Coffee heat rising

The Empty Garage

{sigh} It’s strangely disorienting to walk into the garage to toss the trash in the recycling bin and find the darned place empty. Vacant. Lonely.

The Dog Chariot is down at Chuck’s Auto Service, there to have its oil leak diagnosed.

Weird, isn’t it, how one develops an affection for inanimate objects? (Or does one? Maybe I’m crazy as a loon!)

My favorite car was the beautiful little Camry I gave to my son at the time I bought the Dog Chariot. I loved that car: gave it a name, “Katydid,” because its license plate (the first I’d ever bought on my own, as an independent person!) started with the letters KTD. But in due course I had to have a vehicle that was large enough that Anna the German Shepherd couldn’t stand on back seat, plant her muzzle next to my ear, and bark (nonstop!) in the decibel range of a nuclear blast.

LOL! Buying a minivan so Anna couldn’t deafen me had a lot to do with the 40 grand I spent on that animal during her lifetime. Hence the sobriquet the thousand-dollar-a-day dog.

At the outset, I wasn’t nuts about the Sienna, an ungainly, lumbering, gas-guzzling bison. Looked like and drove like a suburban mom’s car-pooling bus. Oh well.

But over time, it grew on me. It has a lot of room: room to haul junk around, room to haul not one but two ninety-pound dogs, room to sleep in when you’re car-camping and a scary lightning storm blows up. With its Camry chassis, it’s one helluva lot more comfortable to ride in than a Suburban or a Land Cruiser or a Chevy van (all of which I’ve driven endlessly). And it puts plenty of steel between me and my fellow homicidal drivers.

It is, in short, like a good man: maybe not so rakishly handsome, but kindly, capacious of heart, and reliable.

Last time the cost of gas went through the stratosphere, I took out three of the four back bucket seats, by way of relieving the vehicle of some weight. The effect was to create a cargo bay the size of a limestone cave. Never put them back. It seems to have worked. Despite the car’s decrepitude, this morning I calculated that it made almost 21 mpg over the past two weeks’ worth of exclusively in-town driving. Not bad, for a tank with an EPA rating of 18 mpg.

So, it makes me feel sad not to have the Dog Chariot sitting in its familiar place, right next to the water heater in the garage. (Yeah. I know.) (There’s a fire door between the garage and the house. Yes.) And I guess that’s why I don’t feel in any great hurry to run out and buy a new car, even though it’s past time to get one and even though my financial dude says I can afford it.

Nothing lasts forever, of course. Not even you and me. But I’m going to miss that car when it’s gone.

What Price Gasoline?

Like everyone else in town, I’ve been putting off buying gas until the last possible minute. Wednesday evening, the Dog Chariot had what looked like a quarter of a tank left. Figured I could get to my Scottsdale breakfast meeting and back to the in-town Costco (cheapest known source of fuel in the city), and so at 6:30 headed east. Interminably east.

By the time I got to lovely mid-town Scottsdale, the gas gauge registered 1/8 of a tank. But the road was slightly inclined, and sometimes (I hoped) the unlevel miniscus in the tank would warp the reading. As I turned onto Scottsdale Road, I noticed a Sinclair station in the AJ’s shopping center at Lincoln and Scottsdale.

Once sprung from the breakfast meeting, I stopped in to pick up a gallon (worth 18 miles), which I knew would carry me into town, where I could fill up at the ghetto Costco.

Pulled up to the pump behind some rich guy who wasn’t even paying attention to how much gas was blasting into his tank, viewed the amazing prices (in Scottsdale gas station owners are not allowed to flaunt their prices with gigantamous roadside signs), backed out, and drove away.

I should’ve known. Sinclair????? There are no Sinclair stations in Arizona. This is some sort of artifact. And what do artifacts cost?

$4.50 a gallon, that’s what artifacts cost.

{gulp!} Could I be reading that right? Surely not. But I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

Drove west, drove west, drove west, drove…until the red idiot light came on, along about 36th street. Spotted a Chevron station at 16th street. Darted in and pumped 1.5 gallons of $3.79 gas. This would suffice to reach the pore folks’ neighborhood.

Drove south drove south drove south drove west some more.

At last I reach familiar territory and whip into the Costco gas station off 19th Avenue and Bethany Home, the lot nearly empty because the store isn’t open at this hour. Usually the line is halfway out to the road.

Hot dang: $3.67!

So it was that, compared to what I would’ve paid if I’d lived in lovely uptown Scottsdale, I saved $12.03 on 14.5 gallons of red-blooded Arabian gasoline.

I reflect: If I had a car that made 35 mpg, such as the Hyundai Sonata, I’d only have to fill up once a month. That would save me $58.72 a month.

Maybe it’s time to trade in the Dog Chariot. Whiz-Bang Financial Manager, having calculated my Vanguard Funds’ cost basis according to my father’s date of death, says I should have to pay zero taxes on the short-term corporate bond fund that was my car-purchase savings while I had a job. He thinks it’s stupid to pay $350 for a new timing belt on an 11-year-old junker (he predicts + + + operating costs). Accountant thinks it’s a toss-up: buy, don’t buy, do what you want…probably doesn’t make much long-term difference.

Hmmm… $58.72 a month = $704.64 a year saved on gasoline.

Cost of new Sonata less trade-in on the junk = around $20,000; 4% of twenty grand (allowable drawdown from invested retirement savings) = $800. Not exactly a toss-up, unless you factor in the $350 for the timing belt plus God only knows how much for other repairs.

Cost of 2011 second-hand Sonata through the credit union’s car-buying service, 22,000 miles: $19,900 – $3,000 = $16,990; 4% of $16,990 = $680. Very probably a positive. It’s not the color I want. It doesn’t have the interior trim I covet. But…there it is.

Still thinking…


Sinclair Oil advertisement, Menard, Texas.Billy Hathorn. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Hyundai Sonata. Shamelessly ripped off the Arizona State Credit Union‘s car-buying site. Click on this and a whole bouquet of pop-unders will populate your computer monitor.

Are You Cutting Gas Use? CAN You?

Crude oil is selling at over $106 a barrel this morning. Yesterday one of my students reported that gasoline has reached $4.50 a gallon in L.A.; at least one station was charging $4.75.

Paradoxically, the Times observes that people don’t seem to be cutting back on driving this time around. That writer speculates it’s because the nation is better prepared for surging gas prices, thanks to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Right. We all ran out and bought Priuses the minute the stock market crashed and we lost our jobs.

Au contraire, O Respected Journalistic Establishment… I suggest something quite different is at work: most people have already cut back driving and gasoline use as much as they can, and so there’s not much room for more savings. Most of us haven’t done it by buying new vehicles, because it’s not cost-effective to do so: add the increase in insurance premiums and registration taxes to the breathtaking cost of a car or truck, and it would take years for the junk to pay for itself in gas savings—even at five bucks a gallon.

Americans don’t change their driving habits much in response to fluctuations in gas prices— and IMHO, we don’t because we can’t. We have to get from point A to point B, and because most cities in this country have no useful public transportation, we’re forced to drive. Few of us are fond of driving, and we grow less fond as gas prices bite deeper into our wallets. The truth is, we’re already not driving any more than absolutely necessary.

Don’t know about you, but that’s certainly true in my precincts. When the economy crashed and I lost my job, one of the first things I did was to limit the number of days a week I’ll drive. And on those days, I carefully plan my route to hit the few stores I have to shop in: Costco, a grocery store, and Home Depot are on my way home from the campus, so I do all my shopping on the days when I have to teach.

In a normal semester, I teach two days a week: Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday. So the bulk of my driving is done on those two days.

I have to attend choir rehearsal Wednesday nights, but the drive to the church is short and doesn’t consume much gas. Same drive has to be made Sunday morning; my son lives just a few blocks south of the church, so I often visit him after the Sunday songfest.

In fact, I’m now beginning to think I can bicycle down to the church on Sunday mornings, if I can find a place to lock up the bike. Won’t do it at night…but there is a bike path of sorts that would make it pretty easy to get down there in the daylight. That would limit routine driving to two days a week.

And I’ve reverted to the hypermiling techniques we learned way back in 2008, which can squeeze more than 25 mpg out of my 18-mpg clunker. Today is the 13th: only seven more days until the new budget cycle starts. On its second fill-up of the month, my car still has more than half a tank of gas left. That means I’ve got a fair shot at making it all the way through to the 20th without having to refill.

It’s now costing me $100 a month to run my car. That’s as much as I can afford to budget and still have enough to eat. With twice-monthly visits to the filling station, I have to cut off the pump at $50, whether it fills the tank or not. Lately, this has meant that in fact, I’m not buying enough to fill the tank. But that was sometimes true before the current run-up in oil prices.

Driving less? No, I’m not driving less…because I’ve already cut my driving back as far as possible!

What about you? Are you driving less? If not, why not?

Image: Oil well in Lubbock, Texas. Flcelloguy. GNU Free Documentation License.

Gasoline Costs Putting a Crimp on Life

{sigh} I had to turn down an invite to meet SDXB and NG in the West Valley on Friday. They want to go to some goofy event at the Ben Avery Range where enthusiasts of antique guns get dressed up in Wild West clothes. I’m sure it’ll be fun, but I just can’t afford the gasoline to drive out there.

Gas is now over $3.25 a gallon here. I paid $3.29 for an emergency purchase, shelling out $15 to get to where I needed to go before I could afford to fill up the tank. When this month’s budget cycle restarted, on Monday, Costco was charging just $3.11 at the outlet where I filled up; that racked up $40.

I’ve budgeted $100 a month for gasoline, but that would normally cover only trips to and from the college and the four trips to Scottsdale I have to make each month. But this week I’ve had an extraordinary number of schleps to the East Valley: Earlier this week to Scottsdale Fashion Square to pick up a little ottoman I’d ordered months ago from Crate & Barrel; then today to the Mayo at 140th Street and Shea, an unholy long drive that will be stretched because I have to come back by way of McDowell Road, many many miles south of Shea Boulevard; then out to Scottsdale again tomorrow to give a dog & pony show to my business group, then race to the client’s to pick up some work, then fly back up to the campus at 32nd Street and Union Hills.

Ugh. Most of today and tomorrow will be spent driving, and I’m guessing all those junkets will burn half to three-quarters of a tank of gas.

This morning’s journey to the Mayo will take place during the darkest rush hour (driving into the sun, naturally), and so hypermiling will be pretty much out of the question. In a culture where normal people charge up to signals at 45 mph and then jam on the brakes at the red light, drifting toward a light with your foot off the gas freaking drives your fellow homicidal roadhogs screaming insane.

Some of our fellow citizens around here are literally homicidal, so one has to be careful.

You’ll recall “hypermiling” from the 2008 run-up in gas prices, right? The idea is to get around using as little gas as possible by applying an array of conservation techniques to your car and driving habits:

Try to avoid applying the brakes any more than absolutely necessary. Watch the traffic flow ahead and, when red lights start to glow, coast to decelerate. Try to reach traffic stopped at the light as it’s beginning to move, so you don’t have to start up from a dead stop.

Accelerate from a stop slowly. It’s a car, not a jackrabbit.

When starting from a dead stop, allow the car to idle forward for a second before stepping on the gas.

Use the cruise control to maintain speed on the freeway and on steadily moving surface streets, and use it to accelerate and decelerate. Use the “coast” and “acc” functions to slow and speed gently. Try to keep your foot off the gas pedal as much as possible. But n.b.: don’t use cruise control on an uphill grade.

When approaching a grade, speed up a little (stay sane about this) to build momentum; then allow the car to slow as it climbs. Use the downhill grade to get back up to your cruising speed before resuming the cruise control.

Never drive faster than 60 mph on an urban freeway. Try to keep your speed at around 55 mph. Stay in the slow lane and take it easy.

If it looks like you will have to stand for more than 30 seconds (for example, at a long stoplight, in a gas station line, at a railroad crossing), turn off the engine.

Using these techniques, I’ve managed to extract about 25 mpg from my aged Toyota Sienna. That’s not bad, since it normally makes about 16 mpg in the city, and maybe 20 on the open road. But it’s still expensive to drive to Hell and back every day.

The real trick to hypermiling? Stay out of your car!


Gas prices edging upward

Sunday afternoon I dropped by the Costco near M’hijito’s house. The lines at the gas pumps backed up almost to the entrance—a half-dozen waiting customers at every single pump. Sat around for 15 minutes or so (why do I always pick the guy with a megamonster truck who has to refill two extra-large tanks or the old lady who, after pumping gas and paying, has to replace every single item in her capacious purse with engineering precision before she can drive away?), I couldn’t get the damn pump to work, so left without gas.

This didn’t bother me much, because there’s a Costco on the way home from the community college. I figured to fill up on the way home yesterday.

Apparently the reason for the feeding frenzy at the downtown store was the $2.53/gallon price. At the 101 and Cave Creek, Costco was selling gas for $2.59…and that was a dime a gallon below the going price at surrounding gas stations.

Welp. In the new $800/month budget regime, gas purchases are limited to $60 a month, and we’ve seen that can be tight. So instead of filling up, I cut off the pump flow at $30.

Thirty bucks bought exactly one-half tank of gas. The gauge was at 1/4 tank when I pulled up to the pumps. Thirty dollars worth of gasoline filled it to the 3/4 mark.

So, I guess it’s back to hypermiling for moi.

I’m going to try to keep the gasoline expenditures to no more than sixty bucks, which at current prices is one, count it, (1) tankful of gas. This month it ought to be doable, since last week I spent almost all of my Costco budget in restocking my hoard and so I won’t be making any more trips to that place for the next three or four weeks. Still, teaching at Paradise Valley requires three 24-mile round trips a week—almost 75 miles!—and there are no affordable grocery stores on the direct route. To get to a Safeway or a Food City, I have to go a mile out of the way, adding two miles to the homeward trip.

Contemplated whether I could bicycle to Safeway. That would be a six-mile round trip, most of it across hectic main drags populated by homicidal drivers. And I couldn’t carry any more than I could stuff in a backpack. I certainly could walk or bicycle to the Albertson’s or Sprouts, but I don’t feel safe in those stores’ parking lots when I have a layer of steel between me and the aggressive panhandlers and the young thugs with their pants down around their crotches, their gang colors shining loud and clear. The nearest Food City is populated by families, but it also requires four miles of navigating dangerous streets through questionable neighborhoods.

{sigh} Conserving gas ain’t easy when the nearest subsistence shopping isn’t safe for old ladies.

Cost-effective ride?

lightrailexteriorlgOur brand-new light rail system is already raising its price per ride. Hasn’t been running two months, and the price is going up a buck, from $1.25 (one way!) to $2.25. I’m sure that won’t be the first increase.

The other evening one of my RAs, who doesn’t own a car, rode the train up to M’hijito’s house to meet me so I could chauffeur him to an Arizona Book Publishing Association shindig. He said it took an hour to get from lovely downtown Tempe to the corner of Seventh Avenue and Camelback. That’s a 20-minute drive in your car.

At the current rate, would it be cost-effective for me to ride the train, once the city has torn down an entire row of homes and trashed the property values in my neighborhood so they can run the train tracks up the road that demarcates this neighborhood from the bland slums just to the west? Assuming the rate stays the same, at $5 per round trip?

Let us calculate:

My house is 18 miles from the campus. Coincidentally, my car gets about 18 miles a gallon if I’m not hypermiling. (If I drive very carefully, I can push it up to around 25 mpg, but let’s assume I’m keeping up with traffic and not driving my fellow homicidal drivers crazier than they already are.)

Assume gas prices stay at $1.70 a gallon. Assume the train ride stays at $2.25 one-way, $5.00 round trip. Because I have a disabled parking sticker, I can park in any metered space in Tempe for free, so I do not pay GDU’s $780/year parking fee. Let’s also assume I go out to campus 5 days a week and I take 3 weeks of vacation time.

Thus: The cost of gas for a round trip is $3.40 a day. I commute 5 days a week for 49 weeks, or 245 days a year.

$3.40 x 245 = $833 a year: Cost of driving for a person with a disabled sticker.
$833 + $780 = $1,613 a year: Cost of driving for a person who has not discovered you can park for free with a disabled sticker, or who buys a parking space within a mile of the office

Okay. If the train costs $5.00 per round trip:

$5 x 245 = $1,225 a year: Cost of riding the train

Not too bad: only $392 a year more than I’m presently paying. That doesn’t take into account the wear and tear on my car. However, my car, being a Toyota, does not cost anywhere near $392 a year for upkeep and repairs.

It also doesn’t take into account the two hours you would spend in transit: 80 minutes more time wasted in transit than you would kill sitting in an automobile each day. That’s 19,600 minutes a year, 326.67 more hours of your life wasted in a train than in a car!

Does anyone seriously think people are going to ride this train for real commutes from the outer reaches of the Valley? If I bought a house in one of the now-bankrupt new suburbs out by the White Tanks or halfway to Prescott, the number of miles I would have to commute would triple. So would the time spent in transit.

In the unlikely event that the train fare stays constant, clearly the longer your commute the more you would save on gas. However, the end of the line will be about six blocks from my house. If you lived out at the White Tanks or up in Anthem, you’d have to drive all the way into the middle of town, anyway. By the time you get this far, you only have another 20 minutes to drive. Your air-conditioning has made the car nice and cool, and the Park-&-Ride will sit smack in the middle of a high-crime area where your car is likely to be broken into or stolen.

What would you do: park your car in a dangerous lot in 115-degree heat and add another hour to your commute, or keep on truckin’?