MPG Masters

by Harry Rudolfs

TORONTO, Ont. – Fuel is an owner/operator’s biggest expense. But smart operators and drivers have developed some strategies to squeeze every last drop of energy out of a litre of diesel.

Eliminate idling

Reducing idling time is a good place to start. Some fleets have recorded idling times as high was 47%, so even bringing the number down to 20% is a major savings.

Earl Gerber, part owner of BEC Transport which supplies trucks and drivers for Schneider’s Meats (a division of Maple Leaf Foods), has managed to bring his own idling down to 6%.

“You’re always going to have some idling – when you’re stopped at a traffic light you’re idling. But there’s no reason to leave the truck running when you’re hooking up a trailer, or inside waiting for your waybills,” he says.

Derek Varley, fleet manager for Mackie Moving Systems of Oshawa, Ont., was pleased to see one of his trucks shut off outside a donut shop on his way into work.

“It was about -7 C, but the sun was out and he was just going in to get coffee. I was impressed. And this was a company driver!”

Bunk heaters save money

Bunk heaters that operate separately from the engine can save fuel and wear on the truck engine. Gerber uses Webasto heaters in his Schneider’s trucks, while Les Laflamme, an owner/operator for the Rosedale Group, loves his Rigmaster self-contained heater, air conditioner and generator, which provides auxiliary power to his 2000 Western Star.

“With a motor this size (500 hp Cummins) you’re burning 1.2 gallons an hour idling and knocking 50 miles off the life of your engine. This Rigmaster cost $10,500 installed and I got a $1,400 rebate. I figure I’m saving $3,000 a year in fuel alone,” he says.

Laflamme bought his truck off the lot because he liked the gearing. He runs 11R22.5 tires on 3.55 rear ends. This allows his 13-speed double over to cruise just over 1,250 RPM while doing 59 mph and brings him good fuel mileage, close to 7 mpg.

“The trick is not to drive with your foot in the oil pan,” he says.

Fred Phieffer, of Wellington, Ont., keeps one eye on the instruments of his 2000 W-900L Kenworth as he’s rolling down the road.

“I run the pyrometer low and the turbo boost charge under 10, both at the low end of the scale. If I’m going down a hill I ease off and let it roll. No jackrabbit starts, I don’t wind the engine up when I’m gearing up from a start,” he explains.

With over a million miles on his truck, Phieffer consistently gets over 7 mpg. He runs 3.70 rear ends on 11R24.5 tires. “Tall rubber is better,” he says. “At 65 mph it’s putting out just under 1,400 RPM, a tad over idling. Gear it fast and run it slow.”

Check your tires

According to Ralph Beaveridge, Canadian marketing manager for Michelin truck tires, a 10% under-inflated tire will result in a drop in fuel economy of about 1%.

“In addition the tire will wear more quickly and be more susceptible to irregular wear,” he says. “If a tire is over-inflated, it actually becomes more fuel efficient but will have a much shorter life and the truck will have a much harder ride.”

So it’s a good idea to carry a gauge and check the pressure and tread depth weekly. This will also alert you to any problems causing unusual wear. Switching from winter to summer tires can also significantly appreciate fuel mileage.

Aerodynamics rule

None of Gerber’s tractors are older than three years and he’s particularly proud of his eight 12-litre Volvos which get upwards of 8 mpg. The units are spec’d to be as aerodynamic as possible and run on 3.70 rear ends and 24.5 tires. He says this gives the engine a cruising sweet spot of 1,400 RPM at 100-105 km/h.

To demonstrate the efficiency of the 12-litre Volvos, Schneider’s Meats performed two identical test runs with identical loads from Kitchener, Ont. to Calgary, Saskatoon and back to Kitchener, matching a Volvo with another big block engine and flat top tractor. The trips were roughly 7,000 km and the difference in fuel mileage was astounding. The Volvo accomplished the trek on 1,000 fewer litres of fuel for an estimated out-of-pocket saving of $900.

Gerber keeps meticulous records of fuel consumption on all his units. Like most middle-aged Canadian drivers, he prefers to think in terms of miles per Imperial gallon. An instant fuel calculator is available on the Fleetsmart home page (, which automatically converts to all scales and provides a cost per distance figure.

“I also consult my fuel mileage read-out on the speedometer constantly,” says Gerber. “That way you can see how much more fuel it takes to get from a dead stop up to speed as compared to keeping the truck rolling.”

Spec’ing is everything.

The variation in fuel efficiency speaks to the importance of spec’ing the right unit for the right job. Jim Booth knows all about this because of his years working as an application engineer for Caterpillar. He’s 70 and retired now, but he still keeps his hand in the business, operating a small trucking company of 14 tractors out of Galesburg, Illinois.

“Everything you do in a truck is going to cost you money,” says Booth. His trucks are Kenworths with big Cat engines and 13- or 18-speed transmissions. “I find it’s better to spend a few dollars more to buy the good stuff. That’s why I always get the double insulation package. And we’re very fussy about the maintenance. Trucks are washed and greased every week.”

A fuel economy wizard, Booth pays attention to all the details. Did you know that reducing the space between the tractor and the front of the trailer to 25 inches can increase fuel economy anywhere from 0.5-5%?

Booth’s own personal Kenworth is a T2000 with an 18-speed double over that runs on 3.25 rear ends and 22.5 tires.

“I spec’ the truck to cruise at whatever the manufacturer says. In this case it’s 1,110 RPM in 18th gear at 55mph.”

Booth is acutely aware that an increase in 10 mph results in a decrease of 1 mpg. Yet he doesn’t limit his drivers’ speeds so long as they’re getting good mileage. He also plans his drivers’ routes so they won’t have to sit in traffic. One route takes them around Chicago’s congested highways.

“It’s an extra 40 miles but you save that in tolls alone. You’re not getting very good mileage when you’re stuck in traffic and it’s bad for your engine,” he says.

Driving habits are another important variable. Unless you have time to train your drivers to progressively shift on multi-geared transmissions, Booth thinks automatics might be the answer.

“Ninety-nine per cent of drivers don’t know anything about torque or speed,” he says. “And most drivers that you hire that have been through the driving schools don’t know anything except automatics.”

The advantage of automatic transmissions is that economical shifting is pre-programmed and they are almost foolproof. “I don’t know why some drivers’ habits change as soon as they’re out of sight of the owner but that’s often the case,” Booth adds.

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