Save thousands of dollars a year on fuel by careful use of your right foot — and your head. Don’t ignore driving habits and other strategies to supplement the benefits of minimal idling.
Thanks to higher fuel prices in recent years, notably the 2008 spike that drove diesel above $5 a gallon in California, owner-operators are more attuned than ever to the high costs of wasteful idling, and use of auxiliary power units is higher than ever.
Still, an owner-operator can cut fuel costs even further through strategic approaches to driving, and unlike an APU, they don’t cost anything.
An owner-operator averaging 6 mpg will use 20,000 gallons of fuel if he runs 120,000 miles in a year. The number drops to just more than 17,000 gallons at a 7 mpg average and with $4 per gallon diesel, is almost $12,000 in savings.
“For the average owner-operator, that’s two months of work,” says Mike Bethea, director of independent contractors at Schneider National. “And it’s income that basically goes straight into your pocket.”
If your pocket could use some filling up, consider these fuel-saving tips.
“Owner-operators need to overcome the myth that if you run faster, you’re more productive and make more money,” says Don Lacy, director of safety for Prime Inc. “With today’s fuel prices, that’s just not true.”
He says some of Prime’s owner-operators don’t run faster than 52 mph, and their net earnings are much better than those running faster. “We have a saying – go slow, make dough,” he says. “It’s not unsafe and you won’t get ridiculed. If you plan it right, you can run slow and still deliver on time.”
Bethea says Schneider tells its owner-operators the same thing. For every mile per hour faster than 55, the truck loses one-tenth of a mile per gallon, he adds.
Independent owner-operator Henry Albert, of Mooresville, N.C., says he bases his speed on what’s needed to make his delivery on time and never goes faster than 65 mph. “I don’t run faster than I have to get where I need to be,” he says. “If I’m going to get there an hour and a half early, what’s the rush?”
“It’s all about minimizing excessive rpm,” Bethea says. Excessive rpm requires more fuel, “and more than you’d think,” he says.
Other than minimizing speed, “minimizing excessive rpm is probably the most important” consideration, he notes, advising drivers to be conscious of their rpm level and not punch the throttle.
Jerod Ray, an independent owner-operator and former small fleet owner from Darlington, Wis., hauls feed products regionally and averages 7.5 mpg. He tries to minimize excessive rpm by babying the throttle.
“I know what my rpm needs to be, and it takes me a little longer to get going, but it saves fuel,” he says. “I see guys mashing it in every gear and I know they’re sucking fuel. Just gradually put your foot into it and that should help a lot.”
Schneider encourages drivers to use skip-shifting methods, which take advantage of momentum to skip gears that would force higher rpm levels. “You can save fuel by not going through every gear,” Bethea says.
Albert drives as if there’s an egg between his foot and the fuel pedal and uses what he refers to as “momentum management,” he says. For instance, when possible, he stops at truck stops on hills to slow him down on the way in and propel him on the way out.
Manuel Espinosa, safety director at the 37-truck Custom Pinestraw fleet in Brandford, Fla., says maintaining an extended following distance can prevent unnecessary acceleration and deceleration. “It will help you a lot in saving fuel and it won’t seem like people are in your way,” he says.
Anticipating lights and other stops can help maintain momentum, too, Albert says. “If there are eight cars already stacked up at the red light, a lot of people will come in on the throttle then have to back out and hit the brakes hard,” he says. “If you can, try to roll through lights without losing momentum.”
Plan your route
Espinosa recommends meticulous route planning – taking traffic jams and construction into consideration – to minimize starting and stopping. “Neither is good for fuel mileage,” he says.
Albert says that if time allows, he won’t leave during morning rush hour. “I might decide to sit down and eat breakfast for an hour rather than going to sit in traffic.”
Out-of-route miles present a two-fold loss, says Bethea. “You’re not getting paid for them and you’re burning fuel. You can spend a couple of grand there in just out-of-route miles if you do it often enough.”
GPS units with route-planning software can help you avoid unnecessary miles, and some offer subscriptions to real-time traffic services. Checking conditions online on sites such as traffic.com can help you avoid construction zones and traffic jams, too.
Act on mileage data
One of the best ways operators can improve fuel mileage, Albert says, is to keep tabs on your fuel efficiency and use that information to test changes in your equipment or operation.
Getting that data starts with tracking every tank.
Albert keeps a clipboard and paper in his cab and calculates his mpg for the previous tank each time he fills up. He averages 9 mpg in his current truck and holds an 8.6 mpg lifetime average.
“Everyone I’ve talked to that started keeping track started seeing improvement,” Albert says. “I sort of make a game out of it. If I turn a good number, I see what I did right and what I need to do more of. If you do something wrong, it magnifies it and teaches you not to do it again.”
Zack Ellison, director of customer technical support for Cummins, says fleets have tools that can offload information from engine computers that detail percentage in top gear and “all parameters for fuel economy,” he says.
Trucks that run in top gear more than 90 percent of the time get the best fuel mileage, Ellison says.
Some modern GPS units and electronic logs can help keep track of fuel mileage, too.
To cruise or not to cruise?
When he’s on the highway, owner-operator Jerod Ray sets his cruise control “to let the truck do the work,” he says, and his fuel mileage doesn’t take much of a hit when climbing hills with cruise on. “Again, I’m not sticking my foot into it constantly to get up the hill. I walk up the hill and let the motor do the work.”
Owner-operator Henry Albert, however, disagrees. “Cruise throws everything it has at a hill, including the kitchen sink,” he says, and drivers can beat cruise’s fuel mileage if they try.
“I monitor my boost gauge,” Albert says. “I try to press hills using as little boost as I can and use the back side of the hill to pick up speed.”
There’s some truth in both arguments, says Zack Ellison, director of customer technical support for Cummins. He says that while good drivers can occasionally beat cruise control fuel mileage in some areas and terrains, habitual use of cruise control offers the best fuel economy.
“When you look at the overall life of the vehicle and variations of drivers, using cruise control a larger percentage of the time will improve overall fuel economy,” he says.
Stop the bleeding
MPG Gallons per year Cost per year Gallons Savings per year (comp. to 5 mpg) Savings per year
5 24,000 $96,000 ————— _________
6 20,000 $80,000 4,000 $16,000
6.5 18,460 $73,840 5,540 $22,160
7 17,140 $68,560 6,860 $27,440
7.5 16,000 $64,000 8,000 $32,000
8 15,000 $60,000 9,000 $36,000
Even modest gains in fuel efficiency can cut costs by thousands of dollars per year. The chart assumes 120,000 miles per year and $4 per gallon fuel.