner, using the gas, breaks and steering wheel with finesse. Follow these simple tips and you can easily add 3-4 MPG to your average mileage, save your tires and the nerves of your passengers and drivers you share the road with.

  • Acceleration – When you pull away from traffic signals or any dead stop, nice and gentle acceleration is the name of the game. The same holds true at highway speeds. Unless you have a real need to quickly accelerate, slows and steady wins the day. Stepping even modestly hard on the gas pedal wastes fuel by over-revving the engine before the drive train can catch up.
  • Lurching – We have all been in a car with a driver who maintains speed by giving the gas pedal quick repetitive stabs. This is not only nauseating to passengers, but it is an extreme waste of fuel. Maintain speed with a steady foot and gently ease into and out of the gas pedal to maintain a steady speed. Your wallet and your passengers will thank you!
  • Cruise Control – Even the steadiest foot is not as efficient as your cruise control. Whenever possible (safety first!) use cruise control; it will give you better fuel economy and make both your passengers and other drivers around you happy. Nobody likes to follow the “dead foot” driver whose speed drifts continuously.
  • Downshifting – Standard transmissions are becoming less popular, but they still have a decent market share. Use the brakes; don’t downshift! While downshifting is cool and makes you look like a pro, it uses the engine as a brake and wastes fuel. Push in the clutch and use the brake. If you feel the need, run the shifter through the gear sequence as you normally would but keep the clutch depressed. This will allow you to react quicker in an emergency if you do need to let the clutch back out and accelerate. Takeaway: Brake pads are far cheaper than the wasted mileage that results from downshifting.
  • Cornering – Like acceleration, smooth and steady does the trick here. Leaning the car into corners scrubs off speed due to friction and uses power, as well as needlessly eating away rubber from those expensive tires.
  • Braking – Use the brakes for what they were intended for (stopping) not as a speed control along with your accelerator.

Vehicle Features

Enable Features – Most modern cars come equipped with user controllable fuel economy features. In fact, when you look at the window sticker mileage ratings, in most cases the numbers you see are with ALL economy features enabled. These features may enable:

  • Economy modes – May reduce overall power or adjust acceleration curves and other engine performance aspects for city or highway driving.
  • Engine stop/start – Shuts down the engine while stopped in traffic, saving fuel. There is some debate as to the overall cost of wear and tear on an engine that starts and stops thousands more times more than a car without the technology. Manufacturers insist that these new engines are built with the technology in mind, and their warranties take this into consideration.
  • AC start/stop – Shuts down the AC system while the car is not moving, but may allow the fan to still run. The AC puts a significant strain on the engine, especially at idle speeds. Trade a bit of comfort for economy!
  • Dynamics Controls – May include aerodynamics and suspension settings that lower or alter the cars stance, wind resistance and handling at different speeds. Less drag and smoother cornering mean better fuel economy.

Vehicle Maintenance

Get that Tune-Up – Maintaining your vehicle and choosing the proper equipment can go a long way to saving an extra few MPG. Even maintenance that does not directly affect mileage makes good sense for a healthy wallet. If your warranty covers tune-ups and regular maintenance, then take advantage of the perk – every time it is due! If you do not have a premium maintenance plan, you ca

  • Tire Pressure – Properly inflated tires are not only important for safety and handling, but they are essential for good fuel economy. For every two PSI of air pressure that your tires are under inflated, you lose 1% on your gas mileage. The average is 10 PSI low and that equates to a 5% loss in mileage, or at today’s prices that is easily $3 – $5 per tank. You should check your tire pressure regularly! A modern digital gauge like the one shown here is around $10. Keep one in every car, check air pressure at least every other fill-ip and before all major trips!
  • Air Filters – You will not reap multiple MPG by changing your engine’s intake air filter, but it is a good maintenance practice at the manufacturer’s scheduled interval. If you have been in extremely dusty or dirty conditions or live on a dirt road, then more frequent checks and replacement will be required.
  • Oil – Modern engines, oils and filters are designed to provide a much longer maintenance window than most of us grew up with. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and don’t rely on the old 3 months or 3,000 miles rule of thumb. That said, be sure to use a quality (synthetic or synthetic blend if your manufacturer allows it) oil and change it per the manufacturer’s recommended interval. You DO check your oil level regularly right?
  • Spark Plugs – Like oil, old rules of thumb really no longer hold true. Save your money and only change plugs per the manufacturer’s recommended intervals. In most cases, you will never change a set of plugs over the life of your modern car.

Vehicle Equipment

Buy What Works – When it comes to buying new or replacement equipment, you have many choices. Many OEM and aftermarket products promise to increase fuel economy, but do they? In this category, most of us should really only be concerned with tire choice.

  • Tires – The lower the rolling resistance of a tire, the less energy it takes to spin. While it may not make sense to ditch your current tires for new LRR tires, it may make sense on your next replacement set. When considering replacement tires for your specific vehicle, always consider tread life rating and tire performance ratings along side rolling resistance ratings. With a little bit of research, you should be able to pick a tire with a good balance of all three parameters.
  • Fuel Economy Gadgets – In a nutshell, don’t waste your money. Water vapor injectors, spark enhancers, magic black boxes, etc. simply don’t work. If the technology was viable then the car manufacturers would have long ago lichened it to help meet the impossible-to-achieve fuel economy mandates required by the government.
  • Mod chips and EEPROM Flashes – While out of the scope of this article, there are several companies that offer products and services that can reprogram the computer on your vehicle to provide more power or fuel efficiency, sometimes with the side effect of failing emissions tests, increased engine wear, warranty forfeiture, etc. While some of these options may be viable, we would recommend steering clear (no pun) of them unless you really understand the ramifications. In most cases, these mods are for more horsepower at the expense of fuel economy anyway.
  • Wheel Covers and Spoilers – There are many sources for model specific aerodynamic wheel covers, wheel well covers, spoilers, vortex generators and other airflow modifying devices. These devices all work by reducing drag and therefore increasing fuel economy. Your mileage may vary (no pun) depending on the type of device. The advice here, unless you are a “hypermiler”, don’t waste your time or money.

Buying Fuel

Gasoline Choices – There are plenty of myths and misconceptions regarding gasoline and fuel economy. We have put together a few tips to help cut through the confusion and misinformation. Yes, your choice of fuel and your pump habits matter more than you think!

  • Buy the Right Octane! – One of the biggest myths going is that you need to buy the highest octane fuel that you can afford. Nothing could be further from the truth! The octane rating of gasoline simply indicates how much compression the fuel can withstand before detonating. Higher compression engines require higher octane fuels, lower compression engines require lower octane fuels. You should ALWAYS use the minimum octane rating fuel that your manufacturer recommends in the owner’s manual. Using a higher octane rated fuel will not give you better gas mileage, it will not protect your engine, and it will not improve performance.
    Bottom Line: Buying premium fuel when it is not explicitly called for in the owner’s manual will do nothing but burn money. Next time somebody tells you to that they “run a tank of premium through, every few tanks,” explain to them why they are wasting their money!
  • Don’t be Picky – There are very few refineries that produce gasoline. When you buy a national brand, you may be getting a bit more detergent or additive, but not enough to make a difference if the cost is more than the local or independent brand. Fuel standards are governed closely and the little guys can’t sell fuel that is any less suitable than the big guys.
  • Don’t Fill Up – The advice is simple. A full fuel tank increases weight and thus decreases fuel economy as the you tote around the unused fuel. As the tank drains the overall vehicle weight decreases and fuel efficiency increases. So is it worth the effort to only fill up half way? Well the EPA says that for every 100 pounds of weight removed from a vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 1-2%. So at current prices (close to $3 a gallon) that is about $.05 per gallon. If gasoline weighs 6.3 pounds per gallon, and the average tank is 20 gallons, then a half full tank would save roughly 63 pounds. That would increase fuel efficiency by ~$.03 per gallon, or 60 cents saved per two half-tanks compared to a full 20-gallon fill-up. Not bad, all things considered.
  • Fuel Perks – Take advantage of your grocery store’s fuel perks programs. If you use these programs wisely (you ARE using coupons aren’t you?) and consistently, the average family’s regular grocery bills will add up to an easy 20-50 cents per gallon discount on every tank. If your grocery store sells gift cards, you can earn even more points by purchasing gift cards for yourself, for stores  you already shop with — or for gifts — either way, it adds on more savings as these gift cards earn you more fuel points.
  • Fuel Credit Cards – We will save this one for another article about maximizing cash back or rewards on well managed credit cards. The bottom line here is that fuel specific credit cards may not give the same returns as broader based rewards cards and it may be better to use one of them (a well-managed general rewards card) when paying for fuel.

More Ways To Save

Comfort & Convenience -vs- MPG – You have some choices to makes when it comes to getting the last few MPG out of your vehicle. The comfort of AC or the convenience of roof racks or a travel pod can have a significant impact on your fuel economy. If you are willing to make a few sacrifices in this department, the savings can actually be fairly substantial!

  • Air Conditioning – Turn off that AC, it is that simple. Using your AC can easily reduce efficiency by 2-3 MPG. The old myth about rolled down windows causing as much or more mileage loss (due to wind resistance) compared to AC is just that, a myth.
  • Don’t Warm Up – A modern engine does not need to be “warmed up.” Modern engine design has come a long way. The parts, oils and seals have little resemblance to their counterparts of yesteryear! That doesn’t mean turn the key and drive it like you stole it, but it does mean that you can start your engine and pull out of the driveway without a warmup period. Don’t waste fuel warming up the engine. Remote starts are nice – but save them for the coldest days of the year.
  • Ditch the Pod – Roof racks, pods, bike racks, surfboards and other rooftop items destroy aerodynamic and therefore gas mileage. If your car has removable racks, then remove them when they are not needed. Don’t leave the travel pod on all summer or carry the bicycle around just in case you want to ride it. Not only do these items burn fuel due to the added wind resistance, they add weight which also burns fuel!
  • Lose Some Weight – No really, lose some weight!  It doesn’t matter if it’s junk in your trunk, or YOU have junk in your trunk! Joking aside, losing weight has health benefits as well is fuel efficiency benefits! That said, this tip is about not carrying around all of that extra stuff in your car. Empty the trunk and back seat. Every pound you tote around costs money to move. Take the golf clubs out of the trunk and the bowling ball out of the back seat.Note: Always keep a set of road flares and a small fire extinguisher along with a basic survival kit that includes an emergency rain poncho, an emergency blanket, jumper cables, cold weather clothes, basic tools including a knife and flashlight, and non-perishable emergency food and water.

Your Mileage May Vary!

Conclusion – With a little bit of discipline, understanding and change of habit, you can easily add 3-5 MPG to your fuel efficiency and if you are diligent you can eke another 5-10 additional MPG out. That means savings of anywhere from $400-$800 a year by just adjusting your driving and spending habits. Pretty cool, huh?!

Be Smart. Be Frugal!