Reducing Gas Usage

Recent gas price increases have many people complaining. There are many reasons given for rising prices. And depending on your political and economic bent, you may choose to blame OPEC, the oil companies, SUVs, lack of alternative fuels, the growth in world oil demand or environmental regulations that prevent new drilling or refineries from being built.

We won't get into that. We'll leave that for the talk show pundits. But, let's look at what the average driver can do all by himself to control what he spends on gasoline. In most cases, with very easy, practical steps, he can reduce the amount he spends by 10% or more!

That's right. You don't need to force OPEC or the oil companies to lower their price. Nor do you need to get government to lower taxes or change energy and environmental policies. All you need to do is learn a little and make a couple of minor changes. And you'll probably spend less for gas this year than you did last year.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 30% of all vehicles had at least one tire that was 8 psi or more under-inflated. About 5% had all four tires seriously under-inflated. The same survey showed that only 4% of respondents checked tire pressure as part of their routine maintenance. That would seem to say that most cars had one or more tires that needed some air.

Under-inflated tires can cut fuel economy by 2% per pound. So if your tires should be at 32 psi and they're actually at 27 psi, you've reduced your mileage by 10%. In case you were wondering, you'll find the recommended level in your owner's manual or on a doorjamb tag.

Checking your tires takes only a few minutes and no particular skill. A tire gauge costs less than $5. Air is available at your gas station. Most still offer it free of charge. Get in the habit of checking tires once a month.

So if gasoline is $2 per gallon, just by inflating your tires, you could reduce your "real" price to $1.80 per gallon.

Let's see what else you can do to reduce gasoline costs. The old fashioned tune-up is a thing of the past. But that doesn't mean that you can ignore engine maintenance. Check your owner's manual to see when maintenance needs to be performed. For instance, a blocked air filter can reduce your gas mileage by 10%.

Increased friction decreases gas mileage. Using the wrong grade of oil or not changing it frequently enough increases friction. Check your manual for recommended grades and change intervals.

If your owner's manual doesn't call for premium gas, don't buy it. You will not improve your performance or gas mileage. About 10% of us buy premium gas when it is not needed.

Remove excess weight from the car. Your trunk or van is not a storage area on wheels. Unless you plan on needing it this trip, take it out of your trunk. Naturally emergency equipment is the exception. An extra 200 pounds will cost you one mile per gallon. That's about a 4% reduction in mileage.

Most of the other gas-saving ideas are pretty widely known so we'll just mention them as a reminder.

Your auto air conditioner reduces mileage by 10 to 20%. In winter, we think of the "wind chill." Open vents in a moving car create the exact same effect.

Increasing your highway speed also increases your gas consumption. So does fast getaways from traffic lights.

Sitting in traffic wastes gas. You may find that leaving for work earlier helps you avoid jams. So instead of reading the paper at home before leaving for work, take it with you and look at it after you've arrived.

A word about some of those devices that claim to double your gas mileage. The Environmental Protection Agency has tested over 100 gas saving devices and found that, at best, they don't help any more than good maintenance does. And, the EPA says that they have not endorsed any product.

Finally, here are a couple of thoughts about the "gas crisis." Yes, it's frustrating. But let's keep it in perspective. If you take inflation into account, today's gas prices are about the same as they were in 1986. According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, "real" gas prices are much lower than they were at their peak in 1981. The $1.40 that we paid in 1980 would be $3.18 today if adjusted for inflation.

And, we're not without options. We've just shown that even individuals can take steps to control what they spend on gas.