Archive for July, 2008

Ten Easy Ways to Save on Gas This Summer

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

It’s summer!  For many families, that means making the yearly pilgrimage to the beach or hot vacation spot.  However, record high gas prices are putting a damper on many people’s vacation plans.  But, don’t throw in the beach towel just yet.  Here are ten ways you can improve fuel efficiency and save valuable vacation money at the pump.

1.  Don’t Skimp on the Octane – Some people try to save money by putting regular gas into a vehicle that actually requires premium fuel.  This skimping may save you a few bucks today, but it will cost you much more in the long run.  High-performance vehicles need higher-octane fuel because the combustion chamber environment is much hotter in a performance engine. Using a lower octane fuel reduces fuel efficiency and can damage valves and pistons, which can cost you thousands of dollars in repair costs down the road. 

2.  Take Care of Your Ride – Proper maintenance is crucial to your vehicle’s fuel economy.  Be sure to adhere to the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.   Dirty air and fuel filters, old spark plugs and low fluid levels can affect engine performance and significantly reduce fuel efficiency. Have these items checked by your mechanic before you go on vacation.  Not only will you get better gas mileage, but you will reduce the chance of a breakdown on the way to the beach. 

3.  Keep Those Tires Inflated – Under-inflated tires increase the amount of friction between your car and the pavement.  This makes it harder for your car to move down the road, which means your engine uses more fuel to maintain speed.  In fact, just one under-inflated tire can increase fuel consumption by one percent or more. Check your owner’s manual for correct inflation levels, and ensure all four tires are properly inflated before setting off on your trip.

4.  Leave the Kitchen Sink at Home – We all like to pack everything we own when we go to the beach.  We load up our with pillows, beach chairs, toys, charcoal grills, coolers, and enough food for the Chinese army until every square millimeter of trunk and cabin space is filled.  However, this pack rat behavior weighs down your vehicle, and heavier vehicles use more fuel.  Roof racks (which I have affectionately termed “hamburger boxes”) on the top of the car make it even worse.  So, put some careful thought into your packing, and only take what you absolutely need for the trip.  Remember – they probably have stores where you are going, and it may be cheaper to buy some items (especially food) once you get to your destination.

5.  Fuel Up in Advance – Statistics have shown that gas prices cheapest on Wednesdays because most people fuel up on the weekends for trips or Monday mornings before work.  So, plan ahead and fuel up for that vacation on Wednesday instead of waiting until Saturday before you leave.  Even if you have to “top off” on Saturday, you will still save a buck or two.

6.  Slow Down – As your speed increases, the aerodynamic drag on your vehicle increases exponentially.  This means that your engine has to work harder, and use more fuel, to maintain your speed.   Adhering to a speed of 55 mph (the most common highway speed limit) will yield 21% better mileage than driving 65 mph.  Driving 62 mph instead of 75 mph can reduce fuel consumption by as much as 15%.  Furthermore, maintaining a consistent speed over long distances saves gas, so use the cruise control as much as possible.   It might also save you from a speeding ticket!

7.  Accelerate and Decelerate Gently – A car uses more fuel under hard acceleration (another bad habit of mine).   Resist the urge to floor it “off the line”, just because you can.  Don’t race up to red lights or stop signs and then slam on the breaks.  Instead, anticipate the need to stop and lift your foot off of the accelerator early, allowing the engine to slow the vehicle before gently applying the break.  This requires patience, but it also saves on gas.

8.  Avoid Idling – Unless you are fortunate enough to own a hybrid, idling wastes fuel.   If you anticipate being stopped for more than one minute, turn off the ignition. Restarting the car actually uses less fuel than letting it idle.  Go into restaurants to purchase food instead of using the drive through when it’s time to refuel the family.  If possible, plan your route to minimize traffic lights and left hand turns, which increase idling time.  Don’t’ laugh – making only right hand turns saves UPS nearly $600 million per year!

9.  Don’t Blast the A/C – The air conditioner puts extra load on a vehicle’s engine, requiring an average of 20% more fuel to be used.   Since cruisin’ without A/C is not really an option in the South, try to keep it set at around 75 degrees.  Don’t blast the air when you first get into your car, even if it is stifling hot.   Instead, open the windows initially to release the stale, hot air.  Once you get moving, close the windows and set the A/C at 75 degrees. Your car will cool down quickly.

10.  Keep the Windows Up – Wide-open windows, especially at highway speeds, significantly increase the aerodynamic drag on your vehicle.  This drag can decrease your fuel economy by as much as 10%.   Run the fan on “outside air” instead, and just crack the window or sunroof for additional ventilation.

The reality is that high gas prices will negatively impact vacation plans for many people this summer.  However, by following these suggestions, you may be able to save enough to pay for that all-you-can-eat seafood buffet!  Have a safe and fun summer vacation!

2009 Ford Flex

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

Is it a wagon?  Is it an SUV?  Is it a hearse?  Actually, it’s the 2009 Ford Flex, the newest crossover from the Blue Oval.  Although Ford classifies it as a crossover SUV, the Flex actually replaces the Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey minivans, which were discontinued in 2006 due to weak sales and low profit margins.  The unique design of the Flex offers a clever blend between the people-moving capacity of a minivan and the light cargo and trailer hauling capacity of an SUV (up to 4000 lbs).  Unlike a minivan, the Flex features conventional rear doors whose panels were inspired by vintage vacuum cleaners.  (Seriously.)

The Flex is powered by a 3.5-liter V6 engine that puts out 262 horsepower and 248 pound-feet of torque.  A 340-hp “EcoBoost” engine will be offered later this year.   The Flex is available with either front-wheel or all-wheel drive, both married to a six-speed automatic transmission.  Despite its name, the Flex is not a flexible-fuel vehicle.  However, it does have a “capless” fueling system that reduces evaporative emissions and prevents you from forgetting to put the gas cap back on after filling up.  Standard safety features on the Flex include antilock brakes, stability control, front-seat side airbags and full-length side curtain airbags.

Unlike many seven-passenger vehicles, the 2009 Ford Flex features comfortably seats seven adults in its spacious, well appointed cabin.  Second row passengers enjoy adjustable / removable footrests and an optional mini fridge in the middle console.  The 60/40 split second row bench and 50/50 split third row seats that fold flat into the floor, providing adequate cargo space (but still less than a true minivan). 

Ford offers the 2009 Flex in three trim levels. The base SE starts at $28,995 and is available with front-wheel drive only and comes with 18-inch alloy wheels, rear park assist, rear climate controls, a power driver seat and a six-speaker CD stereo system with an auxiliary audio jack. The SEL trim is available with either front- or all-wheel drive and offers dual-zone automatic climate control, power heated front seats, leather upholstery (vinyl in the third row for the kids) and a 10-speaker stereo with satellite radio. The top level Limited, which starts at $37,255, is also available with either front- or all-wheel drive, wearing 19-inch wheels.  It includes xenon headlights, a power liftgate, power-adjustable pedals, a memory driver’s seat, perforated leather upholstery and the Microsoft Sync multimedia interface system. 

Additional options include second row captain’s chairs, a four-panel Vista sunroof, towing package, keyless ignition/entry and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Touchscreen navigation with voice recognition, backup camera and Sirius Travel Link are available on the Limited model, shooting the price tag to over $45,000.  The interior is even lit with programmable “mood lighting”, available in seven colors.  Lava lamp sold separately.

Run Your Car on Water?

Sunday, July 6th, 2008

With everyone in a frenzy over fuel prices, all kinds of crazy devices are now flooding the market and promising to slash your gas bill by improving your mileage.  The most common claim is that for a couple hundred bucks, you can convert your existing car to burn a combination of water and gas, doubling your gas mileage! 

But are these things for real, or are they just a scam by a clever snake oil salesman?  Being a naturally skeptical person, I set out to find the truth – can you really run your car on water?   

When in doubt, I tend to turn to the laws of physics (and people who actually understand them).  These so called “hydrogen fuel cells” are actually nothing more than a simple electrolysis device that uses electricity to split water into its constituent components — two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen.   The gases generated by the electrolysis of water can be recombined by way of combustion to release energy.  This is not new technology – electrolysis has been around for decades. 

Sounds pretty good, huh?  Unfortunately, the first law of thermodynamics states unequivocally that the energy generated by recombining the hydrogen and oxygen through combustion can only ever be equal to the amount of energy it took to separate them.
Even worse, there are multiple energy losses involved in the generation of the electricity, the delivery of it to the electrolysis cell and then the combustion process.  We actually recover far less energy from burning the hydrogen than it took to create it!  Therefore, these magic “water-for-gas” devices actually cause your car to burn MORE fuel in order to heat the water in the electrolysis cell. 

Besides, don’t you think that if cars could easily run on water and gas that the auto manufacturers wouldn’t have jumped on it by now as a means of selling those slow-moving, large SUVs?  Just remember that old adage about things that sound too good to be true…

 (Special thanks to Bruce Simpson of the Aardvark Daily for explaining the physics.)