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Survival Tactics

Surviving the financial mess we’re in can’t possibly be achieved by cutting expenses alone. It’s going to take intelligent strategies and clever tactics … and probably a whole bunch of luck.

Chances are, you’ve already trimmed your operation down to the bone anyway, and you might even have started that process years ago. So what’s left to cut? Well, there’s always something.

Your fuel bill is the obvious place to start looking. Even though a barrel of oil costs about a third of what it did last July, and diesel is probably back to second place — after drivers — in your hit parade of expenses, it’s still a mighty big charge. And a useful target.

Here’s the top half-dozen potential fuel savers:

1. Drivers are the key because the difference between the best and the worst truck pilot is huge in terms of fuel economy. The Technology and Maintenance Council (TMC) puts drivers at the top of the list of controllable fuel factors, not surprisingly.

The best driver, it says, represents a fuel-consumption gain of as much as 35 percent. Which implies that one of the best things you can do is monitor your drivers and coach the poor performers on things like short-shifting. If you don’t already have one, now’s the time for an incentive program.

2. Second on that fuel-saver list, no surprise here either, is road speed. If you have aerodynamic tractors, you’ll save five to eight percent when you drop just 8 km/h or 5 mph from 105 km/h.

If your mighty steeds are without aero tricks, the difference is greater — you’ll save as much as 15 percent. That’s because slicing through the air is your biggest horsepower draw above 80 clicks. Below that, you’ll see most rolling resistance from your tires.

Testing over the years, and Lord knows there’s been a ton of it, has shown the role of speed in a thousand ways. But let’s just take one TMC-sanctioned test result: dropping road speed from 105 km/h to 90 brought a 22-percent fuel-consumption improvement for a cost of about 18 percent in extra travel time. Your dispatch office may have to work with customers to fit that trip-time difference into the mix, but the result is obviously worth it. Getting drivers to buy in might be a different challenge.

There will be other gains if you can pull that one off. Engine makers say your maintenance costs will drop substantially and engine durability will rise. Same with tires.

3. And then there’s idling, about which too many words have been written. It’s just so obvious that idle time has to be kept to a minimum, though you can’t let drivers freeze to death in Prince Albert. Teach them that five minutes of warm-up time is enough, and that the time spent parking is enough to cool down the engine.

If you don’t already have auxiliary power units or heaters but can spend a little bit, like under $1,000, a diesel-fired bunk heater can save a lot of idling time and pay for itself quickly. An APU or one of the newer electric power options may be the best ways to go, but we’ll presume little or no spending here.

4. Maintain your tires and you’ll reap rewards — every 10 psi that a truck’s tires are underinflated reduces fuel economy by one percent.

Again, if you can spend a little money, an automatic tire inflation system can maintain proper tire pressure while you drive, offering payback in as little as a year.

Note that tire sidewalls flex more at higher speeds, which leads to more friction, higher tire temperatures, and thus 10- to 30-percent greater wear rates. Energy spent generating heat in the tires doesn’t contribute to moving the vehicle. Cool tires are more fuel-efficient than tires made to run hot.

Check your wheel alignment too. You can improve fuel economy and lengthen tire life substantially by reducing tire scrub caused by improperly aligned axles.

And then it comes time to replace tires, note that there’s a fuel-efficiency benefit to low-profile tires, and even more if you can make the switch to wide-base singles.

“At least four percent” is the fuel-saving claim that Michelin makes for its wide single tires when used on both tractor and trailer in a typical 80,000-lb U.S. spec. Bridgestone says you’ll save between two and five percent in line-haul work. Now that we have the regulatory go-ahead on singles, maybe it’s time to switch.

5. Planning your routes more precisely, reducing backtracking, loading more efficiently, all these come under the ‘working smarter’ banner and they can have a big impact on the fuel bottom line.

Saving just 10 km a day per truck will eliminate something like 2,200 km a year, which is over $300 worth of fuel. Doesn’t sound like a huge amount, but how many trucks do you have? Do the math and you’ll soon see thousands.

Here’s where one small investment, $250 or so for GPS units to stick on the dash or windshield of your trucks, can save quite a few bucks. You might even pay for them within just a few trips. Out-of-route miles account for three to 10-percent of a typical driver’s total mileage, we’re told, which can add up to thousands of dollars in needless fuel consumption over the course of a year.

At the simplest level, you’ll likely save time and fuel money just by making sure your drivers know their destination’s address before you dispatch them. Sounds obvious, but ask your drivers how often it’s an issue. You may be surprised by the answer.

And while you won’t always have a choice in the matter, it’s worth knowing that driving on a flat multi-lane or interstate highway will consume four-to-11-percent less fuel compared to a flat two-lane highway because there will be less slowing and re-accelerating. You’ll gain 25-to-35-percent fuel efficiency by using that flat multi-lane highway instead of an urban route that’s 50-percent stop-and-go.

6. Even if you don’t have the most aerodynamic tractors, you can still minimize drag resulting from crosswinds and turbulent air by shrinking the gap between tractor and trailer to smooth the air flow.

Beyond approximately 30 in., every 10-in. increase in the tractor-to-trailer gap increases aerodynamic drag by approximately two percent. If axle weights allow, slide the fifth wheel forward.

And if your yardful of trailers offers you the choice, note that pulling a modern van trailer with straight sides and rounded corners at the front will bring you as much as five-percent better fuel economy compared to a square-cornered van with vertical ribs on the side.

Of course, if you’re willing and able to spend a bit of money, adding trailer skirts can also make a big difference in linehaul fuel bills.

But mostly, saving fuel is a matter of diligence, not spending, of looking at the small things as much as the big ones.