When I was young, my father would often load us up into the car and we’d go for a nice Sunday afternoon sightseeing jaunt out in the country. We’d see farmers working in their fields, we’d watch dragon-shaped clouds float by, and we’d feel the wind whipping through the open windows. But, that was all when driving was one of the cheaper forms of entertainment. Now, not only do I do very little unnecessary driving, I scratch my head trying to figure out ways to make my car go just a little farther on every gallon of fuel. Do I go another round with my boss to try to convince him that I should be able to work from home? Do I spend the extra on premium fuel to see if it actually works better?
Pulling up to the gas pump is when we make the final decision over whether to buy regular unleaded, mid-grade or premium. The price of regular is enough to make you cringe, let alone paying the price for premium. Yet across the instrument panel it says “Premium fuel only”. The question is, do we follow the rule, or do we simply buy the fuel we can afford?
Before we can play the gas-buying game of roulette, we need to know what the difference is between the octane levels we see at the pump. The octane of our fuel is measured in three different levels. There is regular unleaded 87 octane, mid-grade unleaded 89 octane, and premium unleaded 91 octane. The octane level refers to the burning properties of the fuel, the higher the level, the cleaner it will burn in your engine. Most vehicles are built for the 87 octane, but recommend using the 89 or 91 octane because the fuel will burn cleaner and will help reduce or eliminate buildup on the fuel injection system. High octane fuels also burn faster, thus increasing the performance of the vehicle. Depending on how much time you spend in your car, you may want to burn the higher octane simply to prevent the buildup and keep the performance. However, if your car is simple used for quick trips to work and brief trips otherwise, you might be ahead to buy regular unleaded and save yourself some money.
As fuel prices begin to near $4 per gallon, we begin to not only count pennies, but count miles that we have to drive. It is no longer a question of taking time for a vacation, but can we afford to buy the gas to take a vacation? It was this time last year we started hearing the word “staycation”, that stay-at-home-vacation that was affordable. People could afford to decorate the yard and buy a few special grocery items to make the staycation more fun, rather than spend all that money to go somewhere. The word “hyper-mile” came about too. That phenomenon that means a driver is driving to get every mile possible out of the gallon, so coasting downhill and coasting to a stop, driving without the air conditioner on, never exceeding the speed limit, and so forth. All these things that maximize the mileage of the vehicle are being done daily. Whatever it takes to make the fuel last longer is on everyone’s mind.
When it comes right down to it, do you know how to calculate your mileage and know what it costs to go to the grocery store? If we know the miles per gallon (mpg) we are getting then we can calculate how much a $.10 rise in fuel prices will affect our budget or how maybe getting a car with better mileage would lower monthly costs. The first step to figuring out the number is to go to the gas station and fill up the fuel tank. Then record the mileage on the odometer before pulling away from the pump, or simply reset the trip odometer. Drive your car as you normally would and let your gas tank go down to at least a half of a tank of gas. The lower you let your tank go, the better average rating you will get, but you don’t want to run out of gas either. Go back to the gas station, preferably the same one as before and fill your tank again. Record the amount of gas it took to refill the tank, and also record the mileage either from your odometer or trip odometer. Remember if you are using the regular odometer; subtract the original reading from the new reading to get the miles traveled. Divide the miles traveled by the amount of gallons it took to refill the tank. The result will be the average miles per gallon for your car. It is important to note that you should redo this calculation for every different octane fuel you use, so for regular, mid-grade, and premium unleaded.
Once you have these calculations for each type of fuel, you can apply the price per gallon of fuel to figure out the cost per mile. Simply take the price of gas divided by your car’s mpg to arrive at the cost per mile. For example, the current average cost of regular unleaded is $3.517 divided by 22 mpg = 0.159 cents per mile. For mid-grade it would cost 0.1658 cents per mile and for premium it would cost 0.171 cents per mile. It is obvious that regular unleaded is cheaper. However, if you would get several more miles to the gallon using mid-grade, it might be worth it to pay the extra 1.5 cents to upgrade. That is why it is important to figure out the average miles per gallon for each fuel grade in order to actually determine which fuel grade works best in your vehicle. Saving cash at the pump might cost you more in mileage than it’s actually worth and mean you are using more fuel than saving money.
Many newer vehicles today have their own computer that tells you mpg on each tank of fuel, so most of the above calculations may not be necessary for you, and you simply need to keep track of your car’s fuel performance on a piece of paper and apply the cost of the fuel. The important thing is to know all the numbers to make an informed decision on which octane to buy, instead of just deciding based on sticker shock.
Aside from staying home and hyper-miling, we can also follow up on a few maintenance checks to bump our miles per gallon up a little. If your vehicle has recently failed an emissions test, fixing the problem could improve your mileage by an average of 4%. Repairing problem like a faulty oxygen sensor can improve your mileage by a whopping 40%. Keeping the right air pressure in the tires can improve the mileage by up to 3.3% as well as improving the lifetime of the tires. Using the proper grade of motor oil can improve your mileage by 1-2%. Each of these tips can make a small improvement in mileage and if you can take advantage of a couple of them you can see a marked difference the next time you fuel up.
Aside from beginning to walk everywhere or ride our bicycles everywhere, we still have to buy fuel. With current situations we simply need to buy smarter and maintain smarter. It’s all about knowing your vehicle and then knowing how to make it last longer and run better. If you can remember to coast to a stop and coast down hills, those are free miles and more power to you. For those in constant stop and go traffic, do the best you can and keep your car’s maintenance up to date. Remember, when you are waiting in line at the bank, the quickest deposit you might make is to turn your engine off and save a few cents. There isn’t much we can do about the rise in fuel prices, but we can do a little about how much we consume and the mileage our car maintains. Go ahead, get in a drive, but be informed on how to make it cost you as little as possible.