Be Smart on Gas Savings

With fuel prices continuing to rise at an uncomfortable level, many people are looking for ways to save.  And the general media is pouring gasoline on the flames with its on-going coverage of the fuel price issue.  But, as a rational consumer, there is a question you should ask yourself -- do you want to save fuel or do you want to save money? And while, at first blush, they might seem like the same thing, they can actually be very different.  The good news is there are simple, cost-effective things you can do to save both fuel and money.  The bad news is they are not the most obvious steps people are taking today.

First, let's examine the biggest step you can take to save fuel -- replacing your current vehicle with a new, high-gas-mileage car.  That might seem an obvious step, but even if you go from a notorious gas guzzler to a super-mileage champ like a Toyota or Honda hybrid, you will certainly save gas, but you are very unlikely to save money.  Why?  Because you are almost always better off financially keeping your current vehicle than buying a new vehicle.  The reason can be summed up in a word: depreciation. Very likely your current ride has already taken a huge value hit in depreciation but, at the same time, it likely has a great deal of useful life left in it.  To this, when you factor in the losses in passenger- and cargo-carrying abilities that you are likely to suffer and the premium prices hybrids are commanding in today's marketplace versus conventional vehicles, what seems like an obvious money-saver, becomes a pretty serious money-loser.

From a strictly dollars-and-cents point of view you are far better off to look to keeping your current vehicle and optimizing its fuel economy with low-cost maintenance items.  For example, experts at NAPA Auto Parts recommend that consumers strategically invest in short-term maintenance tactics to achieve long-term savings from improved engine efficiency and fuel mileage.  Specifically, replacing air filters, fuel filters, oxygen sensors and spark plugs will help boost fuel mileage. And usually this efficiency increase will be more than enough to offset their modest costs.

Properly cleaning, maintaining and replacing air filters when necessary will ensure better air flow through the entire engine system. Since an engine is essentially an air pump, this simple step to help it "breathe better" will improve engine efficiency and will result in more power and better fuel mileage.

"According to a recent EPA study, air filters can increase fuel mileage by as much as 10 percent," said Michael Lavoie, the 2006 NAPA Technician of the Year and owner of Lavoie's NAPA AutoCare Center in Haverhill, New Hampshire. "The EPA estimates the payback for replacing a clogged air filter may amount to more than 22 cents per gallon based on current fuel prices."

In addition to a free flow of air, efficient combustion also needs a well-regulated flow of fuel and strong, consistent spark.  When fuel filters become plugged, sensors signal a car's computer to send more fuel into the engine, resulting in poor fuel economy, emission testing failure and engine system wear. Regular cleaning of fuel filters will help reduce consumption by not triggering the sensors. Spark plugs are subjected to extreme conditions in the engine's combustion chamber, which can result in the engine misfiring and fouling. Replacing spark plugs at regular intervals will help keep the engine operating at an optimum level, while improving fuel economy and reducing emissions.

Finally, properly functioning oxygen sensors, which regulate airflow into the engine, are good for the environment and can save hundreds of dollars in fuel costs over the life of the sensor. Replacement intervals for oxygen sensors are similar to those for spark plugs and range from 30,000 miles to 100,000 miles, depending upon the type of sensor.

"U.S. Department of Energy studies and others have shown that replacing worn oxygen sensors can increase fuel mileage by up to 40 percent," Lavoie said. "Almost all gasoline-powered vehicles made after 1986 will have at least one oxygen sensor, with those manufactured in 1996 or later having at least two sensors."

Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini admits he's a notorious cheapskate, and he's happy to share his predilection for saving money.