5 Pointers That’ll Make Your Trips to the Pump More Bearable Despite Fluctuating Fuel Prices

Fluctuating fuel prices can put a dent in your profitability. Try these tips to control your costs.

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The price of gasoline and diesel fuel continues to bounce around, driven by everything from volatile weather to volatile world politics. Considering septic service contractors rely on their vehicle fleet to do business, keeping your fuel costs low – and, equally important, keeping them stable and predictable – will likely rank right up near the top of any list of business concerns.

It’s no easy job. But it’s also a lot less complicated than you might fear.

Track your usage. It’s an old maxim that you can’t fix what you can’t measure, and there isn’t much that’s easier to measure than how many miles you drive and how much gas you burn. So if you aren’t keeping track of those, start now.

The simplest way is to give each vehicle a record book. Have drivers record daily odometer readings and miles driven, and also log every fill-up. That information alone will determine which vehicles in your fleet are the most efficient, and which ones are guzzlers you might want to replace.

If you like technology, there are fancier ways to do this, like smartphone apps and various Web-based services to help you keep data and measure your fleet’s fuel economy. Many of these services charge a fee, so you’ll want to calculate the cost against the potential benefit. One free service is fuelly.com (http://www.fuelly.com/about/), which has a simple, easy-to-use interface.

These services can make it much easier to track your vehicle fuel use and related data. On the other hand, if you simply want to use a pencil and paper, you can do that, too.

Maintain your fleet. A well-tuned engine burns fuel more efficiently, and properly inflated tires give you better mileage, too. The U.S. Department of Energy says proper maintenance alone can boost your gas mileage by as much as 4 percent – and if you fix a serious problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, your mileage could improve by as much as 40 percent.

Making sure your tires are inflated properly can give you another 3.3 percent mileage boost. The Department of Energy says you can lose gas mileage at a rate of 0.3 percent for every drop in tire pressure of 1 pound per square inch (psi) in all four tires.

Finally, making sure you use the recommended grade of motor oil in your vehicle can result in an improvement of another 1 to 2 percent in your mileage. Some mechanics recommend synthetic oils for improving fuel economy. Because synthetic oils are more expensive, you may wish to give them a trial and monitor the results closely before deciding if they’re right for your fleet.

Plan your work. When you get an emergency call, of course, you can’t do this. But for the routine day’s driving, consider how you can sort the visits in the most fuel-efficient manner – driving from stop to stop in a loop, for instance, and minimizing repeated back-and-forth trips.

And look at other aspects of your operation to see if you can extract more efficiency. Take supplies – do you have a systematic way of monitoring and reordering supplies so you’re making, say, one trip to the supplier each week instead of several? And are there other ways you can make a trip do double-duty?

Train your team. It’s important that you and your employees understand the role a driver’s habits can play in how you use fuel. Stop-and-go driving may be impossible to avoid in city traffic. But jackrabbit starts, speeding, and frequent or extreme changes in your speed that could otherwise be avoided with just a little care all contribute to worsening gas mileage.

In addition, unnecessary idling wastes fuel. Many municipal Public Works departments are instituting “no-idle” policies for their drivers. You should too.

Change your buying practices. This is the most complicated solution – or really, group of solutions.

Some businesses buy fuel in bulk quantities for a price set in advance under a contract. That can help you lock in a favorable price.

But there are also some risks in that approach. First, you’re gambling that the price will only be going up, when – as has happened with fuel a lot – it could go back down. Second, the contract terms typically set a limited term for the contracted price, and require you to purchase the entire amount you’ve contracted for in that period. You’ll be bound by that even if an unexpected circumstance reduces your need for fuel.

Another option is a “maximum price contract.” The buyer locks in a price at the higher end of a range, putting a ceiling on what the business will have to pay for fuel. But if the price goes down, the buyer’s cost can go down, too.

Don’t be afraid to start small and work up from there. But also, remember one other important point:

Don’t get crazy about it. As with any other money-saving challenge, there are limits to how much you can do. So be realistic – don’t go overboard. Spending 20 hours a week calculating how you can shave a tenth of a mile off your weekly rounds is worthless. So is driving all over town to find the gas station that this week is undercutting everyone else by 2 cents a gallon.

It’s one thing to get rid of your oldest, most fuel-hungry truck. But buying an all-new fleet just to get better mileage is spending a lot up front for a long, slow payback. So would be a hasty conversion of all your trucks to compressed natural gas, for example.

Fuel costs are an inevitable part of your business. But with a little thought and common sense, you can make it a bit less of a burden.


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