Common sense solutions for the pursuit of fuel economy

by Angelo Diplacido

With so much talk recently about the importance of maximizing fuel economy, I would like to share some observations with you that I have discovered over the years.

With the rising price of fuel and the need to be more efficient in our daily trucking routines, common sense often gets overlooked while technology garners most of the attention.

Ten years ago, one of my supervisors asked me to try a liquid product that made claims of increased fuel economy. I was quick to discount any product that made such claims as ‘snake oil,’ but took on the task of monitoring and graphing any net benefits of the product.

To achieve the accuracy required, I set strict parameters to ensure the results were reliable. The truck was a 379 Peterbilt day cab with a C-13 Cat running to Michigan daily.

I made sure tire pressures, levels, and speed were constant and consistent. I began to time traffic lights and reduced my roadside stops. I observed a decent improvement in fuel mileage while other trucks  testing the product did not.

As a result, we did not purchase the product by the case. Still curious about the results, I continued employing the same parameters as when testing the product and the results did not change – my fuel mileage remained good. It became apparent that the strict parameters for accuracy set at the start of the test were what was causing the improvement in fuel economy. To my own embarrassment, it was driver conduct that made the improvement – not the product.

A month or so later I was asked to take a truck for a test drive. The truck’s regular driver had reported poor handling, lack of power, and poor fuel mileage. After inspecting and taking the nearly new Pete 387 for the day, I really didn’t want to report my findings because I knew what the end result would be.  

Every tire was down 20 lbs and the engine was down three gallons of oil. Again, driver conduct was the culprit, albeit on a much larger scale. Needless to say, I didn’t make any friends that day.

Since those days of 89 cents a squirt, I keep a mental note of the factors that cause my vehicle to labour excessively, whether it’s my own personal vehicle or a company truck. Some people call it ‘hypermiling.’  

It’s really not that extreme or high-tech; mostly it falls into the realm of common sense. Low fluid levels will cause radiator fans to activate more frequently and the detrimental effects of inadequate lubrication are obvious. Like the aforementioned Pete 387 that wasn’t performing to expectations due to driver neglect, I have encountered a lot of equipment in this state. The vehicle may still be able to pass a roadside inspection in this state, but performance will suffer. Here are some of the most commonly overlooked problems:

Tire pressures: Tire pressures fluctuate by up to 15 psi between summer and winter temperatures and must be adjusted to their cold settings. ‘Cold’ refers to their ambient temperature at rest. This not only maintains consistent fuel mileage but also extends the life of the tire by preventing irregular wear. Many fleets in the summer may be running on 115 lbs whereas, in the winter the tires are running on 85 lbs.

Fluid levels: Too often, fluid levels are deemed to be not safety-related and as a result, they get ignored.

Non-functioning greasing systems or the lack of grease: Poor lubrication can cause a vehicle’s performance to suffer.

Shock absorbers: They may appear intact and devoid of any signs of leakage, but there’s no guarantee of a functioning control system, since evidence of a malfunction can easily be washed away under normal use. Salt spray, road dust or a random power washing can make leaks invisible at a quick glance. Without conducting a heat test, there is no way of knowing if shocks are working. Daily and roadside inspections do not identify non-functioning shocks.

Lastly, I would like to add that not enough attention is given to new technology. I’m not speaking about truck technology, but rather the advances in communication between parties involved in the movement of goods.

A driver can be notified of an error before the fuel is wasted. An on-board GPS can get a truck to its destination the first time without wasting fuel searching or pulling over to read maps.

Getting lost is costly. Satellite monitoring systems may cover hard braking, idling, and excessive speed, but they don’t identify all the problems outlined in this column.

The tips outlined above are rudimentary steps to fine-tuning fuel mileage. While emerging truck and trailer technologies have helped pinpoint efficiency losses, we’ve taken a step back by ignoring the simple rules.

– Angelo Diplacido has been trucking for 30 years, both as an owner/operator and company driver.

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