FUEL FUROR

High gas prices putting a dent in your P&L? Here are a few tips to help you out at the pumps.

Culligan�s Eric Clarke said the company has a software program that allows his drivers to plan the most fuel-efficient routes, saving time and money.

DaveGallagher
   A form of sticker shock is going through the local business community these days as owners see how much they are now paying for fuel costs.
   It is even more shocking for those who compare what they are paying now to a few years ago.
   Dan Johnson was curious about how fast his fuel expenses have been rising for his two companies, Horton’s Towing and Johnson’s Towing. Three years ago his fuel costs per month for both companies were under $1,600; today his monthly fuel costs are near $4,000.
   “We’re not any busier than we were three years ago; it is all because of the rise in fuel prices,” Johnson said. “I’ve really noticed the spike in my fuel expenses in the past year, and I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to save money in that area.”
Alfred Portillo, owner of trucking company Pegasus Corp., said he’s noticed the impact of rising fuel costs the most within the past six months. Since March, the fuel cost has risen an additional $350 for a roundtrip from Bellingham to Los Angeles. That’s more than the cost of a roundtrip plane ticket .
   “That additional $350 will be passed on to the customer through surcharges, because trucking companies are already operating on thin margins,” Portillo said. “It’s too large a hit for trucking companies to absorb.”
   With gasoline and diesel prices zooming past $3 a gallon, combined with the fact Whatcom County has the highest-priced gasoline in the state, local business owners have become more assertive in talking to their employees about being efficient when driving the company vehicle. Lloyd Ludtke, owner of Ludtke Pacific Trucking, is constantly talking to his drivers about ways to increase fuel efficiency. He regularly includes written reminders with his employee paychecks.
   “How much the company consumes in fuel is the only thing I can control, I can’t control whether the prices go up or down,” Ludtke said. “I’ve discovered that this company can save quite a bit of money if the drivers take steps to conserve the amount of fuel used on a trip.”
   The top tip Ludtke offers his drivers is a simple concept: When starting the truck, accelerate slowly until you get to a good cruising speed, then maintain it.
“It’s good advice for any driver, because you can really improve your fuel efficiency,” Ludtke said. “Have you ever seen someone zip out of a stop sign and get up to 60 (mph) in six seconds? That’s just a huge waste of gas, and the money is going out of that person’s pocket and out of the local economy.”
   One of the biggest fuel wasters in the trucking industry is leaving the engine idling. This is done for a variety of reasons, including keeping the air conditioning or heater going when a driver gets some shuteye in the vehicle. According to the American Automobile Association, idling can consume as much as a gallon of gas per hour.
Significantly cutting down on idling engines has been one of Portillo’s biggest goals. The company policy is to shut off the engine as soon as possible, saving both fuel and maintenance costs. Because fuel costs have risen so high, putting his drivers in a hotel for the night, instead of sleeping in their idling truck, is becoming more of a viable alternative.
   Portillo recently had a situation where one of his drivers was in Seattle in the evening, but couldn’t drop off his freight until the morning.
   “The options were to either drive back to Bellingham and return to Seattle in the morning, let the driver sleep in the truck with the engine idling, or put him up in a hotel,” Portillo said. “Putting him in a hotel for the night was the best option, not only because of the expense of idling, but I had an employee who was better rested the next day.”
   The rising fuel cost has been a popular topic of conversation among business people who regularly use fleets of company cars. Eric Clarke, president of the Bellingham Culligan Water facility, said he’s learned a lot from his experienced employees.
   “Most of the drivers are correcting my driving, which is great,” Clarke said. “Many of them have worked here for a long time, and have the experience to pass on. We regularly have discussions about fuel efficiency, and it’s usually started by our drivers.”
   When Clarke started noticing the price increases more than a year ago, the temptation was to go to the gas station that offered the cheapest prices. Instead, Clarke decided to stick with a commercial-truck refueling facility, such as the Yorkston Oil facility on Roeder Avenue.
   “We’d thought about driving around to the place that offered the cheapest diesel, but what did we really save? I don’t think it would have saved much at all to go out of our way looking for cheap gas,” Clarke said.
Clarke said they’ve been able to get a handle on rising fuel costs by installing a software program that allows drivers to plan the most direct route before they get started.
   “The last thing we want to do is raise our prices because of fuel costs, and this software program has worked great,” Clarke said. “I’ve also noticed savings in other unexpected ways. For example, we replaced an older vehicle with a new van, and that added 10 miles to each gallon. I hadn’t realized that kind of a change makes such a big differnce.”

Cutting down on fuel costs
   Here are a few tips that business owners have learned, as well as advice the AAA recommends, in cutting fuel costs:

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