Wages and benefits are the largest single operating cost for most carriers. Just below labor costs on the expense sheet, however, you’ll find fuel. Diesel costs represented 22% of the average carrier’s operational budget in 2021, the latest year for which the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) has released data. That’s a larger share of the budget than lease/purchase payments and insurance premiums combined.
Fuel prices are notoriously fickle. The ATRI reports an average per-mile fuel cost of about 31 cents in 2020. By 2021, carriers were spending almost 42 cents per mile, a year-over-year leap of more than 10 cents. There’s not much you can do about fluctuations like that.
But regardless of the price at the pump, you can take steps to save money on diesel—and there’s more than one way to get the job done. Fuel savings for truckers fall into two categories: Getting the lowest price and using fuel more efficiently. By pursuing both of these strategies at once, you can pay less for fuel while also getting more miles of travel out of every gallon you buy.
Here are some tips for fuel savings, both by spending less and getting more out of what you buy.
Save Money On Fuel By Boosting Fuel Efficiency.
There are two basic ways to improve fuel efficiency: Set up vehicles to use fuel more efficiently and operate vehicles in ways that use less diesel.
Here are a few ways for truck owners to outfit vehicles for fuel efficiency:
- Choose newer vehicles with automatic transmissions. Stickshifts may have a passionate fan base, but they can’t compete on fuel economy: A 2015 study found fuel efficiency benefits of up to 8% for some types of automatic transmissions in heavy-duty trucks; those benefits are likely even more pronounced today.
- Close the gap between the power unit and the trailer. As air flows into the space between the back of a rig and the front of the trailer, it creates serious drag. Engines have to work harder to overcome that force, which means they use more fuel. Trailer gap devices like nose cones reduce this air gap, which limits drag, which reduces fuel consumption.
- Install auxiliary power units and/or bunk heaters. Over-the-road drivers need heating or air conditioning even when they’re off-duty. Without an auxiliary power unit, that means keeping the engine idling—and consuming fuel the whole time. Auxiliary power units (APUs) and bunk heaters reduce tractor idling by powering cab environmental controls themselves.
- Avoid aftermarket devices that block airflow. Radiator covers and grille guards may protect your vehicle from bugs and winter weather, but they also make your engine work harder to maintain airflow—and, for an engine, harder work equals more fuel consumption. Only use these devices as needed.
Even with a modern truck designed for fuel efficiency, driver behavior can greatly reduce (or improve) fuel efficiency. Here are some driving tips that add up to fuel savings for truckers:
- Drive the speed limit, or just a bit below. Generally speaking, faster travel burns more fuel. A difference of just a few miles per hour can have a measurable effect on fuel efficiency. Try to keep your speed to two or three miles per hour below the speed limit.
- Use cruise control whenever you can. Cruise control maintains a steady rate of speed, which burns less fuel over time. Use it.
- Don’t drive aggressively. Quick acceleration takes a lot of power, which burns a lot of fuel. Accelerate slowly and steadily to limit fuel consumption—and improve safety for yourself and everyone else on the road.
- Keep tires at optimal pressure. Even if your tires are just slightly below their specified pressure, you’ll burn more fuel to keep them turning. Check tire pressure with every pre-trip inspection, and keep that pressure right where the manufacturer recommends at all times.
- Minimize idling. Idling burns fuel without getting you an inch closer to your destination. It’s pure waste. In addition to using electric APUs, try to avoid traffic and other high-idle driving situations.
- Remove unnecessary weight. Heavier loads draw more fuel. Of course, payloads weigh what they must—but don’t add to the demand with heavy accessories or personal items.
Efficient driving practices make a huge difference. The most fuel-efficient drivers improved fuel economy by 35% compared to the least efficient, reports ATRI. Even if you’re getting value out of every drop of fuel, you still have to pay for it—but you might not have to pay as much as you think.
Paying Less For Diesel Fuel: Price-control Strategies
Once you’re confident that you’re getting every ounce of power out of your fuel, the challenge becomes paying less in the first place. Here’s how to get the best price possible:
1. Use a fuel card to get discounted diesel.
The most effective strategy for cutting fuel costs is also the simplest: get a fuel card. These payment solutions are sometimes called fleet cards since some allow you to pay for other trucking expenses. For now, however, we’ll focus on a major benefit of such a card: fuel savings.
Fuel companies and truck stops partner with fuel card providers to trade fuel savings for reliable business. Discount rates vary widely, and often follow arcane rules based on where you fill up, how much fuel you buy, and other factors.
When choosing a fuel card, also be sure to look closely at the paperwork. Lots of providers stack fees and have complex payment structures.
Instead of dealing with surprise costs or a limited network of retailers, choose the Bobtail Zero Mastercard®! Our fleet card charges zero fees and can be used anywhere Mastercard is accepted.
2. Plan trips to limit deadhead miles.
Traveling without a payload—deadheading—doesn’t reduce fuel efficiency, exactly. In fact, you’ll burn less fuel without the weight of a full trailer. But deadhead miles also don’t make any money. From a business perspective, fuel spent on deadheading is strictly a loss.
Sometimes deadhead miles can’t be avoided. If you can plan routes to reduce them, however, you’ll convert more of your fuel into revenue. Pick up short hauls between big jobs, or choose loads that keep your trailer full from one stop to the next. Otherwise, you’re spending without making money.
3. Compare real-cost prices to determine where to buy fuel.
Oddly enough, the price tag listed on the diesel pump doesn’t reflect the true cost to your business. Diesel pricing is confusing because of the way states collect fuel taxes. Fuel taxes don’t just cover the fuel purchase itself, like a sales tax, you see. They’re actually taxes on fuel usage.
That’s a weird but important distinction. It means you must pay each state for the fuel you burn there, based on mileage traveled within state lines. That’d be a real nightmare if you had to figure it all out yourself. Luckily, the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) is there to help.
Interstate carriers file IFTA taxes every quarter, reporting two key data points:
- Total gallons of gas purchased in each state
- Mileage traveled in each state
When you buy fuel in one state, you pay that state’s tax rate. But if you burn that fuel in a neighboring state, you actually owe that state’s tax, too. Your IFTA filing helps you figure out what you overpaid or underpaid, and IFTA itself makes sure the money gets to the state that’s owed.
So what does that all mean for lowering your fuel costs? Essentially, it means you can’t compare prices based on pump rates. Deduct state tax rates (and fuel card discounts) to find the true price of diesel. Because the tax cost is based on where you drive, not where you buy fuel, think of tax as a separate line item altogether.
For example, here’s a real-cost comparison that starts with the pump price of diesel, then subtracts state tax rates and fleet card discounts to show the true cost, regardless of where you burn the fuel:
|State||Price At The Pump||State Tax Rate||Fleet Card Discount||Real Cost|
As you can see, it looks like you’ll pay more when you refuel in California. In fact, once you strip out California’s tax rate, it’s actually the cheapest diesel of all four states.
You’ll get the lowest price on fuel when you compare these real rates, not the price at the pump. But, of course, state tax rates change. Check the IFTA tax rate matrix for the most up-to-date tax figures.
Still confused about interstate fuel taxes? Learn more in Bobtail’s introduction to the topic, Everything You Need To Know About IFTA.
Maintaining Cash Flow For Fuel Purchases
If you follow all these tips, you’ll get the cheapest fuel and use it as efficiently as possible. But even with a great price, you need lots of cash to fill your tank. That can be a challenge in an industry that takes weeks (or months) to pay invoices.
Factoring with Bobtail provides the solution. We pay you for your invoices today, then collect from your customers when the bill comes due. That helps you maintain steady cash flow while simplifying back-office tasks like billing and collections.
Bobtail offers the simplest way to factor trucking invoices, with no contracts, zero fees, and a user-friendly mobile app. Just upload your invoices and load details and get paid the same day (or the next day, if you submit your invoice after 11 a.m. Eastern).
As you can see, fuel savings for truckers can get a bit complicated. Maintaining steady cash flow shouldn’t be—and with low-cost factoring with Bobtail, it’s simple.
Looking for a quicker way to get paid in the trucking industry? Start factoring invoices with Bobtail today.
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