It may not seem like much, but Henry Albert is jealous of truckers who have found a way to get from 5 to 5.5 mpg. “That’s a big deal,” said the trucker who has made improving gas mileage into a cottage industry.
That’s because a 10% fuel economy boost in a heavy truck is huge. Albert, owner-operator of Albert Transport based in Statesville, NC, spoke recently from inside his cab parked in Texas. “When you get up near 10 and you go to 10.5, it’s not that much savings,” he noted, and additional fuel economy technology yields more moderate gains.
Albert, who is also chairman of Trucking Solutions Group, is “back down to 9.8 [mpg],” he admitted during a late summer interview. “I was over 10 for a little bit. It was relatively young miles on the truck.”
Albert has been looking for ways to increase his miles per gallon—and thus save money—since he started driving a truck in the 1980s.
“You never run out of ways to save,” he said. “The only thing you run out of is time to get it done.”
Drivers and fleet managers have been focused more and more in recent years on saving money with greener trucks. One recent study, for example, showed that greener trucks saved $7,000 each in 2016.
The North American Council for Freight Efficiency (NACFE) has been studying fuel-efficient technology and how it is implemented for years. Its 2017 Annual Fleet Fuel Study released this past summer identified 85 fuel-saving technologies—up from 69 the previous year. The 85 technologies are broken down into seven categories: tractor aerodynamics, trailer aerodynamics, powertrains, tires/wheels, idle reduction, chassis, and fleet practices.
The adoption rate for that technology grew from 17% in 2003 to 42% in 2016, according to the NACFE study, which examines Class 8 trucks in 19 fleets in North America that deal with various terrain and traffic.
The average fleet-wide fuel economy of those fleets’ trucks averaged 7.11 mpg in 2016, which is only a 1% increase over that of the same fleets in 2015. The 2016 national average was 5.89 mpg. Still, it was the 10th straight year fleets in the study reported an increase in mpg.
NACFE attributed that increase in fuel efficiency to three basics: trucks getting EPA 2010 emission-reduction systems using diesel exhaust fluid; the first phase of EPA greenhouse gas reduction products; and a year-over-year increase in adoption of more green technologies.
But the overall fuel economy increases slowed in 2016 versus 2015 from 3% to 1%. The NACFE study blamed the slowdown on a lower adoption of some high fuel-saving devices such as 6x2 axles and back-of-trailer aerodynamics, a diminished focus on mpg thanks to lower fuel prices, increased truck speeds, and the hot summer of 2016 that saw more air conditioners running in cabs overnight.
The industry is still trying to figure out what gets you the best return on your green investment.
“Truckers are all about saving money,” said Mike Roeth, NACFE’s executive director. “Owner-operators have one hand on the fuel nozzle and the other hand on their wallet.”
EPA’s focus on exhaust elimination back in the 1990s, however, seemed only to cost truckers more, Roeth noted. “Then, about 10 years ago, the regulators moved to greenhouse gas rules, which are basically fuel economy rules, and that started to save the truckers some money.”
So while the first half of the trucking green movement was a lot of pain, he said, “the second half isn’t completely written and it has a lot of opportunities to help.”
When it comes to greening your fleet, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The best way for your truck or fleet to improve fuel economy might not work as well for others.
Roeth said that common sense can help determine the best ways to increase your truck’s mpg.
“Maybe someone puts aerodynamics on a truck that putts around New York City or Chicago,” Roeth said. “It won’t save a lot of money. But that same truck that drives from New York to Chicago could see significant savings. It’s usually the misapplied things that don’t work.”
And of course, no one has an unlimited budget.
“It’s important to understand what you have and use those resources to go after the products that will have the most impact,” said Taki Darakos, vice president of fleet operations and maintenance for Transervice.
“We have tested things like wheel covers, skirting and aerodynamic mudflaps,” he said. “Sometimes from an intuitive standpoint, you know that there is an impact but you can’t always measure the impact to show the ROI.
“If there is a quarter-percent improvement per wheel position with wheel covers, the SAE Fuel Economy testing will show the value,” Darakos continued. “But in the real world, it will be really hard to measure due to different routes, loads, drivers, etc. In the real world, it is hard to see these changes.”
Automated manual transmissions are becoming a more popular way for fleets to save money. “But driver acceptance is important,” noted Claude Ricciardi, the national director of purchasing for Transervice. “At first, they don’t like it; but once they experience it, they tend to like it. In a way, it does level the playing field from a good driver and one that is not as good because it will take away variables from proper and improper shifting.”
Ricciardi designs for fuel efficiency based on the type of loads and routes. “The rear-end ratio, or how the loads are set up, can be the difference between 5.5 and 7 mpg,” Darakos said. “It can make you a hero in terms of what is out there—or just as quickly a zero—depending on the expense.”
Lew Flowers, a former fleet director for the U.S. Postal Service, is now the president of Flowers Fleet Service in Oklahoma and a consultant for small fleet operations. “If I was going into a new fleet, there are a couple of things I would do to reduce my cost,” he said. “Fuel economy is number one.”
Flowers encourages drivers to limit speeds to 65 mph, use cruise control, and cut out idling. “It wastes fuel and it pollutes the air,” he said on that last point. “I understand from the driver’s point of view. You pull up somewhere; it’s creature comforts.”
But idling doesn’t only cost you in fuel—it’s real money. Not idling “more than paid for my son’s college,” said Albert, the owner-operator who has flirted with 10 mpg.
Cutting back on idling not only saved gas money, it was also saving his engine. “I remembered reading way back when about how eight hours of idling was equivalent to 400 miles of wear on your engine,” he said. “It really bothered me. I bought the truck to support myself and my family. It didn’t make sense to wear out an engine that wasn’t making revenue.”
And there are other ways than idling to power those creature comforts. Albert has three solar panels on his trailer’s roof by eNow, a mobile solar company. He said the panels help charge up a 12-volt, DC-powered HVAC system that keeps him comfortable throughout the night —until the sun comes back up and starts charging the batteries again.
Products & strategies for FUEL savings
Transervice’s Taki Darakos, vice president of fleet operations and maintenance, said his company has found the most success with these “green” products:
- Airshields improve aerodynamics and look.
- Webasto heaters allow trucks to reduce idling.
- Retread tires have improved dramatically and really reduce overall tire expense as well as the material used to make a new tire.
- Spec’ing the engine, rear end/axle ratios correctly can have a huge impact on fuel economy. But make sure that the equipment still does the function it is intended for. You can get the best fuel economy in the world, but that won’t matter if it ends up compromising the primary use of the product.
- A good tire program will improve fuel economy significantly. Air pressure plays a role in this area, and underinflated tires will impact fuel economy. Remembering to check pressure improves overall cost per mile in the maintenance arena.
- LED lighting is becoming standard on today’s new equipment. But depending on the life cycle of the equipment, there is value in retrofitting.
And some that just don’t make sense:
- Tractor skirting in regional applications that end up being damaged or make it harder to service the equipment, i.e., batteries that get neglected because of tough accessibility. You can spend more replacing panels than you recoup in fuel economy improvements.
- Trailer tails that are not set up to auto deploy and sit folded up as they go down the road.