Contractors share their strategies on saving money while fuel prices surge.



The high price of gas forced Steve Graves to put his company on a diet.

The 49-year-old president and co-owner of the Du-Mont Co., a commercial sheet metal contractor in Peoria, Ill., wants employees to watch how much weight they haul in the company's trucks and ask themselves if they need one at all.

"We're going to emphasize with all the men and all the projects - if you don't need a truck, don't use a truck," Graves said.

Homeowners heading to vacation destinations aren't the only ones trying to save on gas this summer. Many sheet metal and HVAC contractors find themselves also searching for ways to cut their fuel bills, which can amount to thousands of dollars a month.

Du-Mont, which Graves calls a "medium-size" contractor with 50 or so employees, typically spends about $5,000 a month on fuel for its fleet of 25 trucks, mostly gas-powered Ford F-250s. The powerful, fuel-hungry pickups are often a necessity, but they can also become a liability when gas prices hit record levels, as they have this year.

Rising costs

According to the Energy Information Administration, which compiles statistics for the U.S. Department of Energy, in late May, the nationwide average price for a gallon of regular gas was $2.12. But some areas, such as Southern California, were seeing prices closer to $2.50.

Diesel, which some contractors use to run their trucks and vans, is a little cheaper. The nationwide average for diesel fuel was $2.15. But on the West Coast, it was as high as $2.37.

According to the Energy Information Administration and other experts, gas prices are affected by supply and demand, as well as the season and events in oil-producing regions such as the Middle East. Unanticipated problems, such as refinery fires and broken pipelines, can also cause price spikes.

With everyone experiencing the pain of high fuel prices, some contractors say they find customers are more accepting of fuel surcharges and increases in delivery fees than they may have been in the past.

"No one ever says a word," Graves said. "They all read the pump prices."

But other contractors don't find customers so accepting. That's been the experience of 53-year-old Robert Wilkos of Peaden Air Conditioning in Panama City, Fla. The residential and commercial HVAC contractor said he tried adding surcharges when he worked in the Miami area, with poor results.

Fees and surcharges

"We are not fond of adding surcharges to our billing," Wilkos said, adding that customers tend to "zero in" on unusual items on their bills. "We prefer to bury any increases in our everyday rates."

Many customers, especially homeowners, don't understand the costs associated with being an HVAC company, he said, such as insurance premiums and equipment prices. Wilkos said he believes it's better to increase your overall service charges than try to explain several small increases on an itemized bill. Even then, he tries to limit them.

"We're going to absorb reasonable cost increases," he said.

With local competition sometimes making it hard to sustain even small price hikes, some contractors are re-examining what they use their trucks for - and if they need them at all.

At Du-Mont, the company has started retiring its oldest, least efficient vehicles. It used to make sense, Graves said, to keep such trucks to run errands. But with gas more than $2 a gallon, keeping a truck that only gets 10 miles per gallon can cost a company in the long term.

Company officials are also encouraging job supervisors to ask themselves if they need to take ladders and other equipment home at night or if they can just leave it at the jobsite, cutting weight and saving on fuel.

At Milwaukee's Illingworth Corp., company Vice President Mike Mamayek is taking similar actions. In addition to a $5 per trip fuel surcharge, the sheet metal, steam fitting and plumbing contractor is attempting to take better care of its 30-vehicle fleet.

"We try to make sure the tire pressure is correct" and tell employees to only carry as much stuff as required for a job, Mamayek said. "A lot of people have stuff in there they don't really need."

Du-Mont is also asking workers to commute in one of the company's sedans if practical - something Graves acknowledged isn't very popular, since the big trucks are a status symbol with many employees.

Still, company officials say if workers won't reassess their transportation needs, they will do it for them.

"They'll find themselves in a Ford Taurus eventually," Graves said.

(For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail devriesj@bnpmedia.com.)

Tips on maximizing your fleet's fuel economy

You may have little control over the price of gas, but there are things contractors can do to reduce the amount of fuel their fleet uses, according to Enterprise Rent-A-Car Co.'s Fleet Services Division.

On its Web site, www.enterprise.com, the company gives some tips on managing fuel costs, such as using fuel-card programs to track gas purchases by employees. Other tips can be used by all vehicle owners. Among them:

  • Drive slower. If a driver travels at 55 mph rather than 65 mph, he or she can reduce fuel consumption by up to 15 percent.

  • Check tire pressure regularly. Properly inflated and aligned tires make a vehicle use less gas. They also make it safer to drive.

  • Inspect the air filter. A dirty air filter lets pollutants into the truck's cabin as well as lowers gas mileage.

  • Know when to turn in a vehicle. Cars and trucks with high mileage may seem like a bargain, but for fleet owners, they can drag down profits. By properly "cycling" your vehicles, you can ensure you get the best trade-in or resale value and top performance from your fleet.

  • Stay "tuned" and get regular checkups. Regular engine tuneups and other maintenance makes vehicles safer to drive, as well as improving fuel economy.

  • Don't idle. Idling an engine often burns more fuel than restarting it, especially if it idles for more than a couple minutes.

  • Avoid sudden starts and stops. Gradual braking reduces wear and tear, while not "flooring it" from a stop saves considerable gas.