Last summer was a huge wake up call for millions of Americans. Gas prices soared to record highs and many families found themselves involuntarily reducing their travel or, worse, having to choose between buying gas or other necessities like groceries. Now, this all-encompassing global recession has gone a long way to reset gas prices to more reasonable levels, but using that as an excuse to ignore our mega-dependence on fossil fuel would be awfully short sighted given such an opportunity to improve. As self-proclaimed frugalites and stewards of our environment, we owe it to ourselves and those around us to continually find ways to lead more sustainable lives. Sometimes, implementing changes in our lives to achieve this can be difficult, but sometimes it can be easy. Saving gas (and consequently money) is easy. Let’s find out how.
After spending the previous 8 years driving without a care in the world, I found myself with less and less expendable income as I faced higher and higher prices at the pump. I finally got sick of it and decided to pick up a new hobby – hypermiling – increasing fuel efficiency through improved driving habits. Anyone can do it in any automobile, it’s free, and there are tons of tricks out there to squeeze every last inch out of every drop of gas. There are even whole web-communities dedicated to hypermiling, like CleanMPG. I picked a few specific items to focus on and managed to increase the fuel economy of my trusty old Ford Ranger from a paltry 17 mpg to a still paltry, yet more respectable, 24 mpg – a 7 mpg increase! At today’s fuel price ($2.75 at the station down the street) that works out to a savings of $46 a month for the average driver traveling 1000 miles per month. Extend that out 12 months and I’m looking at saving $550 and 4,000 pounds of CO2 emissions every year. Would you make a few easy changes to your habits if it meant saving $550 a year? Here’s what I do (in order of importance):
- Slow down: Cruising down the freeway at 75 mph is a lot more fun than at 55, but chilling out and slowing down a bit will net you the biggest gains in fuel economy. Many cars are the most efficient between 45 & 55 mph.
- Accelerate slowly: Replace that lead foot with an aluminum one! Foot 2.0. Lighter! Stronger! Smarter! Make it a point to accelerate slowly from a stop instead of blasting off the line like you’re going for a new quarter mile record. If you have a manual transmission, pay attention to the RPMs when shifting as you’re accelerating. I like to shift around 2,250 RPM. That may seem low to most drivers, but I have discovered it’s optimum for my Ranger. Your car may be slightly different. If you drive an automatic vehicle, simply focus on depressing the accelerator slower.
- Coast to stops: Rather than maintaining speed up to a stop light and then slamming on your brakes like most drivers seem to do, try to anticipate how much momentum you need to come to a stop without using any pedals. The easiest way to do it is usually just to take your foot off the gas as soon as you see the light ahead of you turn yellow. If you’re too close, you’ll have to use your brakes anyway. If you’re too far away, you’ll realize you’re not going to make it and have to accelerate a little. You’ll almost never get it perfect, but just trying will improve your fuel efficiency. When I lived in downtown Portland, I used this strategy to figure out that if I cruised at a consistent 15 mph, I could get all the way across town without ever using my brakes.
- Use cruise control: When using cruise control on long trips it becomes obvious very quickly how bad people are at moderating their speed. Get in the right hand lane, set your speed for 55 mph and let it do all the work.
- Turn off your car in the drive-thru: You can do this at long stop lights too, but pay attention. If you’re motor is off and the light turns green, you might find yourself wasting gas trying to accelerate too quickly to compensate. The general rule is that if you anticipate being stopped for longer than 10 seconds, turn your engine off. This tip gets debated incessantly. People argue whether you actually save gas (it’s been proven you do) and whether you wear out your starter, alternator, and engine faster by turning on and off more frequently. I won’t tell you to use this tip as I cannot vouch for the possible extra wear on your engine, but I will say that once I started doing this, I did notice a reasonable, sustained bump in my average fuel economy (just under 1 mpg). If you’re not comfortable doing this in traffic and you don’t spend any time waiting in drive-thru lines, you won’t get much out of this one.
So there you have it, 5 extremely simple behavior changes that I made to increase my fuel economy by 7 mpg and save $550 a year. Of course, everyone is different and so is every car. You may not achieve the exact same results that I did, but if you make a conscious effort to change your behavior, I highly doubt you will be disappointed no matter what vehicle you drive. You might do better than me! And don’t forget that these tips become more and more lucrative as gas prices go up. They’re relatively low right now, but there’s no doubt that they are headed up in the long term. If gas goes back to $4.50 a gallon like it did last summer, my savings increases to $912 per year.
In order to track your progress you’ll need to regularly calculate your fuel efficiency. You can easily do this the caveman way by dividing total miles traveled by the number of gallons replenished at each fill up (you’ll always need to fill up all the way for this to work), or you can join me on this cool new website, Fuelly.com and input the data from your receipt after each fill-up and Fuelly will make lots of pretty tables and graphs about your fuel consumption for you to be amazed by. Honestly, it is a neat website. If you decide to sign up, add me as a friend (username: CombatWombat) and we can follow each other’s progress.
Don’t stop here! There are so many more gas saving tips out there that you can use to improve your mileage. Roll down your windows and turn off your A/C. Unload heavy objects that you don’t need. Plan your trips better. The list goes on and on. Spend some time on the CleanMPG site that I mentioned earlier if you want to become a hypermiling nutjob (that’s a compliment where I come from).
Do you practice hypermiling? Can you offer any other “high value” tips? What goals could you accomplish with an extra $500 or more a year? Share your hypermiling story if you have one!