Oil Prices

Prices are advertised at a gas station Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012 in San Francisco. U.S. retail gasoline prices rose less than a penny Monday to a national average of 3.57 per gallon, according to AAA, Wright Express and Oil Price Information Service. A gallon of regular is 19 cents higher than it was a month ago and 40 cents more than a year ago. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Marcio Jose Sanchez

Phoenix is known for its “urban sprawl,” where suburbs and cities stretch across the entire Valley of the Sun. Back in the days of the housing boom, one popular slogan among realtors was “drive until you qualify,” meaning housing got more affordable the further you went from the city. The trade-off to that, however, was a longer commute. Since public transit in Phoenix is horrible (aside from the light rail for a few college kids), the only option for most of us is to drive if we need to get anywhere.

Now couple our economic hardships with long commutes and we find unnecessary strain on our pocketbooks. The thing that bothers me most is the single driver who uses a big pickup or SUV as their daily driver. Now, I’m not advocating that we all go out and buy a hybrid. In fact, quite the opposite. Hybrid and electric vehicles are not always cost-effective means of transportation, nor are they particularly helpful in saving the planet.

Not all of us can afford to run out and buy a new car, much less a hybrid or electric vehicle. Vehicles with these technologies often have a higher cost associated with them, which is why buying one makes little sense if your purpose is saving money. Instead of buying a new car to increase your gas mileage, I’m going to give you a couple of tips that, if applied, could put a little extra money in your pocket.

First, inflate your tires. Sure, it sounds simple, but you’d be surprised to find out how many people ignore such a simple task. Check the driver’s door area for a sticker showing the proper psi for your tires. Or, most tire shops can help you determine how much pressure your tires need. Many gas stations, including all QuikTrip locations, have free air pumps.

Second, make sure you’re using the proper fluids and changing them often. It’s important to use the recommended fuel type for your vehicle. Not only will proper fuel increase your mileage, but you’ll reduce the amount of sludge build-up and reduce your risk of engine problems. In addition to fuel, be sure to use the recommended oil and change it regularly. Many new cars can go upwards of 5,000-10,000 miles between oil changes. Waiting too long to change your oil can cause problems much more serious than bad gas mileage.

Third, put your car on a diet. There’s no reason to drive around all day with a trunk full of junk. Not only will your car get better mileage because of the weight loss, but a clean car looks much better than one full of dirty gym clothes and food wrappers. If it’s not necessary, get it out of your car. To do one better, recycle that old stuff or donate it to Goodwill or Deseret Industries.

Last, and most importantly, the best way to get more miles out of each gallon is to improve your driving habits. We all know that Arizona drivers are horrible. Heck, you might even be one of them. Well it’s time to listen up and take notes. Most vehicles achieve maximum efficiency around 55 mph. According to fueleconomy.gov, every 5mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an extra $0.28 per gallon for gasoline.

I’m no racecar driver (although I really wish I could be), but I’m not an “eco-friendly” driver, either. Like everyone else on the U.S. 60, I tend to set my cruise around 75 mph and just go with the flow. However, a few months ago, I decided to perform a little experiment. For an entire week, the time it takes me to drain a tank of gas, I decided that I wouldn’t drive faster than 70 mph during my commute. My goal? To see how much my gas mileage would improve.

At the start of my experiment, my drive to work became frustrating. It always bothered me to have people passing me. Despite cruising in the right lanes (aka the slow people lanes), I constantly had people coming up on my tail and changing lanes at the very last second. It took a lot of patience to drive slower. But toward the end of the week, I began to enjoy my commute a lot more. In fact, the drive was a lot less stressful than it had been before. I found myself arriving at work in a better mood and less peeved at my fellow road warriors.

At the end of my test, I was surprised to see that my fuel economy had jumped from 28 mpg to over 33 mpg. I determined this by dividing the number of miles I drove by the quantity of gallons needed to fill my car to the brim. Although not a perfect system, it was accurate enough for me to see the difference. In terms of cost savings, I got an extra 5 miles of driving per gallon of gasoline. If I drive 15,000 miles per year and continue to average 33 mpg, that equals 454 gallons of gasoline, or about $1,590 (assuming $3.50 per gallon) spent to fill up my car. However, if I continue to drive the way I usually do, I’d be paying $1,875 over the course of a year. According to the estimates of fueleconomy.gov, I should be paying about $1,929, which isn’t too far off from what I experienced.

Aside from saving money at the pump, following these tips to increase our fuel mileage decreases our demand for foreign oil, mitigates our carbon emissions, and will likely reduce wear and tear on our vehicles. Visit fueleconomy.gov for more tips and tricks, and consider doing your own experiment to increase your mpg. And, if you’re so inclined, send a letter to the editor with your awesome achievements!

Ryan Biggs is a regular contributor to Nerdvana, the East Valley Tribune’s science and technology web site. Nerdvana focuses on the East Valley’s semi-conductor, defense, aerospace and bio-science industries as well as fun stuff for nerds. Ryan’s passion is cars.

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