Thursday, December 20, 2012

Hypermiling, the basic techniques

Driving to visit relatives this Christmas? Try hypermiling: getting the most possible miles per gallon out of your car.

Streamline the car: Windows up, tires inflated to the manufacturer's recommendations or slightly higher, unused trunk or roof racks removed, excess cargo removed. Like, do you really need to haul your golf clubs in your trunk all the time?

On the highway, find your car's natural cruising speed and stick to it; likely it's around the highway speed limit, 55-60 MPH. Pay attention to your RPMs at different speeds, and you'll see where the engine seems to settle in. If you have a newer car with an actual MPG readout, it's even easier to see at what speed your car runs most efficiently. True, it will now take more time to get from A to B than if you were driving 75, but you will have used noticeably less gas. I can attest to that after our many road trips between Chicago and St. Louis.

Also on the highway, you can reduce the air resistance on your car by drafting behind a large truck. It's not a safe technique, because you have to follow the truck closely, and the truck drivers don't like it—probably for that reason—but we've done it. Again, if you have a car with an instant MPG readout, you could try it and see the difference. But beware: it is unsafe, you will have no way to see what's coming ahead, and it's probably illegal. I'm just saying it works.

Conserve momentum #1: Keep plenty of space between you and the vehicle in front of you, even more than the recommended one car length for every 10 miles per hour. The extra space will allow you to coast a bit before braking—if you even have to brake at all—as the flow of traffic changes. Give yourself enough space in slow-moving traffic, and you may be able to simply roll along the whole time without ever hitting the accelerator.

Conserve momentum #2: Coast to stop signs and red lights. For some reason this annoys other drivers, like they're in a real hurry to get to that red light. So what? It uses far less fuel than keeping your foot on the gas until the moment you have to slam on the brakes while also preventing fender benders caused by people having to slam on their brakes at stop lights. If the light turns green while you're coasting toward it, even better; you won't have to accelerate as much to get back up to cruising speed. At stop signs, if you can continue rolling until the car before you departs the stop sign, then you're right there to stop for a moment and go, avoiding the stop, roll, stop, roll, stop.

Shut your engine off at any stop more than 20 seconds. Unless you really have to worry about whether your car will start again, there aren't many good reasons to keep the engine running when you're not actually driving. Deny it all you want, prolonged idling does indeed use more fuel than turning the car back on, and by "prolonged" I mean about 20 seconds or more. This is such an easy, no-effort, no-brainer way to conserve fuel at railroad crossings, stop lights with an obvious rotation, drive-up ATMs and slow-moving drive-throughs, not to mention the times you're waiting in the car while your buddy runs into the store. And when you're about to leave a parking space, wait to turn the engine on until you are actually ready to move.

Advanced technique: Engine-Off Coasting. In other words, consider coasting to be another form of idling. Yes, I am suggesting you take your foot of the gas, put your car in neutral, and kill the engine. You do this by turning your key just enough to shut the engine off and then turning it back to the "run" position. You know, the key position just before you'd click it over to turn the engine back on. And just roll. We are mimicking the engine-off coasting of a hybrid vehicle.
BUT: For goodness sake, don't turn the car all the way off—you'll lock up the steering! Also, while we frequently employ this method in our automatic-transmission, power-steering car, you should understand that it is really best suited to vehicles with manual steering and a manual transmission. You can lose power steering when the engine is off, making it very tough (but not impossible) to turn the wheel, and the jumping between drive and neutral and back while the car is in motion may damage automatic transmissions. 
 On a hill, gravity will take you. On a flat or uphill surface approaching a stop, the friction will gradually slow you down. When it's time to hit the accelerator again, first turn the engine back on, then pop the car in drive and go. Obviously, traffic conditions must help you determine if engine-off coasting is appropriate, but in general, according to an forum, the hierarchy of slowing/braking techniques from best to worst is:
     1) coasting in neutral, engine off (i.e., roll to a stop);
     2) coasting in neutral, engine idling;
     3) regenerative coasting (hybrid vehicles)
     4) regenerative braking (hybrid vehicles)
     5) coasting in "deceleration fuel cut-off" mode (in gear, above a certain engine RPM)
     6) conventional friction braking (non-hybrid or hybrid)

There are quite a number of other hypermiling tactics that you can find with an online search. Determine what's compatible with your vehicle and your route (e.g., city-driving methods vs. highway driving methods) and try it.

Make it game! Track your fuel efficiency—either by watching your car's MPG readout, or by the old-fashioned way of writing down your odometer's reading and the number of gallons you put in every time you fill up and then doing the math—and see if, with every trip, you can't get your miles per gallon higher and higher and higher...

Shared at the Preparedness Fair 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Best of Homemade Holidays

You know we’re big on DIY. Because often, doing it yourself saves you money. It makes use of the scraps and surplus—recycling, upcycling, reusing, repurposing. And, it’s personal. And that personal touch makes things extra special—whether it’s the perfect little storage unit for specialty teas, a piece of art your house guests can admire while you fiddle with the TV reception, or a thoughtful gift that brings a little bit of your world into someone else’s, it’s something that is uniquely yours.

Like, I’m making a toy for my baby nephew (no spoilers!). Is it something I could have bought? Yes. And would he have loved the store-bought version? Absolutely. But this homemade toy will be extra special (to his parents at least, until he’s old enough to understand), because someone custom-made it just for him. I’m also planning to make something I saw on Martha Stewart’s website. Just a cute and practical stocking stuffer for the women in my life, an inexpensive but thoughtful way to add value to the gifts I’m already giving them.

Before we go any further, let me concede that plenty of homemade items turn out to be useless, pointless, tacky and, when given as a gift, rightfully unappreciated. You know, the hand-print ashtrays, the tea cozies, the patchwork sweater vests… I’m not endorsing that kind of DIY here. If, upon finishing any of my current projects, I realize they’re actually not so great, I’m running out to the store. And it might be Christmas Eve.

But we have indeed given and received many well-thought-out and thus treasured homemade gifts. It’s all about knowing your audience and producing quality goods. Perhaps this “Best Of” list will inspire you. These are a few of my favorites among the gifts that we have made and those that someone made for us. (It should come as no surprise that a lot of them are food.)

Apple butter
Other fruit preserves
Spice blends
Cake balls
Cream caramel
Oreo cookie bark
Cranberry white chocolate biscotti
Bread of the month
Family recipes
Christmas tree ornaments
Cutting board
Recorded family memories
Customized picture frame w/ photo
And this is going way back, a Barbie house.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Easy Green Christmas

This is not even close to an original idea. It’s not even a one-dimensional idea—the phrase “green Christmas” on its own just means it’s not a white Christmas, i.e. an absence of snowfall leaves a wintry backdrop of the green (and the brown) of the earth. The 1950s comedy single “GreenChristmas” by Stan Freburg is about making money off of the holiday. The song by the Bare Naked Ladies has to do with envy.

And then there’s our bailiwick, the environmentally friendly shade. Oodles of print and online articles exist with titles like “How to Have a Green Christmas” and “Tips for an Eco-Friendly Holiday.” So, among the plethora of green holiday tips out there, what could this one little blog bring to the table?

I’ll tell you.

I’ve sifted through those oodles of articles, filtering out the pointless, the “well duh,” and the positively unattainable for the average person, to give you my favorite easy yet impactful choices for this holiday season.

If you’re buying new strings of lights, spring for the LEDs. At the very least, put your decorative lights on timers so you can’t forget to shut them off at night. Oh, and maybe go smaller this year. No reason to duplicate the Griswalds’light display, and do you really need four inflatable santas on your lawn?

Streamline your shopping errands. This sounds like an idea that should have been on the “well duh” list, but I know too many people who do too much driving back and forth and home and out and round and round again and—whoops! we ran out of gas on our fifth trip back to Walmart. Yeah. So, plan the most direct, no-backtracking, round-trip route. Just do some research online first and organize your shopping list by store, for Pete’s sake!

Embrace regifting. Seriously. When it’s appropriate. But don’t force it. And be considerate.

Shop local and give your friends and family a taste of your hometown. Some personal examples? Local microbrews and organic dog treats from a local small business.

Give battery-free gifts. It’s a win-win-win.

Rethink wrapping paper. Experts say we Americans are throwing out an extra million tons of garbage weekly between Thanksgiving and New Year’s day, and you know the cause. “…The ribbons! The wrappings! The tags! And the tinsel! The trimmings! The trappings!” (Dr. Seuss’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas) But trying to reuse wrapping paper is ridiculous. It wrinkles and tears and just doesn’t look good the second time around because it’s so flimsy (well, the cheap stuff we have is too flimsy; I don’t know about yours). And you can’t recycle a lot of it for the same reason: too low quality to make it through the process. But, gift bags can survive many reuses, and the tissue paper to fill them is supposed to be all crumpled up anyway!

Another wrapping idea: Swaddle your gifts in cloth. You can reuse something old (say, a colorful fabric remnant or Christmas sweater) or you can make it part of the gift (a handmade scarf or a new kitchen towel—great for wrapping food gifts). Or, there’s the old standby, the Sunday comics—read, reuse, then recycle!

Got a real pine tree in your living room? Recycle it. Your community might use old Christmas trees for mulch, for erosion prevention, for wildlife habitat restoration… lots of things! Earth 911 has some tips and a link to find your local “treecycling” resources.

Lastly, the Sierra Club has a somewhat fun holiday survival guide with DIY gifts, fresh recipes and even facts to back you up when the dinner table conversation turns to “you greenies,” whether you’re educating your “skeptical of green stuff” brother or just “preaching to the choir” to your progressive nephew.

(Link back to Frugally Sustainable's Blog Hop!)