Saving Fuel Saves Cash

Fuel prices have taken a dip recently, but there are still significantly higher than most people are used to and, more important, comfortable with. The happy news on this unpleasant subject is that there are simple ways you can improve your fuel economy to save money (and the planet) without opting to buy an expensive hybrid vehicle.

Experts suggest that consumers invest in seven 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 using products like octane boosters, fuel system cleaners and locking gas caps can reduce costs at the pump, too.

Here's the lowdown on these magnificent seven: 

Air filters Properly cleaning, maintaining and replacing air filters when necessary will ensure better air flow through the entire engine system. This will improve engine efficiency and will result in more power and better fuel mileage. A recent EPA study found air filters can increase fuel mileage by as much as 10 percent.

Fuel filters 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.

Octane boosters These additives can act as a catalyst in the fuel that actually slow the burn rate of the combustion, which allows fuel to burn more completely in the engine cylinder. Using octane boosters increases the engine's efficiency, thus saving fuel.

Spark plugs 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 reduce emissions.

Oxygen sensors When properly functioning, oxygen sensors 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. Almost all gasoline-powered vehicles made after 1986 have at least one oxygen sensor, with those manufactured in 1996 or later having at least two sensors.

Fuel system cleaners These additives can help keep the entire system in top operating condition by cleaning everything from the fuel tank to the combustion chamber inside the engine. A complete fuel system cleaner contains special solvents that help remove carbon build-up and keep internal components in the engine operating efficiently. This tactic also reduces fuel consumption.

Locking gas caps This device can contribute to fuel economy by preventing theft of precious gasoline. Gas caps are available that include a dual breakaway feature and reinforcing ring that help deter thieves trying to steal fuel. If someone tries to pry off the cap, the top of the cap will break away, leaving the cap neck in the tank. This will deter even more determined thieves who are unlikely to take the time needed to pry the neck from the tank. Car owners can then retrieve the filler neck with pliers or a set of channel locks using a counterclockwise turning motion. Caps are also available that lock into the neck automatically, which save motorists time.

Cleveland-based Luigi Fraschini is a Contributing Editor of Driving Today. He writes frequently about environmental and maintenance issues.