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Getting fuel costs under control

May 1, 2007
by Larry Braun
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Transportation expert Larry Braun offers some solutions to offset rising fuel costs and increase vehicle efficiency


Transportation is a vital asset in the marketing of senior living and care environments. Regardless of the lev-el of care across the continuum, residents and their families appreciate transportation programs that help to maintain links to the community and promote resident independence. Whether providing trips to doctors' appointments, shopping excursions, or social engagements, a facility's buses and vans can be an expensive amenity to provide. Gas prices are skyrocketing. Reining in these costs and increasing fuel efficiency without cutting back services are challenges for today's administrators and transportation directors. Take a hard look at your transportation process to stem your facility's fuel expenditures.

Meeting the Gas Gouge Head On

Negotiate.Fuel prices are no longer predictable or steady. They rise and fall many times throughout a typical week and, with the summer driving season upon us, high prices are predicted. The best route to lower prices is to go straight to the local filling station and sit down with the proprietor to negotiate a deal. For a commitment to buy all your gasoline at his or her establishment, the owner might be willing to knock a few cents per gallon off the pump price. If a facility has a few buses or vans, the savings may be even greater.

Explore alternate fuels.New options are on the horizon. A new trend is to make and market vehicles that run on E85—85% corn-based alcohol and 15% gasoline. It is substantially less expensive than plain gas. At this time, however, this is a long-range option. When purchasing a new vehicle, consider one that runs on E85 fuel. Although most stations currently do not offer the E85 option, it will become more plentiful as it gains acceptance. The savings will be in the price at the pump.

Shut off the engine when not in use.Engine idling is a major factor contributing to wasted fuel. Not only does it waste gas, this practice also release pollutants into the air unnecessarily. Look at your operation. When are your vehicles idling and why? Adopt and enforce policies to reduce idle time. Check to see if there are idling restrictions in your area. There are locations where idling is restricted and fines can be levied after five minutes.

Of course, there are situations in which an engine must idle. Many wheelchair lifts won't operate unless the engine is running, and weather conditions may require a 10-minute idle to heat or cool the cabin of the vehicle for rider comfort. But absolutely never leave a running vehicle unattended.

Use smart basic maintenance practices.Service schedules are recommended by manufacturers to prolong the life and efficiency of your vehicles. Start where the “rubber meets the road.” Check tire pressure and adjust to manufacturer guidelines. Make sure that wheels are aligned for best performance. Proper brake adjustments, regular tune-ups, and changing the air filter are all practices to get the best mileage from your bus or van.

Facility Transportation Now and in the Future

Purchase the vehicle that meets your needs.Unless efficient operation and money are no object, don't be like a man having a midlife crisis—he doesn't need the red convertible, he just wants it. Don't waste money on features and options that are not imperative to the safety and comfort of your passengers. Do you really need a 330 hp engine on a 30-foot bus? Is your gear train appropriate for the area in which the vehicle operates? For example, a bus that operates in Ohio does not need the climbing power that a bus operating in Colorado might require.

A small facility may be overbuying by investing in a bus or van. Cube-shaped minicars, such as Toyota's Scion xB, have arrived on the scene as a low-cost option to fulfill residents' transportation needs. Economical to run, this type of vehicle can be used as a four- or five-passenger runabout. It is easy and convenient for the elderly and people with disabilities to enter and exit.

Keep abreast of new technologies.The onboard video recorder is a safety and training tool. A camera is installed right on the windshield so drivers are aware that they are being monitored. A g-force meter in the camera will turn itself on under certain conditions and report the inefficient driver—the one who makes jackrabbit starts and abrupt stops. Drivers have a simple orientation on the technology, and the only time a driver would be talked to is when bad driving habits are documented.

In case of an accident, the camera automatically begins to record moments before and after impact. If the accident happened because another vehicle cut off the bus or van, the documentation will be in the facility driver's favor.

Train to conserve fuel.Do your facility drivers know the secrets to saving fuel? Although safe operation is the first and foremost goal of driver training, simple instruction on fuel-saving practices can help the bottom line. Some examples:

  • If your bus or van is equipped with an engine preheater, use it.

  • When appropriate, turn off the bus if it will not be in operation for a while.

  • Don't gun the engine. A slow and steady acceleration is more fuel efficient.

Although passenger safety and comfort are the first concerns of a well-run transportation program, conscientious planning, fostering community relationships, and good driver training can take the bite out of fuel costs and maximize both the vehicle's and the operator's efficiency.

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