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Jul 08

Save $550 a Year by Hypermiling

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.

The projected savings for my Ranger increases substantially as the price of gas climbs.

The projected savings for my Ranger increases substantially as the price of gas climbs.

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!

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  1. Sameer

    Hey bro, these are great tips! I find it amazing that you can cruise all the way through the streets of Portland at 15mph without ever having to break. Way to master the street lights!

    One easy tip I’d like to add is that folks should also check the air pressure on their tires about once a month. Properly inflated tires can improve your fuel economy by about 3%. I’m interning on the drive smarter challenge, and it’s my job to provide this type of info. Check it out at http://www.drivesmarterchallenge.org

    Peace, and keep doing your thing!

  2. Michael Thomas

    Sameer-

    Good one! I do that and totally forgot to include it in the article. $0.25 of air can really make a difference in your overall fuel economy.

    Thanks for the link. Looks like another great resource. I was having a hard time getting the flash version to work in Firefox, though.

  3. Anne O

    I’m excited that I have regularly incorporated all of these! Having a manual transmission helps too. A few other things I do to save: plan all errands for one (as much as is feasible), and mentally plan a route that requires the least back & forth. Also, it’s easy to get used to driving to the same places the same way out of habit, so I try different routes sometimes to see which is more efficient.

  4. Michael Thomas

    Anne –

    Maximizing the usefulness of our trips is probably the most important thing we can do. No matter what hypermiling tricks you employ, you always save more gas making 1 trip instead of 2, right? Thanks for the insight.

  5. Dren

    Good article.

    I only question that slow acceleration should be #2 in fuel savings.

    It sounds attractive, but car engines are most efficient in their middle or upper middle range of power, and today’s cars have strong power to weight ratios. That means that at gentle, slow acceleration from a start, today’s cars are using their engine’s inefficient lower power range.

    Note that air resistance is NOT an issue here. Not related. Also, the slower you accelerate, the more time is taken in the acceleration phase, so you are spending more time in that inefficient regime of your engine.

  6. Michael Thomas

    Dren,

    After reading around some more, it looks like it depends on how old your car is (carbureted vs fuel injected, style of transmission (auto vs. manual), as well as the brand of the vehicle (different manufacturers tuning their engines differently).

    I see a lot of arguments on both sides of the isle. From experience, I can say that accelerating slowly improved my mileage, but I have no way to prove it.

    Perhaps the best option for most people not interested in experimenting would be to just accelerate normally.

  7. Dren

    Tyler, slow acceleration is even more harmful than I thought. My private guess was engine fuel efficiency peaks at 2/3 of max engine power, while Wikipedia gives a reasonable 75% (wikipedia.org/wiki/Engine_efficiency).

    Regarding relative power used during acceleration, feel free to make your own reasonable estimates. Estimating 25-50% of max hp used for “NORMAL” (not jackrabbit) acceleration, and 15-25% of max hp for SLOW acceleration, we see that *even_normal* acceleration under-utilizes the peak engine efficiency of 67-75% (or even higher, since Wikipedia gives a mid-point estimate). Slow acceleration, because it utilizes way, way below peak engine efficiency, is thus extremely wasteful of fuel.

    Fortunately, little actual time is spent accelerating that so that the loss is masked by the authentic gains of other actions taken.

  8. Michael Thomas

    Dren,

    You certainly make a convincing argument. Since I have honed most of my hypermiling techniques now and I have a fairly consistent driving schedule, I am going to use the next couple of tanks of gas to test your argument on my own vehicle. Follow me on Fuelly and lets see what happens. I’m very curious.

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