Keep the pedal off the metal to save fuel.
Hot air rises, jets soar and rockets streak, but diesel fuel prices have been in hyper-drive since 1999, forcing the trucking industry into dramatic changes almost nobody foresaw just seven years back. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, average diesel prices in the Southern states, where fuel is usually cheapest, went from 91.6 cents a gallon on Feb. 22, 1999, to $3.28 cents a gallon on Oct. 3, 2005 – 358 percent inflation over 6 1/2 years – before easing back to $2.38 as of Feb. 5, 2007: a 260 percent inflation over eight years.
The effects on trucking, both bad and good, are hard to overstate. On the bad side, the squeeze morphed into a crush; sink-or-swim struggles were business as usual. The industry is still adjusting, and frustration runs high.
“A month ago, crude oil was going for $49 a barrel, and now it’s $59,” says L.W. Bryant, chief financial officer for U.S. Inter-Mex Transportation, a 70-truck company based in Pharr, Texas. “What happened in a month to change the price like that?”
But on the good side, the entire trucking industry is fighting back by conserving fuel. Truck, engine, trailer and parts makers are spending a lot of time and money finding fuel-saving innovations: lighter, more aerodynamic rigs with better tires and lubricants and more efficient engine-drive train matchups.
Meanwhile, freight carriers of all sizes are cutting fuel costs with buying strategies and reduced idling. They’re closely monitoring their trucks and asking drivers to save fuel, too. For that and other reasons, it makes sense for drivers not just to learn but to apply some reliable fuel-saving tips.
“We have all the magic computer information from the engines now,” Bryant says. “We know how many miles each truck has driven and how many hours it’s idling.”
That information is used mostly for fuel-buying strategies, but it also shows which drivers use the most fuel and why.
“If a driver has a heavy foot, we can help him lighten it,” Bryant says.
Though it rarely happens, illegal fuel selling is also more obvious.
“He’s sitting there topping off his tank and he says, ‘Hey, you give me $50 and I’ll pump $70 worth of fuel for you,'” Bryant says. “When the fuel mileage goes from 6.2 miles a gallon to 3.7, you know something must be wrong. We stay on top of it too much for it to happen too often. You have to.”
Instead of selling or wasting their employers’ fuel, company drivers should do all they can to conserve it, even though they don’t pay for it.
“If the drivers won’t work to cut their fuel consumption, then the company has to spend more on fuel,” says Cliff Ellis, a 30-year trucking veteran who currently drives for Valley Transportation and lives in Toledo, Wash. “If they spend too much on fuel, they don’t have as much for other things, like raises and new trucks. Their costs could go up to the point where they’re going out of business. If you’re one of the drivers wasting fuel, you just helped yourself out of a job.”
“Our fuel bill has more than doubled in the last five years,” Bryant says. “We were paying $1 a gallon before Sept. 11, 2001, and we’re paying $2.50 now. It’s probably our second biggest expense, right behind payroll.”
Fuel conservation is a good way to show loyalty to your company. Expect the company to show you loyalty in return.
“Our drivers get fuel bonuses,” Bryant says. “If they get to a certain miles-per-gallon average, they get bonuses for that.”
You’ve heard it a thousand times – keep idling to a minimum. Its impact on the environment aside, every hour you choose to idle costs about a gallon of fuel, or about $2.50. If you idle several hours a night (or day), that adds up fast.
“These guys who keep their engines running all night long, no matter what the temperature is: it gets ridiculous,” says Lana Ellis, who rides full-time with Cliff, her husband.
“If you fuel up and then go to the fuel desk and the bathroom and maybe get a cup of coffee, you don’t have to leave your truck idling,” Cliff says. “But if you look out there right now, you’ll see five or six trucks idling.”
“That shows how they don’t think about helping the company,” Lana says.
But what about the cold and heat?
“When I started running, trucks didn’t have air-conditioning,” says Cliff. “You opened those windows and put the fan on. Running the air conditioning while idling just pulls more power from your engine, so you’re burning even more fuel.”
Look for other ways to keep cool or warm.
“Just throw on a few more blankets,” Lana says. “You can get sleeping bags, so you don’t have to run the truck to keep warm.”
In the hot months, Cliff and Lana hook up to IdleAire (paid for by their company) for the air-conditioning. Most companies don’t expect you to quit idling altogether, just to avoid it whenever possible.
“We don’t have an idling policy,” Bryant says. “We expect them to stay in the trucks when they’re out on the road, so we got the 72-inch sleepers. We know they might have to idle.”
“But our guys don’t sit too long,” Bryant says, and that translates to fuel savings.
“Every time you go out there, you want to know when it’s the best time to take your break and when it’s the best time to get out there and run at a steady speed,” Bryant says.
Map out your trip before you leave. Most often, the shorter routes save fuel. Every five or six miles you don’t drive saves your employer about $2.50 in fuel alone. If you choose the longer route, make sure it’s worth it.
“They’ll take a road that runs them way out of route because they don’t want to go on a scale,” Cliff says. “I know guys who run 400 or 500 miles out of the way to avoid scales.”
That’s more than $200 extra for fuel, which can shoot the profit right out of the load – then your boss is hauling freight for free.
“I know a guy who was going to Los Angeles from Houston,” Cliff says. “Instead of taking I-10 west, he went clear up through Dallas to Amarillo and caught I-40. He went through Flagstaff and all that because he wanted to avoid the Banning scales, just east of L.A., because they have a reputation for being real tough.”
But sometimes the longer route conserves fuel, if it’s to avoid bad traffic or weather.
“The load I pick up Monday goes from South Florida to Fargo, N.D.,” Cliff says. “I checked the routes on the computer. One goes through Chicago, and one goes through Kansas City. The Kansas City route is an extra 25 miles, but you have to look at all that traffic. It’s probably cheaper to just run the extra miles instead of doing all that stopping and starting.”
Take it easy
Over 55, every extra mile an hour reduces fuel economy by 0.1 miles per gallon. Slowing to 65 miles an hour from 70 can cut fuel costs by $1,450 annually. Slowing to 60 increases savings to $1,850.
It helps if you’re working for a company that doesn’t pressure you, or leave you sitting too long.
“You don’t want to park it in a truckstop and then try to catch up later,” Bryant says. “That’s when you get into trouble with your fuel mileage.
Bryant says U.S. Inter-Mex doesn’t push drivers. They won’t burn extra fuel to be on time.
“We make sure they have the hours to do what they need to do,” he says, and there’s no logbook monkey business.
Run hard, run steady, run legal and save fuel: sounds good.
But running hard doesn’t mean pushing the engine.
“Run at slower engine speeds so your engine doesn’t have to work so hard,” Cliff says. “With the old engines, I cruised at 1,700 to 2,100 rpm. But the engines now cruise at lower rpm. I can cruise at 1,200 to 1,500 and still have good torque and good pulling power. I can do 65 miles an hour fully loaded running only at 1,300 rpm.”
“Part of that is finding out where your engine runs at the best efficiency, because not all engines are the same,” Lana says.
When accelerating normally, shift at 1,500 rpm or lower, and don’t “mash on it.”
Lower rpm can save several gallons an hour and reduce wear and tear.
“You know how it’s pictured: that image of the big truck,” Lana says. “You can hear that semi accelerating a mile away. But trucks now are more driver friendly. You don’t have to force them like you used to, but a lot of guys still drive like they did with the old engines.”
As with everything else, attitude plays a role. Relaxed drivers save fuel.
It can be difficult, even for 30-year veterans.
“I still work on that,” Cliff says. “If you’re mad, you’re going to be romping on the throttle more and shifting gears when you don’t need to.
“When you’re in traffic, you have to lay back and take it easy. You have to look ahead and know when you’re going to start slowing down. If you see traffic stopped or a red light ahead of you, lay off the throttle.”
Bryant feels that younger drivers need to value good advice from seasoned, veteran truckers.
“We have safety meetings every quarter, and we talk about fuel efficiency,” he says. “That’s when we hope the younger drivers will take some hints from the older drivers to really maximize their fuel efficiency.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one trucker conserving fuel can increase safety, cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, save up to $2,000 a year, and of course reduce pollution. Do it with these fuel-saving tips.
“There’s not much you can do about mountains,” says Valley Transportation company driver Cliff Ellis of Toledo, Wash. “You hit hills, you lose fuel mileage, unless you’re running empty.”