Aces of eight

Fuel-saving owner-operators tell how they did it.

“Fuel economy is money in my back pocket,” says owner-operator Brett Ross of Grand Prairie, Texas. Ross is sitting on a bundle. Leased to Koch Trucking of Minneapolis, he’s getting 7.3 to 8.1 mpg hauling hauling Best Buy electronics in his 2005 Volvo 670 with a 466-hp Cummins. He considers himself fortunate to be running mostly in the flatlands of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas with a typical gross vehicle weight of 70,000 pounds. “I wouldn’t expect 7 or 8 mpg running through Donner Pass with 80,000 pounds,” Ross says.

But given his favorable loads and terrain, Ross sees opportunities for even more fuel savings. “I have every intention of building a powerful business, and that means running cleaner, smoother and better than everyone else,” he says.

For many owner-operators, the difference between success and failure can be measured in miles per gallon. Diesel prices keep climbing higher while nearly every other factor – from congestion to weather to the Environmental Protection Agency – seems to be conspiring to drag fuel economy down.

Yet, an eyebrow-raising 10 percent of readers say their big rigs get 8 mpg or better, and experts say even higher numbers are possible with savvy operating practices and judicious use of today’s technology. Even if 8 to you is just the number on Cal Ripken’s jersey or Dale Junior’s car, you still can find ways both large and small to cut fuel costs.

Elliot Savoy of Rialto, Calif., a new owner-operator leased to Swift Transportation, says veterans there give him the same advice: “Watch your fuel.”

Watching it is more fun for Savoy than for most. He’s getting 7.5 to 8.2 mpg in his 2002 Freightliner with a 430-hp Detroit Diesel, hauling light loads of Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club freight – from 38,000 pounds down to 18,000 pounds – on a dedicated run within 600 miles of southern California.

“No tricks, no gadgets,” Savoy says. “It’s just how you drive it. My CB handle is Slowpoke, and that means everyone is going to be passing me on the road. I never exceed 59 or 60 mph.”

Slowing down also has made a big difference to Douglas Weber of Dickson City, Pa., an owner-operator leased to Greatwide Dedicated Transport. A fan of “ATBS Trucking Business and Beyond” on XM Satellite Radio, Weber decided to try host Kevin Rutherford’s advice to maximize fuel economy by keeping his tachometer in its manufacturer-designated “sweet spot.” For Weber’s 2000 International 9400i, with a 435-hp Cummins N14, that meant 1,300 rpm, or about 55 mph – a speed that immediately boosted Weber’s economy to 8.1 mpg.

“Before that, at 67 mph, it was a paltry 7.5,” Weber says. “Just by slowing down 12 mph at midyear, over the next six months I’ll have an extra $4,500 in my pocket.”

Once wear and tear, maintenance and other costs are factored in, he ultimately may benefit even more than that. Improving fuel economy from 5 mpg to 6 mpg in a long-haul Class 8 tractor-trailer that runs 130,000 miles a year saves $41,500 in operational costs over four years, or $4,150 for every 0.1 mpg improvement, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Energy report.

Some owner-operators say post-2002 engines, built to meet EPA’s low-emissions mandates, have hurt their fuel economy. “If you’ve got an older truck, keep it,” says Robert Franklin of Hesperia, Calif., an owner-operator leased to Landstar Ranger. “Just overhaul it, because you’re not going to get that mileage with the new equipment.”

Franklin used to haul comic books, magazines and toys cross country in a 2000 Sterling AeroMax with a 550-hp Caterpillar C15 engine, which he calls “the best mileage engine I ever owned.” Franklin averaged 7 mpg in that rig. His best monthly average was 8.4 mpg, while testing an aerodynamic device invented by Ohio owner-operator Karl Schwartz.

Today, Franklin drives team in a 2006 Freightliner Coronado with a 455-hp Caterpillar engine, hauling various loads between Columbus, Ohio, and Philadelphia. He averages 6.4 mpg, “and it’s taken a long time to get here, and a lot of steps and money spent,” he says. He started out at less than 5 mpg, before adding wide single tires and an auxiliary power unit.

In his previous truck, a 2003 Freightliner Century, owner-operator Bob Abts of Brillion, Wis., “quite consistently” got 8 mpg on a dedicated paper-hauling run that included Chicago traffic and 300 miles of Kentucky hill country. He traded his Century at 500,000 miles and changed carriers.

Now leased to BSV Transportation of Plymouth, Wis., and on a different run, Abts gets 6.5 to 7.25 mpg in his 2007 Volvo 780 with a pre-2007 500-hp Cummins. “I’m not happy with the fuel mileage, but I’m still experimenting with things until I get it back up there,” Abts says. “It’s sort of a game with me.”

Since 1997, J.D. Power and Associates has done an annual assessment of Class 8 fuel economy, looking each year at two-year-old engines. In 2004, the average two-year-old engine was getting 6.04 mpg. But in 2005, the first year to focus on the new EPA-mandated emissions technology, economy dropped below 6 mpg for the first time, to 5.91 mpg. In 2006, it dropped yet again, to 5.72 mpg. The 2007 data will be released this fall.

The new engines aren’t the only factors affecting Class 8 fuel economy in recent years, notes Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, based in Washington, D.C. Congestion is another. The increasing economic importance of just-in-time delivery plays a role, as does the proliferation of applications other than traditional long haul.

The Cummins MPG Guide notes, for example, that aerodynamic innovations can have “a major impact” on fuel economy in interstate hauling but “very little impact” in shorter-haul intercity applications.

Contributing to the frustration and confusion felt by owner-operators is the absence of a standard fuel-economy test for Class 8 trucks, Langer says. The estimated mileages that appear in the windows of new automobiles on showroom floors have to be taken with a grain of salt, but they at least give buyers a starting point. “It’s very hard to compare vehicles without some reasonably objective standard,” Langer says.

Karl Schwartz agrees. “I just wish there were somewhere you could actually get test data,” says the Grove City, Ohio, owner-operator, who invented the aerodynamic attachment for the trailer undercarriage used by Franklin. Amid so many fuel-economy claims and counterclaims, expressed not in miles per gallon but in percentages of gain, owner-operators easily can get bewildered, frustrated and discouraged, he says.

A further complication, Schwartz says, is that fuel economy isn’t an owner-operator’s only consideration. Goodyear, for example, claims 4 percent fuel savings with its Fuel Max Technology, “but what about snow?” Schwartz asks. “I run Pennsylvania in the winter, and I need grooves that will expel the snow quickly. Which tire would be best for my operation?”

Owner-operators can pride themselves on being more attentive to fuel issues than four-wheelers. “Class 8 customers are very interested in fuel economy and prize it much more highly than automobile drivers do,” Langer says.

Abts plans to put wide single tires in his drive positions. Ross is thinking of moving his fifth wheel “two holes forward” to close the gap between truck and trailer. Savoy’s fleet manager, meanwhile, tells him that 8 mpg is great – but why stop there, since 9 mpg is “highly possible”?

“I might slow down by a mile or two,” Savoy says, “and see what happens.”

Owner-operators getting even close to 8 miles per gallon have an opportunity to make money on expensive fuel when they receive a full fuel surcharge.

Most fuel surcharge formulas divide the difference between a base price of diesel and the pump price by an average fuel economy – typically 6 mpg – to determine how much the owner-operator gets per mile. For example, the difference between a base of $1.25 per gallon and a pump price of $2.90 per gallon is $1.65. Dividing that by 6 mpg yields $0.275, or 27.5 cents per mile.

If your fuel economy is better, however, than the assumed average mpg, you pocket the difference. Owner-operator financial services provider ATBS offers this example, using the same per-mile surcharge but calculated at different levels of fuel economy.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Vehicle Inventory and Use surveys show a fairly regular increase in heavy-truck fuel economy from 1997 to 2002, from 5.4 mpg to 6.1 mpg, says Therese Langer of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

While that figure has dipped more recently, “the basic message still is a slow, not very dramatic, upward trend on fuel economy,” she says. “But the progress is not as quick as it could be, and we’re nowhere near the highest economy we could be achieving through conventional technologies.”

Some on Capitol Hill – and in the trucking industry – are tired of waiting. In June, the U.S. Senate voted for the first time in more than 30 years to increase the fuel economy standard for passenger vehicles. An earlier version of the bill would have imposed the nation’s first fuel economy standard on heavy trucks, a standard that would have increased by 4 percent each year with a goal toward doubling heavy-truck fuel efficiency.

Urging the Senate to pass that mandate was FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith, co-chair of the Energy Security Leadership Council, which describes itself as “a non-partisan organization that is working to reduce U.S. oil dependence.” The CEOs of UPS and Waste Management Inc. also are active in this group, which says a fuel-economy mandate for Class 7 and Class 8 trucks could save the United States nearly a million barrels of oil a day.

Some doubt an annual 4 percent gain is possible, given the effort it would require.

For its new Cascadia, Freightliner says, the 3 percent improvement in fuel economy over previous models required more than 1 million engineering hours. International says it worked for five years and spent $300 million to give the new ProStar a 4 percent improvement in fuel economy over comparable tractors.

Such difficulties simply underscore the need for the government to intervene with both mandates and incentives, Smith’s group argues. “Even the largest truck fleet operators are almost never in a position to compel manufacturers to design and build more fuel-efficient vehicles,” the council said in a December report.

Giant fleets wouldn’t lobby Congress for such a law, Langer says, if they didn’t recognize two things: “That kind of rate of improvement is possible, and the effort it would require is worth it.”

The DOE’s 21st Century Truck Partnership, Langer says, already calls for an ambitious doubling of Class 8 fuel economy – from 6 mpg to 12 mpg. Wal-Mart has announced a similar target for its fleet.

“That is the proper goal, and it is the sort of thing we should be looking to accomplish in the next decade,” Langer says. “You can get half that improvement with conventional technology that exists right now, and the rest is within our grasp.”

No one practice will get you to 8 miles per gallon. But several proven steps, done routinely, will. Here are some tips on how to burn less diesel.

SLOW DOWN. Past 60 mph, the fuel economy loss is greater than the time savings because every 1 mph past 60 cuts your fuel economy by a tenth of a gallon per mile. Owner-operator Bob Abts knows that and won’t go beyond 60 mph and 1,200 rpm.

Owner-operator Douglas Weber says he left Fort Royal, Va., one day with three owner-operators hauling on the same route to Norton, Mass. He departed more than an hour before the others, yet his leadfooted colleagues passed him on the way. That meant the speeders lost money, wasted fuel, risked wrecks and tickets, and wore themselves out in the process, Weber says. “Not only am I saving fuel and also putting money in my pocket, but when I arrive at my destination, I’m almost as fresh as when I left.”

ADJUST YOUR DRIVING HABITS. Cummins says the most efficient drivers get 30 percent better fuel economy than the least efficient. A pilot program in Germany claimed an average 40 percent improvement in heavy-truck fuel economy just by teaching drivers trucking-school basics such as optimal shifting, starting and braking.

Slow, gradual acceleration doesn’t waste fuel like a jackrabbit start. “I make believe, every time I start off, that I’m starting on ice,” Abts says.

Truckers also need to get comfortable with today’s fuel-saving technologies. “I’ve learned how to work smarter and not harder,” says owner-operator Elliot Savoy, who swears by his 10-speed automatic.

He also relies on his cruise control, knowing that mechanism is better at saving fuel than he is. “I let the truck do the work itself.”

Owner-operator Karl Schwartz says that good practices serve you well even in the worst circumstances. Savoy says he gets 7.3 mpg even on U.S. 287 from Fort Worth to Amarillo, which not only is full of curves but is uphill and into the wind the whole way.

WATCH THOSE TIRES. Simple routine maintenance, such as keeping the engine tuned, Abts says, saves fuel. The standard maintenance area that yields the biggest payoff in fuel economy is tires. Keep their air pressure correct, and keep them aligned.

Weber keeps his steer tires at 110 psi and his drives at 100 psi. He says those pressures mean a harsher ride and reduced tire life, but they also reduce rolling resistance and save fuel.

STOP IDLING. Fuel prices might well end this bad habit before local environmental laws do. Too many truckers still thoughtlessly idle no matter the weather, says Abts, who calls his auxiliary power unit “a lifesaver.”

“Even before I got my APU, if I was eating, or the truck was being loaded, my engine never ran,” Abts says. “But you pull into a truck stop, and at 60 degrees, trucks are running. You ask yourself: Do they have the heaters on or the air conditioners? But owner-operators are beginning to wise up.”

REDUCE DRAG. Owner-operator Brett Ross has been studying the 30-page Cummins MPG Guide and can quote verbatim Cummins’ first “Rock-Solid Rule”: “Every 2 percent reduction in aerodynamic drag results in approximately 1 percent improvement in fuel economy.”

At 65 mph, Cummins says, 264 horsepower is needed to overcome all the physical forces working to slow down the truck; 55 percent of that is expended on wind resistance.

The EPA’s SmartWay specifications for long-haul tractors and trailers are a good sampling of relatively simple add-ons of proven aerodynamic worth: integrated cab-high roof fairings, redesigned bumpers and mirrors, low-rolling-resistance tires, gap reducers, side skirts for trailers. (The list is at

The incentive is great for exploring every possible fuel-saving angle, however seemingly minute the gain. “One percent is not a whole lot unless you find six or seven different things, each of which is costing you 1 percent,” Ross says. “It adds up quickly.”

PLAN YOUR ROUTES. Slowing down to 55 has given Weber further incentive to carefully plan his routes to make sure his loads arrive on time. In the process, he further helps his fuel economy by minimizing delays and wasted miles.

Weber just bought ALK CoPilot Truck with voice-activated GPS routing, so that when he sees a jam up ahead or hears about a wreck in his path, he can say, “Detour” into a headset and avoid the mess.

Savoy prides himself on minimizing stops, running three to five hours straight before hunting an exit.

Weber figures he has trimmed 700 to 1,000 miles from his typical week, while netting the same profit as before. He also has 12 to 14 hours less wear on the engine, the tires and himself. “That’s a winning combination,” he says.

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