Olive Branch, Mississippi
We were filling the tanks in Wytheville, Virginia when we hit the magic number.
It was late April, the TA had the cheapest fuel on the run from Orlando, Florida to Columbus, Ohio. Greg was intent on squeezing every ounce of fuel possible into the tank when suddenly the pump shut down. Instantly, he knew what had happened. The pump total read $990.
The fuel desk attendant said the pumps are programmed to shut off at $999.99, but a few companies have the amounts set a little lower. Ours did.
It’s deja vue all over again to quote Yogi Berra. Although the price has come down a bit in the last couple of weeks, diesel is hovering around $4 a gallon across the nation and is closer to $4.50, than $4 in some areas. We’ve met teams who lost their trucks in 2008 to high fuel prices and are still paying off thousands of dollars in fuel, which they had charged to credit cards.
A week or so after our big fill up, we stopped to fuel at the TA in Meridien, Mississippi. The driver in the next fuel bay, driving a flat-topped, square-nosed International, wandered over and asked Greg: “What’s your fuel mileage like?”
We told him 7.2 mpg to 7.6 mpg depending on load weight, terrain, weather, such as a heavy headwind, and temperature. He gasped, admitting, reluctantly, we had to ask him three times, that he gets about 5.5 miles mpg.
“How fast do you drive?” Greg asked.
“Not bad, about five miles over the limit.”
Five miles over the speed limit, 70 to 75 in most places is, a huge problem.
“Slowing down is trick,” Greg says. The driver smiled sheepishly. ”That’s what my wife keeps telling me,” and he returned to his pump.
A big truck burning dollar bills is easy to spot. There is a huge space between the top of the tractor and the trailer. It’s pushing air. If the smoke stacks and cylindrical air cleaners are forward of the door – a design favored by good ole boy truckers, it’s pushing air. If it has a long square nose, it’s pushing air. If it has a giant rectangular, flat front bumper, it’s pushing air. And if it’s barreling own the road at the speed limit or above, that driver is paying to truck not trucking for pay.
For most truckers soaring fuel prices means disaster, but not for us. We’ve been preparing for this eventuality since we purchased Black Beauty.
MacGyver has devoted thousands of hours to research since we began driving for Schneider National. Much of it courtesy of Kevin Rutherford’s Business and Beyond radio show on Sirius’s RoadDog Trucking network. Rutherford is a government-is-stupid-useless-and-has-never-done-anything-right type of guy. Unfortunately he devotes considerable air-time to airing his political hobby horses on the grounds that everything government does affects owner operators’ pocketbooks eventually. But he has really good information about trucking and has made and saved us a lot of money so we listen.
Last year we clocked 185,000 miles (paid and bobtail) and spent $75,000 on diesel. It would have been closer to $90,000 but for the improvements to the truck and our decision to run 62 mph loaded and 58 empty. Our plan is to run 60 mph loaded with FedEx.
Fuel mileage is all about speed and rolling resistance. A couple of weeks ago, while I was waiting, my hair stylist was telling her customer that when she drives the 200 miles to visit her father at the speed limit she uses a lot less gas than when we drives a little over the speed limit. She’s discovered the secret. Emails are flying fast and furiously about tips to save fuel, fuel in the morning, fuel in the afternoon, watch for vapor locks, etc., etc. I don’t know which ones if any are true, but take it from a trucker — saving money on fuel is all about speed and aerodynamics.
The secret — I’m divulging at my own peril, because I like it when all the cars zip around me and are gone in a flash, it makes my driving easier and more enjoyable — is slowing down. Five miles below the speed limit will fill your jeans’ pockets, and 55 mph will make you feel like a smarty-pants millionaire. Feel like a billionaire by ensuring your tires are properly inflated.
In the past 18 months, we have installed top-of-the-line, low-rolling resistance Michelin tires on the steers and the drives. Ten tires almost $5,000 with installation. Tires are a bi-ennial purchase, they last about two years for a team if they are well cared for. We also installed Balance Masters on the steer and drive axles and Tru-Balance on the front or steer axle. The Balance Master is a large disc that goes next to the tire. It has mercury in its rim, which dynamically balances the tires if we hit a large pothole. The tire keeps rotating smoothly and in line. The Tru-Balance are rings put inside three of the six nuts on the wheels to lock them in place and prevent slippage. It keeps the tires rotating smoothly in a dead center position. Total $900 with installation. MacGyver lovingly strokes the tires about once a week to make sure there are wearing evenly. We have 150,000 miles on the tires and they are perfect, no unusual wear spots.
The drive tires, all four duals, have been been fitted with CrossFires, $250. This is a contraption that links the air pressure in both tires. It tells us when the tire pressure is low or high and most importantly keeps the tire pressure even regardless of the air inside. Even tire pressure between the duals helps ensure the tires wear evenly and gives us better fuel mileage. We have not yet moved to the wireless air pressure monitoring of the steer tires, but MacGyver loves gadgets, so it’s only a matter of time, and Eddie, our trucking guru, has them.
We installed the Fleet Air Filter for $350. It looks like a medium-sized garbage can. Inside are three, two feet by four feet foam blankets. They roll up inside the filter, one is permanent, two are removable, trapping all the soot and unnamable black gunk. MacGyver washed it a few weeks ago after four months use, it was shocking to see what crud flowed out. This alone improved our fuel mileage about 3/10ths of a mpg. We like that we (the same we that goes shopping for groceries) are cleaning and reusing this truck part.
We installed the OPS-1 oil bypass to improve fuel mileage, save money and help Mother Nature. A team like us needs an oil change every 15,000 miles, which is every three weeks. We go to the shop, they dump 11-gallons of oil and charge us $225 to replace it. We didn’t like the idea of throwing it out simply because we don’t know what’s in it or if it’s doing it’s job or not.
The oil bypass system allows us to test the oil. Now every 25,000 miles we take an oil sample, send it to Indianapolis for analysis and change the filter. The analysis tells us if the oil is still working. It looks for fuel or water in the oil, wear metals such as lead and other foreign components such as soot an
d nitrates. If it’s clean we keep using it. Our current engine oil has 131,000 miles on it. We talked to a team last weekend with the same OPS-1 system and they have 200,000 miles on their oil. The system and installation was $600 including the first few testing kits. We buy the kits on sale, they are about $250 a year. We use a synthethic oil, Shell Rotellat, which has a superior viscosity and improves fuel mileage. Synthetic oil is about $25 a gallon. We cannot afford to use this oil if we’re dumping it every month.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania we had Pittsburgh Power, the holy temple of engine shops install a weed burner exhaust system and a flow-thru muffler. Most big trucks exhaust to the sky because they idle, the muffler is on the back of the tractor. We don’t idle, we have an Auxillary Power Unit for a/c, heat and electricity so we moved the muffler to exhaust to the ground, hence the name weed burner with a flow-through muffler giving Black Beauty a throaty growl, like Kathrine Hepburn when she’s all fired up. Total cost $1,100.
And finally, we have an element of technology in the mix. We use ProMiles, software which tells us where the cheapest fuel is located on each load and how much to pump. For example, on the trip from Canton, Ohio to Olive Branch, Mississippi to pick up our trailer, we put on 50 gallons of fuel at the TA in Florence, Kentucky and 75 gallons in Knoxville, Tennessee. Pro-Miles updates fuel prices every day at a cost of $225 a year.
Not including the tires, because, we need tires regardless of fuel mileage — our Michelins were about $1,500 more than typical tires — we spent about $4,000 to improve fuel mileage, keeping $11,000 in our pockets.
Our plan going forward is keep tweaking the systems to push our fuel mileage consistently above 7.5+ mpg because we expect fuel prices to stay where they are or go higher.