8 Car Hacks for a Cheaper, Eco-Friendlier and More Patriotic Ride

[Editor's note: A clarification has been added in bracketed text below.]


Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation accounts for about 27 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Only the electricity sector contributes more each year. And while planes, trains, ships and freight trucks contribute a large portion of this total, the largest sources of transport-related emissions come from passenger cars and light-duty trucks like SUVs and minivans. A study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that driving a car actually produces more global warming pollution than traveling the same distance in an airplane.

Every gallon of gas burned by your car produces over 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. [According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, "Collectively, cars and trucks account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. About 5 pounds comes from the extraction, production, and delivery of the fuel, while the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions — more than 19 pounds per gallon — comes right out of a car’s tailpipe."] For a single passenger vehicle that averages around 12,000 miles per year, that amounts to more than 8,300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Mitigating the effect of all that CO2 is not an easy feat: It takes up to 120 trees to absorb the carbon emissions that one car emits over an average lifespan of 12-13 years.

But there is some good news. In addition to the steady increase in the adoption of electric vehicles, the EPA's vehicle greenhouse gas rules will save consumers $1.7 trillion at the pump by 2025 and eliminate six billion metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution.

Plus, there are some easy things that you can do with your car or light truck to save even more money while reducing its impact on the environment. It's all about increasing your vehicle's fuel efficiency: Improved gas mileage means reduced gas consumption, and that means fewer emissions — and more money in your wallet.

RELATED: Five Easy Life Hacks to Help the Environment — And Your Own Health

And there's another thing to consider: The impact your gas guzzling has on the nation's economy. "Increasing fuel efficiency also reduces our dependence on foreign oil and protects the U.S. economy," notes the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services. "About 45 percent of the petroleum used in the United States is imported. Petroleum imports cost the U.S. $460 billion in 2011 — money that could be used to fuel our own economy."

The best bet is to walk, ride a bike or take public transportation. But if you've got to get behind the wheel, here are eight car hacks for a cheaper, eco-friendlier — and more patriotic — ride.

1. Have your car regularly serviced.

Don't wait for your car's "service engine" light to start nagging you. "All you need is for your catalytic convertor to pack in, and your emissions will no longer be balanced and your car could be coughing up horrific volumes of carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbon and oxides of nitrogen," warns Evogreen, a UK-based sustainable energy consultancy. The Energy Department estimates that fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve your mileage by as much as 40 percent.

2. Drive like a champ

One of the most common ways drivers waste gas is by driving aggressively. Speeding, rapid accelerations and frequent braking all create a recipe for poor gas mileage. Aggressive driving can lower gas mileage by 33 percent on the highway and by 5 percent in the city. Also, observing the speed limit is key to getting the most bang for your buck and reducing your need for more gas. "While each vehicle reaches its optimal fuel economy at a different speed (or range of speeds), gas mileage usually decreases rapidly at speeds above 50 mph," according to the Department of Energy. "You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 50 mph is like paying an additional $0.19 per gallon for gas." Using cruise control to maintain a constant speed on the highway also saves gas.

3. Haul cargo at the rear, not on the roof

Hauling cargo on the roof of your vehicle increases aerodynamic drag (i.e., wind resistance), which lowers fuel economy. A large rooftop cargo box can reduce fuel economy by around 2-8 percent in city driving, 6-17 percent on the highway and 10-25 percent at Interstate speeds (65 mph to 75 mph). Fuel economy reduction is much less for rear-mount cargo boxes: 1-2 percent in city driving and 1-5 percent on the highway.

RELATED: Can You Guess Which Is the Most Energy Efficient City in America?

4. Remove excess weight

You don't really need all that stuff in the trunk with you at all times, do you? An additional 100 pounds of cargo can reduce your MPG by 1 percent. It may not seem like a lot, but that equates to a gas savings of 3 cents/gallon. And that adds up quickly.

5. Avoid idling

Idling not only gets zero miles per gallon, keeping your car on and stationary can use a quarter to a half gallon of fuel per hour, depending on engine size and air conditioner use. When you're parked, turn off your engine: It only takes about 10 seconds worth of fuel to restart it. Turning your engine off instead of idling can save up to 3 cents/gallon. Also, avoid drive-up windows; park your car and go inside.

6. Keep tires properly inflated

Keeping your car's tires inflated to the correct pressure can improve your gas mileage by up to 3.3 percent, while under-inflated tires can lower your gas mileage by 0.3 percent for every 1 psi drop in pressure of all four tires. An added bonus of properly inflated tires is that they are safer and last longer. Checking the pressure of all four tires every two weeks is a good idea.

7. Use the right grade of motor oil

Your gas mileage can be improved by 1–2 percent by using the manufacturer's recommended grade of motor oil. For example, using 10W-30 motor oil in an engine designed to use 5W-30 can lower your gas mileage by 1–2 percent. Using 5W-30 in an engine designed for 5W-20 can lower your gas mileage by 1–1.5 percent. When shopping for motor oil, look out for the ones that say "Energy Conserving" on the American Petroleum Institute (API) performance symbol to be sure it has additives that reduce friction.

8. Plan and combine trips

Combining errands into one trip not only saves money and reduces gas consumption, it saves you time and hassle. "Several short trips taken from a cold start can use twice as much fuel as a longer multipurpose trip covering the same distance when the engine is warm," according to the Energy Department. In addition, planning your trips properly — by mapping out the shortest route, avoiding rush hour and checking traffic news — helps to cut down on travel distances and times. Also, think about sharing rides to the supermarket with a friend to keep a car off the road.

RELATED: 7 Ways to Turn Your Grocery List Into a Ballot for Positive Change

Do you have any suggestions for a cheaper, eco-friendlier and more patriotic ride? Share them in the comments! And drive safely.

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