According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices have risen, on average across the country, by 49 percent over the past year. It can be downright wince-inducing to fill up, but there are ways to mitigate pain at the pump. Here are some tips to help save money in the face of rising fuel costs, and they are good practices even when gas prices are low.
1. ‘Add lightness’
We’re putting weight savings at the top of the list since Autoblog is for anyone with at least a modicum of enthusiasm for the automobile. We’re quoting Lotus founder Colin Chapman here because weight isn’t just the enemy of fuel costs, but of all performance. A lighter car will accelerate quicker, requires less distance to brake to a stop and, most important, it’s more nimble. It’s just physics: When moving an object from A to B, the lighter it is the less energy (gasoline) it will take.
Therefore, getting rid of unnecessary stuff in your car — toolbox, bowling ball, camping equipment, subwoofer, boxed stuff you plan to donate to Goodwill, etc. — will ultimately save fuel. The U.S. Department of Energy says that for every 100 pounds offloaded, you’ll improve mpg by about 1%. No, that’s not much, but the benefits go beyond fuel economy, the more you lighten the more you save, and it’s an easy thing anyone can do. If you want to get really extreme, you can even wait to gas up only when it’s needed, as a full 18-gallon tank of gas weighs over 100 pounds.
2. Don’t add drag
Similar to the weight savings argument, try to keep roof-mounted cargo boxes or outdoors equipment such as bikes or skis off the roof of your car if you’re not using them. Not only do they add weight, but they create drag.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “A large, blunt rooftop cargo box … can reduce fuel economy by around 2% to 8% in city driving, 6% to 17% on the highway, and 10% to 25% at interstate speeds (65 mph to 75 mph).” The DOE recommends rear-mounted cargo boxes or trays, which only reduce fuel by 1% or 2% in city driving and 1% to 5% on the highway.
3. Don’t speed
This goes hand in hand with reducing drag. Every vehicle has an optimal speed range for best fuel economy, and generally that’s engineered to be between 50 and 60 mph. SAE International says that for speeds over 60, the drag a car encounters increases exponentially, which is murder on mileage. Watch your dashboard’s instant fuel economy readout, and you’ll see. At 60 mph, a typical four-cylinder car might average over 30 mpg; at 80 mph, the same car could drop to 20 mpg. Also, obviously, slower is safer.
4. Drive calmer
It should come as no surprise that aggressive acceleration and braking wastes a lot of fuel. Overcoming the inertia of a 4,000-pound hunk of metal expends a lot of energy, and the quicker you want to do it the more energy is required. Simply watch the tachometer. The higher you rev, the more gas you’re using.
On the flipside, any time you brake, you’re scrubbing off speed that you used gasoline to build. The most efficient way to drive would be to take your foot off the accelerator and coast nearly to a dead stop each time. That’s not always possible in the real world, but a lot of the time, surprisingly, it is.
5. Don’t idle (or coast in neutral)
When your car is idling, you’re burning gasoline while the car isn’t moving. Back in the days of carbureted engines, people would say that idling for a a few minutes used less fuel than shutting the engine off and restarting. That’s not the case with modern, fuel-injected cars, which dispense the exact amount of fuel necessary to fire the engine and are often equipped with stop-start systems.
As a corollary, it used to be beneficial to coast in neutral. The rpms would drop to idle level rather than slowly wind down from 3,000 or whatever. However, that’s not the case with most cars built in the past couple of decades. The engines and transmissions in many models are smart enough to know when you’re coasting, so essentially no fuel is being delivered to the motor. When you shift to neutral, the engine still has to expend fuel to keep idle speed going.
6. Keep your tires properly inflated
Proper psi in your tires is not only good for fuel savings, but for safety as well. Low tire pressure causes the tire to deform and pancake, enlarging the contact patch and creating more friction with the asphalt. The deformity will require more power to get the tires rolling, and will eventually cause premature tire failure (and tires can be expensive too).
Remember, tires lose air during regular use, but tire pressure is affected by temperature as well. Temperature affects air density, so you’ll often find during the first major cold spell of the year, when the mercury drops, that your tire pressure drops significantly. The weather turning cold is a good reminder to fill up your tires.
7. Use the correct oil in your car
You may have noticed that 10W-40, which was the default oil viscosity in the ’80s and ’90s, has given away to much thinner oils like 5W-30 or even 0W-20. Modern engines are designed with very low tolerances in their internal parts. As such, using the correct viscosity, or thickness, of oil as recommended by the carmaker is of utmost importance.
If you use too thick of an oil, you’re slowing down the moving parts of the engine and using more fuel to keep them churning. On the other hand, if you use too thin of an oil, you risk damaging those vital (and expensive) parts. Of course, if you’re low on oil, it’s better to add oil of any viscosity than none at all.
8. Maintain your car
Keeping up with proper maintenance will not only save you more expensive repair costs down the road, but will save you fuel in the meantime. Change the oil regularly (it thickens over time as it accumulates deposits) and if the check engine light comes on, address it right away. Oxygen sensors, spark plugs, and other measuring devices, all of which can trigger a CEL, have to work in unison to optimize your engine’s performance and fuel economy. For best results, follow your owner manual’s service interval recommendations.
9. Be conscious of your driving
The U.S. Department of Energy recommends using cruise control to save fuel, but we’re going to deviate slightly from them on this one. Yes, cruise control is the best choice if you’re driving on a long empty stretch of interstate. Maintaining momentum doesn’t use a lot of fuel, and the car is better at keeping a constant speed than a bored right foot.
However, if you’re truly paying attention behind the wheel, you can probably do better than your car’s cruise control. This is especially true of modern cars equipped with adaptive cruise control (ACC). With it, the car will try to maintain a set distance with whatever’s ahead. But, for example, if the car directly in front of you changes lanes, the ACC will accelerate quickly to get up to speed, even if there’s another car just a few feet down the road. It would be far more fuel-efficient to accelerate at a leisurely pace, which cruise control, adaptive or not, isn’t designed to do.
Keep aware of your surroundings, look at the traffic far ahead, and predict your moves (and the moves of other cars). If you pay attention in traffic, you can probably stretch out a gallon a bit better than the car’s cruise control.
10. Drive less
This seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how often people drive around frivolously without thinking about it. Short trips here and there add up. Cluster your errands together based on location, and you can end up not just saving fuel, but time. Then, not only do you end up with a bit more cash in your pocket, but maybe you can squeeze in an extra episode of that show you’ve been binge watching.
Nothing we’ve discussed here today is rocket science. All it takes is a basic understanding of how your car works, and awareness when you drive. Those are good to have in general, and when fuel prices spike you’ll be armed with the knowledge of how to save some money at the pump.
Another way to save at the pump: Use Autoblog’s Cheap Gas Prices Near Me tool to find precisely that — the cheapest gas prices near you.