How to find lowest prices for Sacramento-area gasoline

Published: Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 - 9:54 pm

Sacramento-area motorists are on the prowl for cheap gasoline. … Well, they're looking for relatively cheap gas.

With AAA putting the area's average price of unleaded regular at around $4.06 a gallon this weekend – up nearly 60 cents from just a month ago – there's plenty of motivation to seek some relief.

"What can you do? We're helpless, all of us," sighed Sacramentan Connie Connor, filling up the family sport-utility vehicle at a Valero station on Broadway. "If the oil companies want prices to go up, they go up … and we have to take it. We have no choice, right?"

Well, there are a few things you can do in these days of $4-plus gas. But where to start?

Experts consistently begin with a two-word answer: Shop around.

"Most of the gas that people are buying is very, very, very similar no matter where you go," says Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for national gas price tracker GasBuddy.com.

DeHaan said the 87 octane regular gas for which you pay $4.15 a gallon at one station is likely identical to the regular posted at $3.95 down the street.

Major oil companies tout their special blends designed to enhance everything from performance to fuel mileage.

Doug Brauner, the "Car Czar" TV and radio host (who's also a certified mechanic), isn't buying it and says you shouldn't either.

"If you're paying 20 cents more for regular, you're basically just spending more money for the exact same product you can get for less at another station," Brauner said. "Look, there are a finite number of refineries in California. And California fuel is unique with very specific standards.

" … So, the idea of being brand-loyal and paying more is considered to be crazy by most mechanics."

DeHaan likewise advises shopping around. GasBuddy's www.sactogasprices.com website features a daily listing of stations selling the cheapest gas that monitors 720 stations in the area. A number of other websites offer similar lists.

On Friday, the cheapest area gas listed on GasBuddy's website was at Pacific Pride, 3022 Evergreen Ave. in West Sacramento. But customers must have a Commercial Fueling Network card to buy gas there.

GasBuddy's daily Sacramento-area cheap gas list is routinely topped by Sam's Club, Costco and Arco. Their prices are typically 20 to 25 cents below the area average.

That's not surprising, DeHaan said.

"Wholesale clubs use gasoline to draw people in." he said. "Selling gasoline is not their main business, so overhead is low."

And, he said, Arco's policy of not accepting credit cards – and their associated transaction fees – helps it keep overhead down, too.

Sometimes, finding a gas discount is as easy as standing in one spot and turning your head. That was evident Thursday night at the busy Citrus Heights intersection of Greenback Lane and Auburn Boulevard, where all four corners have gas pumps. Here was the price breakdown for regular:

• Northwest corner: Shell station, $4.13 a gallon.

• Northeast corner: Chevron station, $4.19 a gallon.

• Southeast corner: 7-Eleven station, $3.95 a gallon.

• Southwest corner: Arco station, $3.89 a gallon.

So, isn't that proof that the major oil company stations are artificially pumping up gas prices?

Not necessarily, Brauner said, noting that big oil companies have higher costs to cover, including the millions they spend to market their products, just like makers of breakfast cereal.

And DeHaan explained that even the most frugal gas station operator can get caught in a fiscal trap.

"Over the past week in California," DeHaan said, "wholesale (gas) prices went down about 10 to 13 cents in a period of just a few days. That puts (downward) pressure on the pump price.

"But if you bought gas for your station before the price went down, you're stuck with what you paid last week. The thing is, a gasoline station can really get hosed on what they pay for the price of gasoline."

Besides looking for stations with the lowest-priced gas, experts advise motorists to adjust driving habits to save fuel.

AAA recommends keeping tires inflated at pressures spelled out by vehicle manufacturers, performing routine maintenance and making sure belts and hoses are in good shape. Just doing that and driving evenly and smoothly can save up to 10 percent on your fuel bill.

And there are things you shouldn't be doing.

Do not, for example, fill your tank with premium 91-octane gas when the owner's manual says it will run just fine on 87-octane regular. The old-school assumption that your car will perform better on high-octane gas than with the more pedestrian 87 regular is a big mistake, Brauner says.

"Not only are your wasting your money, you're negatively affecting the environment due to hydrocarbon discharge, or unburned fuel. Unless (premium) is required, you are getting zero benefit."

Octane is a measure of how well gas resists premature detonation in an internal combustion engine. You want it to ignite off the spark plug, not as a result of compression. Compression ignition results in partially burned fuel, and the byproduct typically exits into the air as pollution. It also creates engine "knocking."

Using 91 octane in a car designed to run on 87 dumps more unburned gas into the emissions system.

Brauner said the owner's manuals of some high-end, high-performance cars contain the key words "premium required" for a reason.

High-compression engines are engineered to handle the air-fuel mixture with high octane gas. If you're filling your "premium required" beauty with lower-octane gas to save money, you're likely filling the air with compression-ignited, unburned pollutants and shortening the life of your high-priced engine.

If you need more motivation to save on gas, DeHaan offers this ominous forecast: "Northern California is going to get hit in the next week or so as refineries do the switchover to (pricier) summer-blend gas in your area. I'm guessing prices will go up another 5 to 12 cents a gallon over the next week or so.

"Los Angeles already did the switchover, so you'll be catching up with them next week."

AAA put the average price of regular unleaded in the Los Angeles area at $4.32 a gallon entering the weekend.

And there's this: The state Board of Equalization at its meeting next week is expected to approve a gas tax increase of 3.5 cents per gallon, which would take effect July 1.

TIPS TO SAVE GAS

Besides shopping around for the cheapest possible gas, there are things motorists can do to save on fuel. Here are a few tips:

• Avoid hard accelerations. Gradual starts from a stopped position will result in better mileage.

• Underinflated tires will drain your wallet. Keep tires at pressures recommended in your car owner's manual. Likewise, worn or flat-spotted tires will cost you mileage and money.

• Follow the recommended maintenance guides for changing spark plugs and air/fuel filters.

• Using the grade of oil recommended in the owner's manual could produce a 2 percent improvement in gas mileage.

• Before you crank the engine, check out helpful websites like www.sactogasprices.com, which lists Sacramento-area gas stations selling the cheapest gas. AAA websites also keep a close watch on fuel prices.

• For cars that have the feature, hit the "econ" button when you're stuck in gridlocked traffic or cruising along at a moderate speed. You likely don't need the fuel-guzzling "sport" mode for most driving situations.

• Waste management and other industries that rely heavily on truck fleets have instituted strict "no idle" rules for their drivers. They've saved millions with it. Lesson: Turn off the car when you leave it. Idling wastes fuel.

• Combine car-outing errands into one. One trip uses less fuel than three.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Mark Glover



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