Fill’er up: How to decrease gasoline consumption

July 5, 2011
Contractors look to fleet management solutions, commonsense measures to save fuel

CHICAGO — Connecticut — $4.00; Illinois — $3.97; Washington D.C. — $3.97; California — $3.92; New York — $3.94. These are current state gasoline prices as of June 16, 2011, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. And according to the U.S. Department of Energy, retail gasoline prices are expected to average 77 cents per gallon higher in 2011 than in 2010.

With high gasoline prices comes the frustration of figuring out how to economize use of gasoline. Since driving around town to service customers is at the heart of contractors’ businesses, they need to find effective ways to cut gasoline consumption, and there are some commonsense measures that can be taken along with a variety of fleet management systems that will help a contractor cut down on filling up at the pump.

According to the white paper Greenhouse Gas Management for Medium-Duty Truck Fleets, co-authored by Jason Mathers, project manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, installing routing and vehicle tracking software can help achieve better fuel efficiency.

CONTACTOR asked Mathers what will affect the level of fuel and emissions savings when using such software.

“A GPS routing software is probably most useful for a truck that is out in the field and regularly calls in to find out about its next appointment,” explains Mathers. “A dispatcher can send the trucks to the closest appointments. Also, drivers can use these to cut miles by navigating to their destination directly. Some of the units have operational data, but not GPS. These can be used to track unnecessary idling, and also driving behaviors that increase fuel consumption (i.e. speeding). These can be helpful to any fleet. All are impacted by the human element in the driving equation.”

Fleet management solutions

Hoffman Southwest, a Roto-Rooter franchisee, implemented a fleet management solution by Networkfleet in April 2004 that would streamline fleet operations and save the company money. The franchise has about 400 trucks in the fleet and is made up of two different divisions, operating at 10 different locations in five different states, including California, Texas, Arizona, Utah and Oregon.

“We use the Vehicle Idle Time report,” explains Monte Yoder, chief financial officer for Hoffman. “For example, in July in Arizona it would show up if someone is sitting in a vehicle using the air conditioner. In December, in Salt Lake City, if they are sitting in the vehicle running the heater that shows up too. We have set what is a norm and we watch for variations of the norm. Networkfleet also helps with engine diagnostic alerts. When we have a poorly performing vehicle we can catch that early on. Sometimes it’s that the vehicle is not using fuel efficiently, so we find out about it and can repair it.”

Yoder also watches gasoline prices via Wright Express, a provider of fleet cards, at various locations to ensure his technicians are filling up at the most economical gas stations in the areas they are driving in.

“We are watching miles per gallon reports on vehicles,” says Yoder. “We are watching for an average cost of fuel at various locations, so we can locate stations in any given area to ensure techs don’t go to the most expensive gas station.”

Recently, Networkfleet announced new Fuel Card Reporting capabilities through its wireless fleet management system. In addition to extensive fuel usage and miles per gallon reporting, Networkfleet, in partnership with Wright Express, offers Fuel Card Reporting that gives fleet managers the ability to track fuel transactions and identify unauthorized fuel purchases.

“Fuel is a major line item for fleets,” said Keith Schneider, president and CEO of Networkfleet. “To combat the recent and predicted increases in fuel costs, we continue to offer new ways for our customers to control expenses. We are happy to partner with Wright Express as their fuel cards are the most widely used and accepted at fuel locations throughout the U.S. and Canada.”

Networkfleet’s Fuel Card Reporting, combined with its system’s ability to monitor MPG, speed, idle time, emissions, diagnostic trouble codes, and more, gives fleet managers a way to further control and reduce rising operating costs.

The new Fuel Card Reporting consists of two reports: the Fuel Guard Report and the Fuel Card Transactions Report. The Fuel Guard Report lets users compare the location/time the fuel was purchased with the vehicle location/time to determine if the proper vehicle was being fueled or if there was a potential fraud event. The Fuel Card Transactions Report allows the user to see all fuel transactions during a specific period of time as well as details regarding those transactions, including location, gallons and total cost.

All in all, Hoffman Southwest has seen a variety of results since implementing Networkfleet seven years ago.

According to Yoder, the fleet management solution has helped the company reduce its overall operating costs, recover a stolen vehicle, and save approximately $850 in fuel costs per vehicle per year.

At Able Plumbing Inc., Seabrook, Texas, Christina Jorgensen, treasurer, and Benjamin Jordan, president, immediately noticed a decrease in gasoline consumption when they started using FleetMatics about three months ago.

“Gas right now is $3.59 a gallon,” said Jorgensen. “It has saved us a lot of fuel.”

Jorgensen asked FleetMatics how much it costs when a van idles for one hour.

“What they told me was that it’s about two gallons per hour when a van idles,” explains Jorgensen. “If they are sitting there for two hours, that’s four gallons, but you have to add the time and what we pay them to the cost too.”

Before FleetMatics was implemented at Able Plumbing, gasoline expenses were approximately $1,000 a week.

According to Jorgensen, the company is now spending about $550 to $600 a week for gasoline.

“So now they aren’t doing the idling or sitting in vans or doing extra things,” said Jorgensen. “We’ve also put in place that if they take the vehicle unauthorized we charge them $1.00 a mile, so now it’s not coming back on us, it’s coming back on them. They need to make sure they call us and let us know they are taking the vehicle somewhere.

“I think this has paid off immensely already. I think we have saved what it would cost the company three months in advertising. We immediately started to save money.”

The next step to save on gas costs is implementing fleet cards, which integrate with the FleetMatics system. The technicians use the fleet cards for gas and maintenance purchases, such as oil changes. FleetMatics works with FleetCor, an independent global provider of fleet cards that has acquired a number of fuel card brands in North America, Europe, Asia and Africa. Card programs are marketed under many brand names including CCS, CFN, FleetNet, Fuelman, Keyfuels, Mannatec, PPR and The Fuelcard Company. FleetMatics Fuel Card Reporting fully integrates Fuelman FleetCard usage into the GPS tracking software to allow for real-time fuel tracking data and reporting tools.

John Baethke & Son Plumbing Inc., Chicago, also uses FleetMatics. The company has eight trucks and services the northwest side of Chicago.

“Even though we don’t drive much, with the gas prices like they are there is still a huge impact,” explains John William Baethke III, president of John Baethke & Son Plumbing Inc. “Even though we drive so little, it’s still a huge impact with the gas prices where they are at — it’s expensive. I feel for the guys putting 12,000, 15,000 miles on their trucks per year.”

According to Baethke, the main reasons he’s using FleetMatics is to save on gas, wear and tear on the trucks, and the side benefit of being able to show customers how long a tech was at their residences if it’s questioned.

“I can use it to verify location any time of the day for dispatching and to assist in productively assigning calls,” said Baethke. “I also set alerts so that I am notified when a truck is idling more than what might be expected or to identify if a vehicle is exceeding speed limits.”

E. L. (Lon) Walters, president, E.L. Walters Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Evansville, Ind., also uses FleetMatics and says, “It has saved us a lot in the way of fuel. The dispatchers are able to send the technician that is closest to a job, so this saves on fuel costs. If we didn’t have that feature the dispatcher wouldn’t think of who is the closest to a job.

“The Idling Report is very helpful saving gas too. For example, the other day it came up that one person’s idling time was out of sight. That morning he came in to pick up some parts and he let his vehicle sit in the parking lot and idle for 45 minutes. We had a talk with this technician about cutting out the idling.”

According to Brad Sims, who owns Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Mid-Michigan, Mount Pleasant, Mich., and Mr. Rooter Plumbing of Grand Rapids, Mich., gasoline consumption has decreased since using Michigan Fleet GPS. The plumbers fill up the vehicles less often now, saving money.

Sims’ companies service 12 counties in northern Michigan, and use GPS because their technicians take the vans home at night, as they all live in different areas. He utilizes idling, stop, geofence and speed limit reports.

“The idling report helps out a lot,” says Sims. “Once we started using this, we noticed that one of our techs kept their truck idling for over eight hours straight. Even though it was in the winter, you don’t let a truck run for that long. He ended up paying for the gas that day. Once we started using this kind of report, it cut out truck idling.”

Switch to fuel-efficient vehicles

Murphy & Miller Inc., a repair, maintenance, and design/build installation HVAC contractor, located in Chicago and Elk Grove Village, Ill., currently utilizes approximately 60 trucks and is switching to Ford Transit Connects as its normal 20% fleet roll-over schedule allows.

“About half of our new vans will be Connects and the rest Ford E-150s, says James Miller, president of Murphy & Miller Inc. “We are also installing GPS systems which will, in part, allow checking how vehicles are driven, reduced idling, not speeding, etc. We are also spot-checking to ensure that techs don't become packrats and carry around unnecessary weight.

“We selected the Connect because of having a GVW [gross vehicle weight] that was acceptable for a certain segment of our technicians. Since we service such a wide variety of manufacturers and types of equipment, it is virtually impossible to carry an adequate cross-section of specific parts.”

Miller points out that the company has suppliers all over the Chicagoland area to draw from, but not all technicians would be able to use a Connect and still perform appropriate services. A certain segment will still be in Ford E-150 vans.

“We started assigning the Connects with area supervisors since they are the most disciplined regarding overloading a vehicle and also to avoid technicians from thinking they are being ‘picked on’ by being assigned a smaller truck,” says Miller.

The GPS systems installed in all the new service vehicles was packaged for Murphy & Miller Inc. by Enterprise Fleet Management, using its new Mobile Resource Manager (MRM) System.

“There are three major components to the solution,” says Dan O'Halloran vice president, service administration at Murphy & Miller Inc. “First, is a GPS device with a Sprint modem and it is mounted and hidden under the dash. Second, is a dash mounted Garmin Nuvi 265W that can be used for voice prompted navigation, and for communication of messages and job information to and from the service technicians. Third, is the web based application built by Xora that our dispatchers will use to track the fleet.”

Commonsense measures

Besides using a fleet management system or replacing fleet trucks with fuel-efficient vehicles there are some simple commonsense measures all contractors can take to make sure they are saving on fuel.

According to the Automotive Fleet magazine article Six Ways to Save Fuel Now, downsizing, tailoring equipment to the task, utilizing idle cutoff systems, using low-rolling resistance tires and using cab fairings for aerodynamics can help get more miles per gallon from light- and medium-duty trucks.

The Greenhouse Gas Management for Medium-Duty Truck Fleets white paper notes that lighter and less powerful trucks are more fuel efficient.

CONTRACTOR asked Mathers to suggest how plumbing and HVAC professionals could switch over to a lighter vehicle even though they sometimes carry heavy loads.

According to Mathers, switching to a lighter vehicle ultimately comes down to the specific needs of each company.

The following are a couple of Mathers’ suggestions for contractors looking to switch to a lighter truck:

If there are some particularly heavy pieces of equipment that are only rarely (yet predictably) used then leave these in the shop unless they are clearly needed. If there are multiple vehicles in the fleet, have a few vehicles dedicated to haul the heaviest equipment.

Contractors should speak with their vehicle representatives and ask if they can test drive a vehicle they are interested in, but may be skeptical of its capabilities, before purchasing a vehicle.

Mathers also suggests contractors consider the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van.

“It’s a diesel vehicle and significantly more efficient that the traditional work van line,” says Mathers.

CONTRACTOR asked Mathers if a contractor or fleet manager can only do one thing to save on fuel, given the high costs of gas these days, what should they do.

“Focus on idling,” says Mathers. “I bet many [contractors] have vehicles that are idling more than they think. It’s a no-cost way to cut fuel consumption. Most will likely be able to cut a few percentage points from their consumption. Others might find a lot more.”

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About the Author

Candace Roulo

Candace Roulo, senior editor of CONTRACTOR and graduate of Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts & Sciences, has 15 years of industry experience in the media and construction industries. She covers a variety of mechanical contracting topics, from sustainable construction practices and policy issues affecting contractors to continuing education for industry professionals and the best business practices that contractors can implement to run successful businesses.      

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