Monthly Archives: June 2010

Save Money By Saving Gas!

I’m running out of excuses: I’m tired. I have work to do. I have to get up early. I don’t like driving in the rain. Our electric gate is broken. The electrician’s truck is blocking my driveway. Finally, I have to be honest:

“I have a hole in my gas tank,” I tell my boyfriend. “That’s why I can’t visit today.” My car is old and devours gas like a grizzly bear just out of hibernation. As gas prices rise, the 45-minute drive to my boyfriend’s place is becoming prohibitively expensive.

However, I miss him, and, as a result, I’ve become obsessed with conserving gas as I drive. I think about it constantly—from starting my car to parking it. To help others in similar situations, I’ve compiled a list of basic steps that can be taken to improve everyday gas mileage.

In a follow-up entry, I’ll discuss hypermiling techniques, which are “advanced” methods for achieving an abnormal number of miles per gallon.

1.      CHANGE THE WAY YOU DRIVE

 

The good news is that many of the safe driving techniques I’ve already discussed in this blog will also help to save on gas! Keep in mind that driving slowly and safely is also the most efficient way to drive, and you’ll be well on your way to driving more efficiently!

First, avoid aggressive driving habits. Rapid acceleration uses more power—and hence more gas—than more gradual changes in speed. Accelerate slowly and then try to drive at a constant speed. If you’re on a highway, pick a lane and stay with the flow of traffic in that lane, rather than “weaving” through lanes or regularly accelerating to pass other cars. Constant slowing down and speeding up wastes fuel, as you are losing kinetic energy and then burning more fuel to regain that kinetic energy.

If you’re driving in the city, start slowing down some distance before you reach the stoplight. Not only is this gradual slow-down safer and easier on your brakes, but it may help you avoid having to come to a full stop altogether. If you do stop, pull away from the light slowly. Sudden acceleration will burn a whole lot more gas. If you’re travelling in heavy traffic on the highway, try to maintain enough distance between you and the car you are following so that, if the other car slows down or stops, the other driver will (hopefully) have had enough time to get started again before you reach him or her.

Second, stay at or under the speed limit. In general, most cars experience a rapid decrease in gas mileage at speeds over 60 mph. Each car has its own “optimal” speed, at which the engine is most efficient in its operation. This is because air resistance increases at higher speeds; driving at 65 mph instead of 55 mph may decrease your gas mileage by 20%. Note, though, that many more recent cars are designed to reach maximum efficiency around 65 mph. Taking note of speed limits in your area, you may want to test which speed is actually the most efficient for your car. If you are driving a manual car or an automatic with an overdrive gear, keep in mind that overdrive (fifth gear on a standard transmission) is the most efficient gear to drive in.

Also, remember that your car burns gas even when you aren’t moving. Idling can waste a lot of gas, so try to avoid too much of this! If you’re stopped in traffic or at a light with a long line and think you will be sitting for five minutes or longer, consider turning off your car (but don’t stop and start for shorter intervals, as this will end up putting way too much strain on your starting motor.) Also avoid drive-through windows with long lines. Instead, park your car and go inside. If you frequently get stuck trying to make a left hand turn at a busy intersection, consider making three rights instead (if this is possible.) You can generally make right hand turns much faster, which could end up saving you gas.

As much as possible, avoid using the air-conditioner, as this places extra strain on the engine. Open the windows or use the air vents instead. Also avoid driving with a roof rack or crate as much as possible—these items create additional wind resistance, which cuts down on efficiency. Finally, remove excess weight from your car. Dragging around additional pounds will eat up more fuel!

2.      CHANGE THE WAY YOU PLAN

 

Using your car less is also a great way to save gas! First, try to plan your days so as to use your car most efficiently. If possible, avoid driving at rush hour, as sitting in traffic will burn a lot of extra gas. Go in early or leave late to miss the worst congestion. If your job allows, consider telecommuting and working from home. Also consider biking to work, which is a great way to save time and gas by combining your commute and your daily exercise. If you live in an area with good public transportation, this is also an option. Even if you only bike or take the bus one or two days a week, you’ll still be saving a lot of gas. Carpooling is also a great way to make your commute less expensive (and more environmentally friendly.)

Next, try to combine all of your errands into a single trip. If possible, run errands within walking distance of your workplace—during your lunch hour or just after work (perhaps instead of driving home during rush hour.) Pick a day and reserve that day for running all of your major errands. Do as many of these tasks as possible in a centralized location, so that you can walk between shops and offices; then, devise a route that will allow you to reach all locations efficiently, without backtracking.

3.      CHANGE THE WAY YOU PARK

 

Circling around a parking lot trying to find a space close to the entrance is a very inefficient use of gas (all those stops and starts!) Instead of doing this, park in the first spot you find and then walk to the entrance. This way, you’ll be closer to the exit when it’s time to leave, and you’ll get some added exercise in.

If possible, park your car on an uphill incline, so that you can roll out when you start your car. Your engine uses gas much less efficiently when it is still warming up, so using less power when you first start the engine will help to save gas.

4.      CHANGE THE WAY YOU BUY GAS

Wait until your gas tank is around a quarter full before buying gas. Doing this will increase efficiency by lightening the gas load that you’re lugging around. However, don’t run the tank down to empty consistently, as this will place considerable strain on the electric fuel pump; running on empty will actually destroy this pump.

While it may be tempting to buy gas in bits and pieces (somehow spending $10 today and $20 tomorrow seems better than spending $30 today, to me at least), try to fill your tank on each visit to the station. This will cut down on the gas spent driving there and waiting at the pumps.

Check the octane rating that your car’s manufacturer suggests, and then use the lowest possible octane when you fill your tank. Buying a higher octane rating than necessary won’t improve your car’s performance and will cost you a lot more. Also bear in mind that different brands of gas are all essentially the same; suppliers fill their tanks at the same refinery and only then add in their signature additives, which don’t make much of a difference in terms of performance.

Finally, check the web to find good deals on gas in your area. However, don’t drive out of your way for cheaper gasoline, as you’ll just waste your savings on the extra driving. Keep in mind that (statistically speaking) gas tends to be cheapest on Wednesdays and is most expensive during holidays, so plan accordingly!

5.      CHANGE THE WAY YOU MAINTAIN YOUR CAR

 

Keeping your car in good working order will help to ensure that your car is operating as efficiently as possible. First, make sure that your tires are inflated to the correct pressure, which should be marked on your car, usually on a panel inside the door frame. If you’re not using radial tires, you may want to ask your mechanic about switching to these. Making sure that your tires are properly aligned will also help to save on gas.

Next, have your car serviced regularly, as recommended. Make sure that you are changing your oil at manufacturer-specified intervals, and that you are using the type of oil specified for your car. While you don’t necessarily have to use the exact brand indicated by your car’s manufacturer, you should make sure that the oil you use does have the same specifications.

When your car is serviced, make sure that the technician checks your spark plugs. If these are worn or incorrectly spaced, then your engine may not be burning all of the gas injected into the cylinders. Replacing your air filters regularly will also help to maintain engine efficiency.

6.      CHANGE YOUR CAR

If you’re considering buying a new car, you should look into fuel efficiency. You may want to include hybrids, diesel engines, and biodiesel engines in your search; I’ll write more about this in a later entry. For now, you can check out this site if you want to compare the efficiency of different cars:

www.fueleconomy.gov

Beware, however, of modifying your current car. A number of “gas saving” devices are on the market, many of which are not actually effective (some may even damage your engine.) For a list of EPA tested products, click here:

www.epa.gov/otaq/consumer.htm

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

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Confessions of a Parking Disaster

We see them all the time. You’re driving through the parking garage looking for a space, when you notice a small hybrid that has been parked at a diagonal, taking up two spaces. Or you’re walking down the street and see a minivan parked two feet away from the curb, so that its left side view mirror is begging to be destroyed. You walk or drive by, smile smugly to yourself, and think: some people can’t park. Or, if you’re more like me, you admit: there but for the grace of God go I.

I am—or rather was—a terrible parker. A crowd of bystanders once gathered to watch me parallel park, all shouting conflicting advice. I used to be so terrified of ANY kind of parking that I would circle around parking lots looking for a row of empty spaces.

This situation went on for an embarrassingly long time (years.) Then, two things happened. First, I moved into a house with the World’s Worst Driveway. This driveway was long and narrow, with high walls on both sides. At the end of the driveway was a small, congested lot, into which we had to cram four cars. Second, I got my first car. It had manual transmission, no power steering, and a very stiff clutch.

The stage was set for a total disaster. However, said disaster never actually occurred. Much to my surprise (and the total bewilderment of friends and family), I actually learned to park. Without scratching my car, destroying other people’s property, or injuring any pedestrians.

My secret is simple. I was patient. When maneuvering my car in and out of parking spaces, I moved very slowly. Very, very slowly. For the first week or two, I asked friends and housemates to direct me out of the driveway. With patience, repetition, and a bit of help, I slowly developed a feel for the car. I figured out how much space my car took up and how to judge the relationship between my car and various obstacles. I learned out how to calculate the angle of approach for various parking-spot entrances and exits.

During eight years of panic and avoidance, I learned very little about parking. After three weeks of patience and regular practice, I was a parking pro and felt confident enough to begin taking advantage of parking spaces others would never dare to attempt, like those small parallel spaces on narrow or heavily trafficked streets. With my newfound skills came perks, like saving money on garage fees, finding city parking at peak hours, and sparing the paint coat on my car. I wish I had learned how to park sooner.

So, if you are a parking-phobe like I was, take heart. A little effort and a lot of patience will go a long way. Don’t let your fear of parking escalate—tackle it today! Here are a few tips to keep in mind as you begin to practice.

PARALLEL PARKING

It’s really not that bad. Parallel parking is, above all, a matter of having a “feel” for your car and how it handles. A week of practice should be more than enough to boost your confidence and skill level.

First, start by finding low-stress situations in which to practice. Try parallel parking in wide spaces on streets with little traffic flow, so that there won’t be pressure to complete the maneuver quickly or dire consequences if you mess up. You may even want to find spaces bordered by only one car; you could also use cones to set up an imaginary parallel parking scenario if you’re particularly concerned about your parking skills. Once you’ve mastered parking in low-stress situations, you can then begin attempting increasingly difficult parking spots, until you’ve built up enough confidence to deal with just about any parallel parking situation.

As for the maneuver itself, the basic idea is simple. You want to maneuver the car in a backwards S in order to slide between two cars and end up parallel to the curb. Use these steps as guidelines for how to proceed:

1.      Locate a space that is large enough for your vehicle. Try to size up the space in relation to your car as you drive alongside. If you aren’t fully confident in your ability to fit into the space, move on.

2.      Next, use your indicator to signal your intention to park. Then, check your rear and sideview mirrors. If there are cars behind you, make sure that they have stopped far enough back to allow you to complete your maneuver. If not, wait for them to pass you. You may need to wave other drivers forward if they appear confused by your intentions.

3.      Now, pull forward to align your car with the car you will park behind. You want to be parallel to this car, about two to three feet away. Your wheels should be aligned with this car’s wheels.

4.      Shift your car into reverse, then check your mirrors again. If the coast is clear, turn your wheel far to the right and begin to back into the space. (Note that if you are parking on the left side of the street, either on a one-way street or in a foreign country, these directions should be reversed.)

5.      Once the bulk of your car is in the space, turn the wheel to the left, so that your back wheels are pulling you straight back. This will both bring the front end of your car into the space AND make your car parallel with the curb.

6.      If your rear wheels hit the curb before you can turn left, simply pull forward a bit before straightening out. Don’t worry if this happens—even experienced parkers make this minor error.

7.      Once you’ve got your car into the space, shift back into a forward gear. Turn the wheel to right, and pull forward slowly to center your car in the space.

8.      Open your door to check your distance to the curb. You should be no more than 18 inches from the curb. Twelve inches or less is ideal. (Some states do have laws regulating maximum distance from the curb, so check to make sure you know what the legal parameters are for your area.)

If you’ve ended up way too far from the curb or haven’t made it into the space entirely, pull out of the space and return to your original starting position. Then, try again. Be patient with yourself and don’t be embarrassed. Most people struggle with parallel parking, and so are sympathetic to fellow sufferers (I know I am.) Trying to “correct” once you’re in the space is far more difficult and ungainly than starting over—true for most tricky parking situations!

The real trick to parallel parking is getting a feel for your car and how it handles, and for the geometries involved. A British mathematician announced last year that he’d developed a formula for calculating the size of a perfect parking spot. However, given the complexity of the formula, regular practice is probably the easier road to take.

PARKING WITHOUT POWER STEERING

 Most parking maneuvers are made more difficult when one is driving a car without power steering. I’ll write more about the trials and joys of driving with various kinds of steering systems in a later entry. For now, my main tip is this: it is easier to turn if your wheels are rolling slightly. Whenever possible, get your car moving, even if it is moving very slowly, before you start to turn. This will also help prevent excess wear and tear on your tires, as “dry turning,” i.e. turning the wheels when at a standstill, is pretty hard on the tires.

PARKING ON A HILL OR INCLINE

Parking on a steep hill can be both tricky and potentially dangerous. If possible, try to park perpendicular to the incline or avoid parking on the hill at all. If you do have to parallel park on a hill, however, there are a few things you should be sure to do.

Be particularly careful when maneuvering into a space on a steep hill. If you’re driving a car with manual transmission, this can be very tricky. However, I’ll deal with hill starts and stops in manual transmission in greater detail in a later entry.

First, put the car in park. In a manual transmission car, leave the car in gear.

Next, apply your parking brake. You should probably do this all the time, even in a car with automatic transmission, as it will prevent potential accidents and reduce tear on the transmission.

Once you’ve done this, turn your wheels. If your car is pointing uphill, turn the steering wheel away from the curb. If you’re pointing downhill, turn the wheel towards the curb. The idea is that, should the car start to roll, the wheels will immediately come into contact with the curb, which will hopefully halt the slip. If not, the car will at least swing out in a direction perpendicular to the hill, rather than sliding straight back and accumulating momentum.

If you’re on a particularly steep hill or you don’t trust your parking break, chock the wheels by wedging a wooden block or stone under the downhill side of one or more of the wheels. 

To conclude: don’t be that guy who can’t park! Practice, practice, practice.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

Stuck in a Rut

I have always had an irrational fear of my car getting stuck somewhere. Whether a mid-winter snow bank or a dirt road filled with pot-hole puddles in March, I’ve done my best to steer clear of potentially sticky situations.

Nonetheless, I ended up in a terrible rut one New Year’s eve several years ago. I was living in southern Africa at the time and working part time in a small rural town. A few friends there invited me to join them at a New Year’s party at a remote farm way out in the scrub land. We would drive out in the evening, camp on the farm overnight, and then drive back the next day. As the sun set, we piled into my friend’s small truck and drove over several miles of sandy road, not a sign of civilization in sight. At last we reached the farm.

One of our hosts directed us to park off to the left, at the bottom of a small incline. Unfortunately, our truck was very light and poorly equipped to deal with the sandy soil. At the bottom of the hill, we sunk deep into the sand. Our driver spun the tires in vain, until we realized that we were simply digging ourselves in deeper. As it was starting to get dark at this point, we gave up and headed into the party. Some of the men who had traveled in convoy with us promised to help dig us out in the morning.

I am a very sound sleeper. So, although we were sleeping in a small, mildew-scented tent, I slept deeply and didn’t wake until late in the morning. The girls I had driven with also slept quite late. We emerged from the tent to a beautiful sunny morning—and an empty field. All but a handful of the party-goers had already packed up their tents and left, including the friends who had promised to help us with the car, which was still mired deep in the sandy soil at the bottom of the hill.

We panicked for a good fifteen minutes before getting to work. None of us really knew how to get the car out; however, through a combination of pushing, wedging stones under the wheels, and slow acceleration, we got the car out of its pit. We drove about three feet, and then the car sank again. So, we gathered more stones and pushed again. Another three feet, and we sank again. We repeated this performance a good five times before we reached the top of the incline, and more firmly packed sand, half an hour later. I, for one, decided that I wouldn’t sign up for any more off-road driving in the near future.

However, I did learn from this experience; if you know what to do, getting stuck in the mud doesn’t have to be a time-consuming disaster. After I got home safely, I took some time to learn the rules for getting unstuck from snow, sand, or mud safely and without damaging one’s car. Although you’re more likely to encounter a muddy road or beach at this time of year, the basic principles for getting unstuck apply to all of these situations and are useful year round.

How To Get A Car “Unstuck”

First, drive prepared. In winter, carry salt, sand, or cat litter in your car. A small shovel and ice scraper, extra mittens and hats, a good flashlight, and high-calorie snacks like chocolate or trail mix should also be kept in the car. The sand or cat litter will also be useful for mud, as long as it’s a brand of cat litter that doesn’t disintegrate when wet.

Next, try to avoid getting stuck. Drive particularly slowly in muddy, icy, sandy, or otherwise sticky conditions. As soon as you do start to sink, however, stop driving. You really don’t want to spin the tires in an attempt to free yourself. This will cause your wheels to sink even deeper into the sand, snow, or mud. If you’re driving in snow, tire spinning will also generate heat, which will melt the snow and eventually turn it into ice.

So, stop spinning the wheels. If you’re in a four wheel drive vehicle, put the vehicle into four wheel drive. If in an automatic, shift into a low gear; most people find second gear works well for getting out of a sticky spot. If in a manual transmission car, put the car into a higher gear. Straighten the wheels, as this will make it easier to get the car out. Then, try to accelerate very, very slowly. If this doesn’t work, try reversing slowly.

If you’re stuck in snow, extra weight will help increase traction. So, you may want to place extra weight in the car before driving. I used to drive a rear-wheel drive car with very poor traction, and so put extra weights in the trunk each winter to avoid slipping on snow and ice. If you’re stuck in sand or mud, however, this extra weight could cause you to sink further. Ask passengers to get out of the car before proceeding.

If you’re still stuck, get out and examine the situation. If you’re stuck in snow, check to make sure that the exhaust pipe isn’t blocked; you don’t want carbon monoxide building up in your car as you try to get free. Try to determine which wheels are spinning. Then, using your handy shovel, clear snow, mud, or sand away from these tires. If stuck in snow or mud, pack sand or cat litter around the slipping tires. If you’re in sand, a piece of wood or carpet mat will be more useful. Then, if you have passengers or can hail a passerby, have your assistants push the car while you gently accelerate forwards. As you do so, you may want to ride the brakes slightly; in many “stuck” situations, one wheel may be spinning more than the other. Depressing the brakes very slightly will help to decrease the spinning, thus distributing power more equally between the wheels.

In snow and especially in sand, letting some air out of your tires may actually help you out of a sticky place. By decreasing the tire pressure, you are increasing the surface area between tire and road and will help to increase traction. Let out pressure 5 PSI at a time; try to avoid decreasing the pressure by more than 15 PSI, and make sure to inflate your tires fully again as soon as possible.

“Rocking the car” is another technique that can be used to get unstuck. To rock the car, put it into reverse and very lightly tap the gas, then release. The car should go back and then rock forward slightly. Repeat this motion, so that the rocking of the car increases (if you find the right rhythm, the amplitude of the back and forth rocking should increase, like coffee being shaken in a cup.) You can also alternate between reverse and first gear (manual) or drive (automatic) to further increase the rocking. While this technique can be particularly useful when trying to get a car out of a ditch, it can be quite damaging to your transmission.  If you aren’t familiar with this technique or aren’t an experienced driver, use this only as a last resort.

Finally, be prepared for when you get unstuck! Make sure that you are ready to continue driving and steering once your car gets out of the mud, sand, or snow. Drive far enough so that you’re sure you won’t get stuck again. Then, once you’ve stopped in a safe place, check the car to make sure you haven’t scratched or damaged anything. If you’ve been stuck in snow, make sure that the radiator vents are clear, so that the car doesn’t overheat as you continue to drive.

As with most tricky driving situations, keep this basic rule in mind: be prepared and try to avoid potential problems, but don’t panic if things do go wrong! It happens to the best (and luckiest) drivers among us.

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.

Driving in the Dark

Driving at night is, unfortunately, a necessary evil: necessary, because we all need to get places after dark; an evil, since driving at night is far more hazardous that driving during the day. A National Safety Council study revealed that you are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident at night than during the day. At first, driving at night may “feel” similar to daytime driving, especially if you are fortunate enough to live in an area with good street lighting. However, even under ideal conditions, driving at night can be hazardous.

In short, your eyes need light to see. When the amount of light available decreases as the sun goes down, your eyes begin to function differently, in order to make the most of the limited light available. This allows us to see at night. However, you do have to pay a price for this improved function. At night, it is more difficult for us to see clearly (20/20 vision is nearly impossible to sustain); we are unable to see colors; our depth perception decreases; and our field of vision is reduced.

How to compensate for this? First, slow down. Remember that you’re less likely to see hazards that may cross your path, such as animals, bicyclists, pedestrians, etc. You can only see as far ahead of you as your headlights; low beams provide around 250 feet of vision, while high beams provide about 350-500. In order to avoid any obstacles in your path, you’ll need to be able to stop within this distance, i.e. the area illuminated by your headlights. Adjust your speed accordingly.

Remember that you see contrast less clearly at night, which means you won’t spot bumps in the road as easily. Keeping a slower speed will allow you react to any unexpected contours in the road, which means that you won’t damage your car by flying into a pothole or over a speed bump. You’ll also want to keep your eyes moving, checking for approaching lights, obstacles, etc.

Glare is also a major issue when driving at night (as well as during sunset and sunrise.) In fact, the presence of other lights on the road may actually be more dangerous than the dark itself. The lights of approaching cars can cause a couple seconds of temporary blindness. During these seconds, a car going at 55mph will travel half the length of a football field! However, you can do a few things to combat glare.

First, make sure to keep your windshield clean. The dirt and grime that accumulate on your windshield will reflect the light on the road, making glare worse. You may have noticed that while your windshield looks fine during the day, it looks worse as the sun is setting. Remember to clean your windshield on both the outside AND inside; over time, your exhalations and condensation will dirty the inside of the windshield as well. You should also keep all other lights and mirrors clean as well.

Next, avoid using your high beams within 500 feet of approaching vehicles or if you are following a car at less than 500 feet distance. You do want to use your high beams when it is safe to do so, as these can be a great help to you. However, you don’t want to blind other drivers, so be courteous in your use of high beams.

However, we all forget to turn off our high beams sometimes. If a driver approaches with high beams on, don’t flash your high beams in response, as this could temporarily blind the other driver. Instead of looking at the approaching car(s), look down and to the right, focusing on the white line at the side of the road.

Many cars also have a “day-night” setting on the rear view mirror (perhaps a little tab that changes the angle of the mirror?). You can use this to help reduce the accumulation of glare at night. Adjusting your side view mirrors properly can also help eliminate glare; see my entry on “How To Eliminate Your Blind Spot” for advice on how to do this.

In addition to these basic practices, you can take a few steps to prepare for night driving. First, if you are driving in a new area or to an unfamiliar destination, try to drive this route for the first time during the day, as navigating at night can be particularly stressful.

Next, have your headlights aligned during your next tune-up or inspection. Try to do so at least once a year. Properly aligned headlights will improve your field of vision and won’t cause as much glare for other drivers.

Also, make sure to have your vision checked regularly. Our night vision deteriorates as we age, but you may not notice this right away. It took me months of squinting at the blackboard in high school before I admitted that I needed glasses. Keep in mind that a fifty year old probably needs twice as much light as a thirty year old to see clearly at night. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin A, as this helps to keep your night vision in good working order. If you do wear glasses, you may want to get anti-reflective coating for them, as this will also help prevent glare.

Drive slowly, be aware, and don’t be a deer caught in the headlights of approaching drivers!

To learn more about this topic, or a broad range of subjects from “How To Change A Tire” to “How To Jumpstart Your Car”, visit DefensiveDriving.com’s Safe Driver Resources website!

Check out these sites for more information about online defensive driving in Texas, online defensive driving in Florida, and business driver safety.