Mechanic Offers Fuel-Saving Tips

Goodness gracious, gas is expensive! These days, gasoline is running in the $3.20 per gallon range in many parts of the country, and some pundits are even predicting $4 per gallon by the middle of the summer.

Short of buying a Prius hybrid, there are several ways you can increase your vehicle's fuel economy without breaking the bank. One expert on the subject, Kit Johnson, is the 2007 NAPA Technician of the Year and hails from East Helena, Mont.

"Gaining more fuel efficiency from your vehicle is not an easy task -- it takes a concerted effort to increase the number of miles achieved per gallon," said Johnson, who doesn't talk much like a mechanic. "In many instances, common sense is the fuel efficient way to go. Start with two strategies: better driving habits and car maintenance."

Some strategic planning involving your driving can reduce the amount of miles driven and strain on the engine -- both big users of fuel. So placing some of your efforts in that area can pay big dividends. First, plan ahead. When going out to run errands, map an efficient route to handle all of your tasks in one trip and not backtrack. Added miles and/or added trips mean extra expense.

When you are driving, there are several things you can do to improve fuel economy. Among them, try to predict the flow of traffic. In heavy traffic, do your best to avoid constant accelerating and braking -- without running into anybody, of course. Research suggests that driving techniques can influence vehicle fuel efficiency by as much as 30 percent. Getting on and off the gas pedal frequently blows dollars out your tailpipe. And it is interesting to note that observing the speed limit can have a significant impact on fuel usage, too. With most vehicles, increasing your speed from 55 mph to 65 mph will increase fuel consumption by about 20 percent, but it won't improve your arrival time by 20 percent.

Another tip: don't drive with your windows open. This is especially true in the winter, when you'll burn more fuel trying to keep the interior of the vehicle warm.  But even in summer, driving with your windows down drastically reduces your fuel efficiency, far more so than using the air conditioning during highway driving. In the warmer months, Johnson recommends keeping the windows open during city driving and turning the air conditioning on during trips where you exceed 55 mph.

You can also keep some much-needed cash by putting your car on a diet. We hate to tell you this to your face, but your vehicle could stand to lose a few pounds. Those heavy bags of sand and salt you may carry around in your trunk during the winter serve no useful purpose in spring, summer and fall. The extra weight just means wasted fuel and unnecessary emissions. Treat your trunk to a spring cleaning.

Another area of pure waste is something many of us do without thinking -- letting the engine run when we're not going anywhere. Avoid excessive idling. The vast majority of today's newer cars do not benefit from idling for more than 30 seconds before you first get underway. In fact, the opposite is true: In addition to wasting fuel, excessive idling can contaminate engine oil and damage engine components. If you're going to be standing still for a minute or two, turn off the engine. It is a myth that you will waste more gas by restarting the car than by letting it run. That's why today's highly fuel-efficient hybrids have an automatic engine shutoff and restart feature.

Based in Cleveland, Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently about the environment and fossil fuels.

Keep Your Fluid Levels Up

Competitive runners know that the intake and monitoring of fluids is important to winning races and staying healthy. Just like a top-level runner, your vehicle also needs fluids to survive and thrive. Unfortunately, many people fail to maintain their vehicle's fluids on a regular basis, which can ultimately cause expensive damage to their vehicle. To ensure that your vehicle runs at peak performance, keeping the following fluids and their service intervals top of mind is key to the continued health of your car.

According to Kit Johnson, 2007 NAPA Technician of the Year from East Helena, Mont., there are five basic fluids that every car owner should maintain regularly -- coolant, automatic transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid and differential fluids for all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Coolant should be flushed every 30,000 to 60,000 miles, depending on whether it is extended life or regular. When new, coolant should be vivid red, green or yellow color. When coolant is nearing the end of its useful life it will often, but not always, appear diluted or rust-colored.

"It's a good idea to have coolant tested for protection breakdown because color isn't always a reliable indicator when it comes to coolant," Johnson said.

Automatic transmission fluid should be light red in color. Johnson recommends that it be flushed every 30,000 miles, though other experts say automatic transmission fluid can last at least twice as long. One thing there is no controversy on is this: if the transmission fluid turns a dark brown, black or smells burnt, you should take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible.

"Automatic transmissions are very expensive to replace," Johnson said. "Regular preventive maintenance is a good idea and will keep you from having to pay for costly repairs."

If your vehicle makes a buzzing or grinding sound when you turn the steering wheel while driving at slow speeds, this is most likely an indication that the power steering fluid is low. Healthy power steering fluids should appear clear or red, while black is a definite danger sign. NAPA's Johnson recommends replacement of power steering fluid every 60,000 to 90,000 miles to prolong the life of your power steering system.

"Brake fluid is hydroscopic, meaning it attracts water," Johnson said. "Therefore, it absorbs water so that water can't rust the brake system. Healthy brake fluid should be clear or have a light purple tint, and as it becomes saturated with water, it will begin to turn black. The darker the brake fluid, the more need to flush the system."

Nowadays, Copper contamination of brake fluid is a common issue. It's a good idea to have your brake fluid tested for copper content, because copper sticks to the lining and anti-lock braking system modules, so it's best to have a service schedule to clean this out at least by the 90,000 mile mark.

All cars and trucks have differentials, but the differentials in all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles generally get a more thorough workout. Because of this, lubrication for gears, bearings, shafts and other internal components can break down. Heat, pressure and friction can sap the lubricating abilities of differential fluid, so it's a good idea to flush out the vehicle's differential fluids every 60,000 miles.

And while you're at it, why not have a glass of water or two?

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini frequently covers vehicle maintenance issues.

A Weatherman Looks at Climate Change

The global warming debate is not about temperature. Climate always changes. Every 10 years, new statistics are generated for all U.S. cities based on the most recent 30 years of data. For example, my current home city of Bakersfield, Calif., used to average 5.72 inches of rain per year. A lot of people had that number memorized. Since 2001 the average is 6.49 inches. This .77-inch increase over 10 years does not mean, however, that there is global moistening and that at this rate our average will be 14.39 inches by the year 2100. Neither does it imply blame for the extra raindrops that now fall on Kern County.

The global warming debate is not about sober scientific understanding, either. In the really big picture (eons of time), we only have a few moments of reliable standardized temperature statistics from which to draw relationships and mark trends. Paleo-climatological temperature data is indirectly inferred, so modern comparisons do not conclusively prove anything.

Finally, the bulk of the global warming debate is not about finding solutions to problems. Anthropogenic, or human-caused, warming proponents have already decided what the solutions are and are working backward to identify the problems.

In fact, the great debate isn't a debate at all. It is a pronouncement, a declaration, and a one-sided assumption that the world will agree with their fact finding. Those who disagree with the fundamental theory of a looming manmade global warming catastrophe are subject to shame. They are called names, minimized and treated with disgust. Dr. Heidi Cullen of The Weather Channel would strip me of my CBM (Certified Broadcast Meteorologist) status because of my opinion.

How did we get to this point where civility in a scientific discourse was so rashly abandoned? It is like the bitter partisanship in government today. Where did this rabid activism come from? It came from the unshakable conviction that we must act now to avoid certain disaster. Extreme zeal in a cause can be good, but it also may blind a person to reason.

Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its well-publicized report accusing mankind of culpability in the warming of the world. I have taken issue with the report, as have many of my meteorological colleagues. A friend asked me, "So, 2,500 scientists are wrong?" I replied, "Yes."

This would not be the first instance of a large body of people being wrong in their belief. There was a time tornado safety included opening windows; mercury was used in topical ointments; smoking was ubiquitous, and global cooling was going to kill us all. Not to mention other hysterias such as Y2K, McCarthyism, Jim Crow and the Spanish Inquisition. But my biggest concern is the widespread notion that there is a monolithic consensus on the subject of global warming. A constant drumbeat of "the science is settled" from every corner of media, government and academia has saturated public opinion. The science is not settled.

There are serious questions regarding carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations, which are directly related to temperature fluctuations. I contend they have gone up more than 20 percent in the past 50 years as a result of natural warming, rather than the other way around. Warmer oceans absorb less CO2, thus affecting the Carbon Cycle balance. Indeed, the greatest influence from a greenhouse gas comes from water vapor (comprising up to four percent of the atmosphere in the tropics). A warmer (or colder) climate is caused by macro stimuli, not by insignificant human input. Urban development represents less than one half of one percent (0.0044 percent) of the world's surface, which is 70.8 percent ocean. Although our influence may be formidable on a local scale, it comes nowhere close to a commanding interest of the Earth.

I believe volcanic eruptions pose a much larger threat than does anything else, bringing about immediate climate cooling. There are many well-documented episodes during the past 2,000 years in which crops have failed and people have starved due to volcanic-induced periods of worldwide extreme cold. When the climate does change, mankind must adapt. During a storm chase, the rule of thumb is to get out of the way of a tornado -- not to expect I can alter its path or strength. I don't possess that ability. To think I do would be foolishly deceiving.

What about the indisputable computer model predictions of doom? We have enough trouble forecasting tomorrow's weather. This idea that sophisticated models are going to predict with accuracy conditions 100 years from now is really half-baked. In the final analysis, I have found that people will believe what they want to believe. Those who subscribe to human-induced global warming want to believe the hysteria. However, when anyone compels you to agree with them about anything, without dissent or review, it is duress and a red flag should go up with all reasonable people.

The IPCC solution is too simple: Stop the CO2 and everything will return to normal. It is like the education system in America, which has been in a decline for decades now. Some say just throw more money at it, but that has not addressed the underlying societal problems that are taking a toll on student achievement. It isn't that simple for education, and neither is it that simple for climate change.

Air pollution is abysmal in the San Joaquin Valley, the worst part of living in my area. Certainly, measures should be taken to reduce it and thus remove a biohazard from our midst. But for my part I ask the question: Why would anyone think that mankind has the power to change the world's climate one way or the other? It seems narcissistic and self-congratulatory. Can we also change winter to spring or move the Earth into a new orbit? Can a living human be beamed from one place to another like in Star Trek? Where does science end and science fiction begin in the global warming debate? Asking the question does not mean I am unenlightened. Rather, it demands extraordinary proof to answer this extraordinary assertion.

Kickstarting "Clean Diesel"

Many of Europe's top automotive brands have long been pushing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to allow the new common-rail "clean diesel" technology, which has become so prevalent in Europe, to enter the American market. But the EPA has always been skeptical about the technology, particularly because it requires the consumer to occasionally add a chemical mixture to the vehicle in order to facilitate the special catalysts that make the technology work. Now, in a decision that came at the end of March, the EPA made a move that, it says, "helps pave the way for putting more innovative and fuel-efficient 'clean diesel' cars and trucks on America's roads."

The big first step has come in guidance to auto manufacturers on emission certification procedures for on-road diesels that use "clean diesel," which is referred to in the industry as selective catalyst reduction (SCR) technology. The EPA noted that while SCR has been used successfully in other applications, its guidance enables automakers for the first time to adapt the technology to light- and heavy-duty vehicles on American roads.

SCR reduces emissions of the ozone-forming pollutant nitrogen oxide (NOx), the key ingredient, along with sunlight, in creating smog. It uses a nitrogen-containing "reducing agent" (usually ammonia or urea) that is injected into the exhaust gas upstream of the catalyst. The ammonia or urea injection is very effective in reducing nitrogen oxide, but the systems must be periodically replenished with the agent for the catalyst system to limit NOx production. As the EPA wrote in its letter of guidance, "Without the reducing agent, the efficiency of the SCR catalyst drops to zero and NOx emissions can increase substantially." 

This has been the major obstacle to the approval of the technology, since the EPA has had a time-worn bias against systems that involve significant amounts of maintenance. By its letter, however, EPA has opened the door to examine and potentially approve some "clean diesel" SCR systems.

While the EPA spelled out quite clearly that it would still flunk SCR-equipped vehicles if the vehicles exceed emissions standards because of the lack of "reducing agent," the sentence from the guidance letter that gives manufacturers hope reads: "If the manufacturer can prove to the EPA that their SCR system design will not run out of reducing agent in-use and thus not exceed the emission standards, we may determine that the design is acceptable and approve certification of the vehicle design."

This clears the way for manufacturers to submit SCR systems for testing and potential EPA certification that do not require a great deal of consumer maintenance and refilling of reducing agent tanks. Further, the EPA has spelled out prerequisites for its acceptance of such systems, all designed to make as certain as possible that the reducing agent tanks remain filled during the car's period of use. The agency specified that "clean diesel" systems must include a warning to the driver if the reducing agent tank is nearing empty and it offered other standards as well, including clearly labeled, easy-to-purchase reducing agents and durable, tamper-resistant design of the entire system.

The crack in the EPA's door on this issue was greeted warmly by one big "clean diesel" advocate, Mercedes-Benz. Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board of management DaimlerChrysler and head of the Mercedes Car Group, issued a statement saying, "Mercedes-Benz welcomes and supports the EPA's announcement on Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) guidelines, which represent a critical next step for the future acceptance of diesel vehicles in the U.S. market. This decision, teamed with the Agency's recent mandate for Ultra Low Sulfur Diesel (ULSD) fuel availability, serves to reinforce diesel's benefit as a viable alternative to help reduce fuel consumption and ultimately, reduce oil imports."

The luxury brand recently announced plans to offer BLUETEC diesel-powered versions of its M-, R- and GL-Class sport-utility vehicles in the United States beginning in 2008. The new BLUETEC SUVs are expected to be the world's first diesel-powered vehicles to meet the EPA's stringent BIN5 emissions standards for all 50 states. The BLUETEC SUVs will offer AdBlue injection, a process that adds precisely measured quantities of a urea-based solution into the exhaust stream to help selectively reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 80 percent.

Is Global Warming Actually Cooling?

A change in Mars' climate might be an interesting bit of cocktail party conversation and nothing more, but for the fact that the warming on Mars has largely coincided with the surface temperature increases observed on Earth. This brings into question the prevalent "conventional wisdom" on global warming, which holds that the fact that humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere via automobiles and industrial processes is to blame for temperature change. That was the conclusion of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which has been widely reported in vastly simplified versions. But, increasingly, scientists are risking being ostracized by asking for a hard look at the data before buying into what some have characterized as a heavily politicized view of the issue.

One such scientist is Dr. Habibullo Abdussamatov of Petersburg's (Russia) Pulkovo Astronomical Observatory. He points to observations from NASA's Mars Global Surveyor and Odyssey missions that reveal that the carbon dioxide "ice caps" near Mars' South Pole have been diminishing for three years running. Since there are no Martians driving SUVs or operating electrical generating stations on the red planet, this finding signals to Abdussamatov, who heads space research at the observatory, that the current surface and sea water warming trend on Earth is being driven by changes in the amount of energy emitted by the sun.

"Mars has global warming, but without a greenhouse and without the participation of Martians,' he told Lawrence Solomon of the Canadian Financial Post. "These parallel global warmings -- observed simultaneously on Mars and on Earth -- can only be a straight-line consequence of the effect of the one same factor: a long-time change in solar irradiance."

According to the Russian scientist, it is this increased radiation of energy cast off by the sun that has, over the last century, triggered the widely acknowledged global warming. Under-reported is the fact that the warming has not been a continual uptrend since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the introduction of the automobile. In fact, over the course of the past 150 years, Earth has cooled and warmed at various times and by various degrees. One thing that all scientists seem to agree on is that the climate of Earth has never remained stable.

While Dr. Abdussamatov's view that the sun and not a collection of C02 and other "greenhouse gases" has led to the surface warming trend that has been observed, that isn't the only grenade he has thrown at the conventional view of global warming. Not only does he scoff at the notion that an accumulation of "greenhouse gases" has led to global warming, but he also asserts that global warming caused by the sun has actually been the cause of the proliferation of "greenhouse gases."

"It is no secret that increased solar irradiance warms Earth's oceans, which then triggers the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere," he said. "So the common view that man's industrial activity is a deciding factor in global warming has emerged from a misinterpretation of cause and effect relations."

And there's one more kicker. Abdussamatov also suggests that the recent era of global warming is at or near its end. He points to some observed cooling of the upper layers of the world's oceans as evidence that a cooling period is in the offing as early as 2012, and he further predicted that the cooling could last some 50 years.

Driving Today Contributing Editor Tom Ripley writes about climate, the automotive industry and the human condition from his home in Villeperce, France.