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Back on the Coast

Back on the Coast

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Fuel Economy Part Three: Driving Technique

The nice thing about this aspect of fuel economy, is that everyone can take advantage of these suggestions right away. You don't have to spend money, or fix/modify your vehicle. The only thing stopping you from doing them is yourself and your old driving habits. But, unless you are wealthy, you may want to try some of these simple methods.

1/ Slow Down - Hey, where's the fire?!!! Everyone seems to rush around and hurry up to go nowhere fast. All this speeding and fast acceleration only burns up more gas. Eventually, you'll have to decide; do I really need to arrive slightly earlier and all wound up, or do I just want to relax, cruise and save money. Your call, your money and sanity.

Most vehicles get their maximum gas mileage around 55 MPH (approx. 90 KmH); that's why in the 1970's Oil Embargo, the USA lowered the highway speed limits to 55 MPH, in order to conserve the nation's gas supply. Now it seems like a lot of the main highways both South and North of the US/CAN Border, require speeds of 60-70 MPH (approx. 100-110 KmH) or more. You don't want to hold back traffic by driving too slowly, it could be dangerous and/or illegal. Maybe that'll mean it could be better to take secondary highways, that don't add too many extra miles in distance, instead of speeding on the major freeway.

In BC, Canada, I'm lucky because most of the highways have a speed limit of 55 MPH or 90 Kmh due to mountainous terrain; this is the speed I get the best gas mileage for my van. Vans, with their boxy, non-aerodynamic shape, create a lot of air drag at high speeds. Any speeds above 55-60 MPH will result in reduced gas mileage. While some vehicles may not follow this trend exactly, most will.

2/ Cruise Control - While on the highway, use your speed control when you can. It will do a better job at holding you at a steady speed, which is good for fuel economy. But, that cruise control doesn't work very good over hilly or mountain terrain; learn what works best for your van. I find it's better on certain hills to turn off 'cruise', gear down and rev the engine a little, just like I would with a standard tranny to climb. What will work for your vehicle, you must find out; just don't bog it down in cruise.

3/ Steady Acceleration - You are driving a van, not a Ferrari. Medium, steady acceleration will get you up to speed without burning too much gas to get there. There is a study somewhere I read that disagrees with this, but for the most part, this is the agreed upon method.

4/ Minimal Braking - When you use your brakes, you waste the momentum you built up by burning gas. So, use your gas pedal as your first braking action. If you speed up to a stop light, and brake heavily, you waste gas. Anticipate the traffic ahead, coast up to the stop light by taking your foot off the gas and brake when you have to. You'll save gas. If you are coming into a corner where you need to slow down, first take your foot off the gas to slow down before you brake to negotiate the turn, instead of just using your brakes to slow down. Don't tailgate; when you're riding someone's bumper, you are constantly speeding up and braking. This is a waste of gas and bad driving practice.

5/ Using your Transmission - The gearing in your tranny and rear end with different engine speeds will create specific optimum operational settings for fuel economy. As you become more familiar with your vehicle, you'll know what I mean. At certain speeds, you just want to maintain your momentum, with your engine purring at a minimum rpm while not bogging down. If you drive a standard it's easy to do; but you can do it with a automatic, you just have to learn how to manipulate the tranny. Also, with a automatic transmission, sometimes it's important to lock in your torque converter; you don't want your transmission to be searching or changing gears while climbing a hill (especially important). This will prematurely wear out your tranny and waste gas.

6/ Avoid excessive Idling - Idling gets you zero MPG. But, you have to be practical. If you pull off the road for over a minute, stop your engine. When idling in traffic for a long stop light, shift your automatic tranny to neutral; your engine won't be working against the tranny (good for helping keep your engine cooler on very hot days). If you are stopped for over a few minutes by a construction delay, turn off your engine. But, I don't like the idea of turning off my engine for an extra long stop light; it's illegal in some jurisdictions and our vans aren't designed like hybrids, which have engines that turn on and off all the time. In winter, use a timed block heater (if you can) to minimize excessive idling to warm your engine up and defrost your windows.

7/ Wind and Turbulence - Vans and motor homes are not very aerodynamic. The large surface areas create a huge air drag. The blunt front end has to push lots of air aside and the chopped off rear end creates a lot of turbulence which drags from behind. That's why at over 55MPH or so, you start losing fuel efficiency. Believe it or not, strong winds can effect your gas mileage. When driving into strong headwinds, I've lost up to 10% MPG in my van. Likewise, I've gained up to 7% MPG with following tailwinds. So, if you can, you could adjust your long range trips to take advantage of this. Maybe. Also, some people claim that keeping your vehicle clean and waxed will minimize the surface drag of your van, resulting in better mileage. Hmmm, possible.

8/ Remove excess Weight - While this is true, it's very hard when you live in your van to do this. But, I live a somewhat minimalist lifestyle and there are some things you can do. It's up to you to decide what you can do without and what you absolutely need.

9/ Drive less - Combine and plan your trips to minimize miles driven. Walk when the store is only a half mile away. Pick up things when you are driving home from work. Be efficient with your driving.

There are more tactics, like coasting with your engine off or drafting large trucks on the highway, but, I think these ideas are dangerous, irresponsible and probably illegal in most jurisdictions.

There are two tools I use to monitor my gas mileage, that I find very valuable to portray any of my efforts.

A/ Real-time MPG Display - This is something that many new modern vehicles have and I think they are great! They display the instantaneous fuel economy as you operate. You can see how changes in terrain and how you drive effects your MPG. It teaches what things make a little or big difference as they happen. It's helped me quite a lot; it has confirmed a lot of my driving practices and helped me fine tune them.

B/ Mileage Log - I've been keeping MPG vehicle logs for a long time. Again, they help confirm that your efforts are paying off statistically. But, they also show if your vehicle is perhaps losing efficiency due to mechanical failure, before you might have noticed otherwise.

Throughout this series, I've got to remind you that any of these tactics are just part of a overall regimen ( maintenance, operational, purchase decisions) to help reduce your fuel usage. As gas prices jump up, anything you can do to save gas will help. Because we all live in different areas and drive different vehicles, what works for me may not work for you. You have to find out what's best for you.

Next MPG article: Vehicle Choice

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