Simple changes help motorists to conserve fuel
Avoiding gas stations near freeways and keeping tires inflated can help cut costs.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
LOS ANGELES -- As gasoline prices hit a new record in Southern California on Monday, each customer at the USA Gasoline station on Peck Road in El Monte seemed to have his own strategy for dealing with the rising costs.
Raymond Valenzuela keeps his air-conditioning off, instead rolling down the windows of his burgundy Chrysler Acclaim. The 32-year-old machine operator also avoids gas stations near freeways, which he believes charge more, and sometimes fills up at night because a friend told him pumps deliver more gas when the temperatures are cool.
Brian Edwards, a 50-year-old tire deliveryman, religiously checks the tire pressure on his Ford Aerostar minivan.
A few miles away at an Exxon station, John Myung, a 49-year-old importer, makes sure to fill up his Lexus 430 during the week, believing that gas stations jack up prices on the weekend.
In the quest to squeeze as much gas mileage out of their cars as possible, motorists are exploring all the angles, gleaned from friends, family and even the Internet. Some work; others are urban myths.
Turning off the air-conditioning and opening the windows, for example, actually lessens fuel economy because air going through the windows adds drag to the car.
Myung is not alone in thinking gas prices go up on weekends, but experts say he's wrong.
"That's a bit of an old wives' tale, a myth," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. "Wholesale prices change every day with the exception of Sunday. The biggest price moves tend to take place on the wholesale markets on Wednesdays these days."
But there does appear to be truth to the theory that stations near freeways charge more.
"There's substantial premiums you pay if you buy gas near a freeway," said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, a San Diego group that has tracked regional gasoline prices. "It's simply a function of gas stations taking advantage of the convenience factor. They may also pay higher rents, though."
How about driving behind a big rig? That also can improve fuel economy, but experts don't recommend it because of the danger of being in the trucker's blind spot.
"It's the same theory that Lance Armstrong exploits whenever he's riding in the Tour de France," Shames said. "He's taking advantage of the draft created by other riders to reduce the amount of effort he has to make."
Keeping a vehicle's tires properly inflated improves fuel economy. That's because underinflated tires require more energy to roll. They can reduce fuel economy up to 2 percent for each pound of tire pressure below the recommended level, according to the Automobile Club of Southern California.
Even with the average price for a gallon of regular now at $2.52 nationally, according to AAA, and premium grades going for more than $3, most drivers aren't in a position to stop using their cars. So they are responding in much the way they try to lose weight -- with complex special diets, instead of simply eating less and exercising more, Kloza said.
"It's like that scene in 'Goodfellas,' where one of the guys says, 'How come this food tastes so good?' 'Because it's stolen,'" he said. "When people save money on gasoline, it gives them an immediate sunny countenance. They think they pulled the wool on somebody."
Some of the tactics adopted by weary commuters make perfect sense.
Instead of gunning the engine when leaving a stoplight and darting in and out of traffic, drivers should take it easy on the accelerator and maintain a steady speed, said Jeffrey Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club.
A recent study showed that a driver with a heavier foot got only 9 miles a gallon, but when he slowed down, he got 20 mpg, Spring said.
"We encourage people to drive with the speed of traffic instead of trying to beat everyone on the road," he said. "You can save a lot of gas that way."
How about removing that ski rack or bike rack from the vehicle roof? Experts said that would improve fuel economy by making the car more aerodynamic.
Myths fool some
But other notions simply aren't backed up by the facts.
"Gasoline prices are kind of like a festering scab for people," Kloza said. "People do odd things regardless of how stupid it is."
Many people believe that purchasing a higher-octane gas, for instance an 89 grade instead of an 87 grade, will improve fuel efficiency.
"That's a myth. There's almost no justification I've found for anybody to use the medium grade, 89 octane," Shames said. "There are some cars that are designed to run on 92 octane grade, but otherwise I recommend using regular unleaded."
The gas price spike has some drivers purchasing fuel additives and devices that claim to reduce consumption. The Auto Club tested many of the gadgets, including one that involves magnets placed on the outside of a vehicle and a fan-like contraption -- both supposedly designed to boost fuel flow.
"They don't work as far as we can tell," Spring said. "I would say don't waste your money buying devices to improve your fuel economy. Clean out the junk in your trunk instead."