5 Ways to Save Gas, and the Planet

01
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Small Picture and Big Picture Fuel Economy

gas pump in hand
Spend less at the gas pump with lifestyle choices. Getty

Conversations about gas prices can go in any of a number of directions. It's one of those topics that summons an absurd number of opinions, along with gripes, conspiracy theories and exasperation. This is no wonder. After all, our lifestyles force us to spend some amount of time behind the wheel unless you're lucky enough to live in New York City, in which case you're blowing money on transportation in a very different way. For the rest of the country, we're driving ourselves all over the place and filling the gas tank regularly in order to do it. If you’re serious about saving gas or reducing your impact on the planet (the two really go hand in hand), here are some things to consider. 

 

02
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How Where You Live Affects Your Gas Mileage

heavy traffic commuting
Heavy traffic in your area can burn lots of extra gas. Getty

 If you’re thinking of your long term cost of fuel, as in really long term, you might give some thought to where you live. There are a couple of factors in your choice of where to hang your hat that can determine how much gas your car will gobble up while you live there. The first consideration is the length of your commute. Obviously a 3-mile commute to work will be more efficient overall than a 20-mile trek to the office. But you don’t just have distance to consider. A 10-mile commute can take 15 minutes is light morning traffic. This would be an ideal commute because your vehicle would likely be operating in its efficient zone (at cruising speed) for the majority of your ride. On the other hand, a 2-mile commute in an endless line of stop-and-go traffic could take half an hour to chew through. This type of driving uses lots of fuel, and contributes to general nastiness of our air while its at it. Knowing this, you’re better off living in an area that is not high in traffic if possible. It can take a lot of planning to choose a place to live based on how much of a carbon footprint (and wallet dent) you’re willing to make on a daily basis. If it’s something that matters to you, it’s probably worth the effort. 

03
of 06
Time to Fill Up ... Your Tires!

tire truck
Filling your tires can save real amounts of gas. Getty

 

Have you checked your tire pressure recently? Believe it or not, the amount of air in your car or trucks’s tires can have a real impact on your fuel economy! For most people, this doesn’t seem real. Sure, you can accept that it’s true after a lengthy explanation by notable physicists and chemists who explain to you the nuances of rubber compounds, static pressure, kinetic energy and maybe even the flux capacitor. But does it really make a difference, as in can you actually save some money by adding a little air to the tires?

Before I give you the short answer, let’s suffer together through the longish answer. This won’t involve scientists, just an extra few minutes of reading so you can start to get why air in your tires can make a difference. There, I said it. Tire pressure can make a difference in your gas mileage. But you should still read on. When you’re considering how a tire works, think of a balloon. After all, tires are actually really, really tough balloons. They are strong enough to support the weight of a vehicle, but pliable enough to provide a significant part of your comfortable right down even the roughest of roads. The level of cushion you get depends on how much air is in the tire. A tire that has very little air in it will absorb all of the little bumps in the road and you’ll feel (for better or worse) like you’re riding on a cloud of marshmallows. Unfortunately this tire will make your car squish all over the place as you go down the road, especially on the curves. Take the same tire, add too much air and you’ll feel more like you one of the Flinstones riding in a car made of rocks. We want to land somewhere in the middle, so we fill the tires to an amount that’s a good compromise between the two. 

What does any of this have to do with gas mileage? To get there, we have to talk about contact patch. The contact patch is the mount of actual tire rubber that is touching the road. Let’s us a regular, round balloon as an analogy. Partially inflate this balloon, like half as big as you’d expect it to be. Now take the balloon, set it on a table and rest your hand on top. The amount of balloon that’s touching the table will greatly increase, maybe even double. Now take a second balloon and keep inflating until it’s huge and firm. Place it on the table with your hand resting on top. You’ll find that the overfilled balloon compresses far less than its less inflated brother. It also has a much smaller contact patch on the table. In the case of a tire, this contact patch can really affect how much gas it takes to get you from one place to another. Filling your tire with more air will reduce the contact patch. With less rubber touching the road, your tire creates less friction, making it easier to roll. This is known as rolling resistance.

If you skipped down to this paragraph for the really short answer, it’s Yes. Filling your tires with the proper amount of air will save gas, and therefore save you money. But don't you want to skip to the top to read a lengthy, slightly technical diatribe about the woes of driving around with improperly inflated tires? Maybe a trip to the dentist instead? I hear you. 

04
of 06
Regular Car Maintenance and Gas Mileage

man under hood
DIY owners are always inspecting and troubleshooting their vehicles. Getty

 

Your vehicle is filled with moving parts. They do all sorts of things. Some are electronic, others are mechanical, some fall someplace in between. All of these systems work together to make your car or truck move down the road. Believe it or not, most are designed to do this very efficiently, as well. When your engine is in top tune and has fresh oil and clean filters, you aren’t putting up any barriers to a very fuel efficient machine. Regular oil changes are a must, because even sludge buildup in your engine can cause friction and resistance. Theoretically, any level of friction can have an effect on gas mileage. But theory and reality can often diverge, at least on a practical level. It’s hard to convince somebody to change their oil based only on the fact that they could save a dollar and a half over the life of the car (although that probably is enough for a few people I know). In many engines, especially smaller, more inherently fuel efficient engines like a 4-cylinder, a good layer of internal engine sludge can really affect the engine’s output. Regular oil changes will keep it clean, and you may want to consider synthetic oil. 

Other maintenance items merit a second look, too. If your car is running hot you may be operating outside of the engine’s realm of efficiency. Many engines run hot because they are burning too much fuel. If this is the case with your engine, you’re looking at a no-brainer. Is your engine tuned properly? If it’s not, you could be wasting gas just by the amount you need to press your gas pedal to get up to speed! An efficient engine won’t use nearly as much fuel as a worn out, poorly tuned engine. All of these maintenance items may seem trivial or things to be tackled on an as-needed basis, but keeping up with the regular stuff can pay off in more ways than you may think. 

05
of 06
Driving Style and Your MPGs

road rage
Driving style can greatly affect your gas mileage. Getty

 

This is the tip that very few people want to hear. They’re willing to put some air in their tires or get regular oil changes. One of those is free and the other comes with some sort of inherent good feeling you get when you know you’re doing something responsible as a vehicle owner. Nobody wants to hear that you can save fuel by slowing down. We’re all in a hurry, some of us are in a big hurry. This hurry is causing drivers in our country and around the world to burn far more gas than is necessary to get from A to B. 

Are you on board yet? Driving style, at least when it comes to saving gas, means lots more than reducing your top speed on the freeway. But while we’re on that subject, reducing your speed on the freeway can save lots of gas! The U.S. Department of Energy reports that changing your driving habits on the freeway can save as much as 33% in burned fuel. To be honest, this sounds like some sort of ideal scenario involving the worst driver on the planet who suddenly decided to become the best driver on the planet, but if the savings come even close to that, they’re huge. Driving style isn’t limited to the freeway. When you leave a red light, are you the first one to shoot past the white line, leaving the rest of the traffic shrinking your rear view mirrors? If you are, you’re wasting gas. That initial burst of engine from a dead stop until you get up to your cruising speed uses far more gas than driving down the road at a constant pace. Even all those lane changes you’ve been making to weave your pay past all of the slower vehicles are costing you precious MPGs. The best example for how to drive efficiently comes from that grandma and grandpa you see moving 5 MPH slower than everyone else. 

06
of 06
Choosing Your Commuting Weapon

electric vehicle charging
An electric vehicle is the ultimate in gas mileage. Getty

 

An obvious way to control how much fuel you’ll be using in the near future is to choose a vehicle that is efficient. If it’s time for you purchase a new car or truck, and gas mileage is important to you, a quick comparison of fuel economy ratings can lead you in a direction, or at least knock a couple of choices off your list if they are especially low on the economy list. Recent research indicates that almost 80% of drivers could actually be driving an electric car in their daily routine. Most of us, myself included, assume that the rather limited range of the electric vehicles in the mainstream market today would make owning them prohibitive, but this study shed some needed light on the fact that most of us could function most of the time using an electric vehicle. When the need arises for you to take a longer trip that would be out of your vehicle’s operating range, you could simply rent or borrow a vehicle. I heard a great analogy recently - we don’t all own a truck for the couple of times a year (or less) that we may need one. If we need a truck, we rent or borrow it. Why would you limit your choice of vehicle based on an event that will happen only a couple of times a year? 

I realize not everybody wants to own a fuel efficient eco-weenie-mobile. If you’re laughing right now, you’re one of those people. If you’re insulted, please understand I use the term eco-weenie in the most positive of ways. If an electric vehicle or high efficiency hybrid is not on your list, you can still compare the gas mileage of the vehicles you’re interested in to choose one that is high on your list.