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Road sage? Hypermiler's tank is good to the last drop

Brad Messick drives with the air conditioning off to get the maximum fuel economy out of his Prius, saying, “You never get used to (the heat). You deal with it better after a couple of months.”

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times

Brad Messick drives with the air conditioning off to get the maximum fuel economy out of his Prius, saying, “You never get used to (the heat). You deal with it better after a couple of months.”

PALMETTO — Brad Messick gets nearly 60 miles to the gallon in his 2007 Toyota Prius.

Think about that for a second.

That's greater than the Environmental Protection Agency's estimated 46 mpg for the car — more than 600 miles on an 11.9-gallon tank. It's the equivalent of driving nonstop from St. Petersburg to Myrtle Beach, S.C., with a couple of miles to burn.

So how does he do it? Additives? Modifications? Rocket fuel?

Try hypermiling, Messick's answer to high fuel prices and global warming. And a new game for the stingiest of stingy.

Hypermiling can be done with any car, not just a hybrid. Drivers do it when they coast to red lights and stop signs, avoid jackrabbit stops and starts, stay at or below the speed limit, use cruise control a lot, avoid air conditioning and, most dangerously, draft semitrailer trucks at speeds of up to 70 mph.

Put simply, hypermiling means trying to beat the EPA mpg average at all costs.

"I think extremism in anything is bad," said Messick, 42, of Palmetto, "but this is moderation mixed with common sense."

• • •

Messick's mornings start in Palmetto, where he hops in his cherry red chariot and slowly makes his way to St. Petersburg, where he works for Remax.

Two years ago, Messick was a struggling Realtor in a tough housing market. The downturn pushed him to, of all things, cab driving. Now he makes a living off those who lose their homes. Messick spends most of a recent Tuesday afternoon driving around Pinellas County, taking photos of foreclosed homes for mortgage reports.

It wasn't until 2007 — two years removed from Hurricane Katrina — that Messick was in the market for a new car that would give him a leg up on exponential fuel prices. He'd heard about hypermiling and stretched mpg ratings from Web forums like priuschat.com and cleanmpg.com.

Less reliance on foreign oil, combined with cleaner air and some extra change in the wallet were an instant sell.

"We do a lot of complaining about it, but people still aren't cutting back," he said.

He drives across Interstate 75 from Moccasin Wallow Road, traveling at 55 mph in a posted 70 mph zone. Then he cruises up I-275, across the gleaming Sunshine Skyway and into the city at 50 mph.

The bars on his fuel consumption display seesaw with each climb and descent the road offers. Passing drivers don't seem to mind his slow style. No beeping, no forceful driving, no extended middle fingers.

"I'm not trying to cause a traffic jam," he said. "If I'm causing a pileup, I will speed up to 65."

His reasoning? Higher speeds mean more gas used, and stop-and-go driving decreases the amount even more.

For example: Car A and Car B are at a red light. Car A takes off when the light turns green, while Car B eases its way to a slower start. A few hundred yards down, the next traffic light has just turned yellow. Car A keeps the same acceleration rate while Car B lets off the gas and coasts to a stop. Car B has used less gas, stretching its fuel efficiency to the utmost.

When Messick reaches the city, he rolls down the windows and shuts off his air conditioning. "Ready to sweat?" he asks.

The center console reads 91 degrees. Air conditioning is another no-no for a hypermiler, at least in the city. Needless to say, Messick admits he's a "two-shower-a-day guy."

It might make sense for Messick to drive like this. He has put more than 35,000 miles on his car in a little over a year, filling up his tank about every five days. Even so, hypermiling isn't something he does every day; he said he only does it 60 or 70 percent of the time.

"I don't want to seem like a nut."

• • •

On the ride home, Messick flips on the air conditioning and heads to the bridge. "We paid our dues this afternoon," he said. "Time to be comfortable."

As he makes his way down the Sunshine Skyway, he offers a demonstration of how to draft a semi, something he does on occasion. He accelerates hard to catch up to the trailer, comes within 10 feet of the truck and locks in.

"I try to get as close as I can without killing myself," he says.

Unbeknownst to Messick, drafting isn't legal. It's a traffic violation for following too closely, one that can result in a $141 fine and points on your license.

Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said the pennies saved by drafting don't match up to the damage that could be sustained if an accident occurs.

"If you're riding down the road and you blink, that's 102 feet per second," he said. "You're going to need a couple hundred feet to stop."

Matt Ubben, vice president of the Florida Trucking Association, agrees.

"You need to give yourself several hundred feet in front of you to be safe," he said.

As for Messick's slow highway and interstate speeds, they're legal as long as he stays above 40 mph.

The government is already on board with some aspects of hypermiling. Fueleconomy.gov, a collaborative site run by the Energy Department and the EPA, says aggressive driving can reduce your fuel efficiency by 33 percent on highways and 5 percent around town. To put it in terms of monetary value, each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying 26 cents more per gallon for gas.

At the end of the day, Messick pulls off the highway and eases his Prius — which bears a license plate holder reading "Hey OPEC, eat my voltage" — into his driveway. The fuel consumption display reads 112 miles for the day.

At 64.3 mpg.

Messick smiles.

"It's a new record," he says.

Times staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Road sage? Hypermiler's tank is good to the last drop 09/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 10:16pm]
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