Transcript: Wednesday, July 23, 2008, 11 a.m. ET

Gas-Saving Tips for the Savvy Consumer

Diane MacEachern
Author, "Beat High Gas Prices Now!"
Wednesday, July 23, 2008; 11:00 AM

More drivers are choosing public transportation, and hybrid cars are all the rage. But if taking the subway isn't an option, and buying a more fuel-efficient car isn't possible, what's a driver to do? We've got help. Learn how to make the most of your gas: Check out our Cars feature, Gas-Saving Tips for the Savvy Consumer.

Diane MacEachern, author of "Beat High Gas Prices Now!" offered even more advice. MacEachern, founder of BigGreenPurse.com, was online to answer your questions about how to save gas, how to "green" your car and more.

The transcript follows.

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Diane MacEachern: Welcome to the live chat on high gas prices, transportation, alternative fuels, and ideas for saving energy. I'm delighted to join you.

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New Orleans, La.: Have you seen the machines for sale that claim you can make your own gas additive from sugar at home. Just add it to your gas tank and you're set to go? Is this for real, or a rip off?

Diane MacEachern: I've never heard of such a thing! There are lots of kits you can use to convert your diesel engine to biodiesel, however; then you can use vegetable oil as fuel (some drivers have arrangements with their local McDonald's or a neighborhood Chinese restaurant to collect their used oil so they can convert it to biodiesel for their cars). You can find more info on this at www.grassolean.com.

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Northern Virginia: What is hypermiling exactly? Who started it, what does it include and is it safe?

Diane MacEachern: Hypermiling is a way to drive so you exceed the estimated miles-per-gallon that a vehicle gets. In addition to the usual things you would do to improve fuel efficiency (check tire pressure, get an engine tune up, drive at a steady speed, remove excess weight from the trunk), you would also accelerate slowly (especially from a stop light or stop sign), take advantage of hills to coast (with your foot off the gas) or glide, and anticipate changing traffic patterns and stop light changes. There's a lot of good information at wikipedia.com.

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Ashburn, Va.: What do you think of the Smart Car? Is it worth buying to save on fuel?

Diane MacEachern: If you only need to move two people at any given time, don't need to haul a lot of junk in your trunk, and you're comfortable driving a very small car on the highway (or you do mostly local driving), give it a try. It's very inexpensive to buy (around $11,000 compared to a hybrid which will cost over $20,000), and gets around 36 mpg (and maybe more, if you drive smart). Plus, it has a smaller environmental footprint during manufacture, given it's size. I think it's definitely worth a look.

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Chevy Chase, Md.: Hi Diane, I really want to know what is the exact component that needs to be checked regularly in a car, so I get good gas mileage?

Diane MacEachern: Start with an overall engine tune-up. That's something you'll do once a year. Then check your tire pressure to make sure the tires are pumped up to their proper PSI (pounds per square inch). You can find the PSI posted on the inside of the driver's side door or with the manual that came with your car. Check the tire pressure at least with every season change, if not monthly. And of course, look at how much you drive and where you drive. The real key is figuring out how to drive less to meet your transportation needs.

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Falls Church, Va.: How to save gas? In the cycling world, it's called drafting. On the beltway/highway, it's called tailgating. Get behind a car or even better, an 18 wheeler, and you're all set -- a Mechanical Engineer.

Diane MacEachern: Hmmm - I'm not sure I'd recommend tailgating behind an 18 wheeler - sounds dangerous! But it definitely makes sense to drive strategically: at steady speeds, with a well-functioning vehicle, taking direct routes, and avoiding that ultimate gas-waster: idling! Thanks for your suggestion.

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Fairfax, Va.: Clearly the message about saving gas by driving more slowly has not made the rounds. I had occasion to be on both I-81 and I-66 over the weekend, and got blown off the road while driving 65 mph. These vehicles were the huge ones - the excursions and suburbans! Clearly people have more money to burn than they admit.

Diane MacEachern: It will be interesting to see if states start changing their speed limit back to 55 mph, or if there's a move at the federal level to pull speeds back down. It made a big difference in the late 70's and 80's, when the oil embargoes made saving gas such a big priority. Maybe, instead of or in addition to an HOV lane, we need at least a 55mph lane!

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Capitol Hill: Here is my gas-saving tip: Move to the city. I used to live 30 miles away in Herndon in a big house with the requisite yard, etc. Now I am in the city (Capitol Hill), walking to work instead of commuting 3 hours a day, and LOVING LIFE. I used to think that having a big house far from work was the way to go, but I don't think I or Americans in general can afford to think that way anymore. It's cheaper to rent in the city and walk or Metro to work than to waste all that time and MONEY burning gas in the car. I highly recommend this tip to all you suburbanites out there who think there's NO WAY you could live in the city. I used to be you. Trust me: You don't know how good your life can be when you have extra time in your day and extra money in your wallet from having a tiny-to-nonexistent commute!

Diane MacEachern: I agree! Of course the problem is, not everyone can afford to move to the city, since the suburbs are often cheaper if you want to buy. But your advice -- to look at the options with an open mind and really consider the value of living close to where you work -- makes a lot of sense! Thanks.

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Falls Church, Va.: Is it true that the U.S. government has a lot of oil reserves? Then why are we suffering?

Diane MacEachern: While the U.S. does have oil in reserve, it's certainly not enough to meet our long-term demand for fuel. We are "suffering" because the government failed to set an energy policy after the first oil embargo in 1973 that would have put us on the path to energy independence. Meanwhile, consumers continued to buy vehicles that squandered gasoline, since gas continued to be so cheap. Even now, we don't have a sound federal policy in place to reduce our use of petroleum. We need more investment in mass transit, alternative fuels, and new business models that will focus on meeting our transportation needs, not continuing our dependence on oil.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you explain the concept of Big Green Purse?

Diane MacEachern: Big Green Purse encourages consumers to use their money as a "carrot" to encourage manufacturers to save energy, reduce pollution and generally protect the environment. It's one of the fastest, easiest ways available to us to get a cleaner, greener world. Manufacturers fight regulations and legislation tooth and nail, but they embrace what happens in the marketplace. They have to! Consumer spending is their lifeblood. Big Green Purse shows people they can make a difference when they buy products and services that offer the greatest environmental benefit.

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Arlington, Va.: Dear Ms. MacEachern - thanks for taking my question. I bought a 2007 Acura TL-S in February 2007. Its gas mileage isn't terrible (about 23 mpg on average) and I love the car, but I have been thinking about getting something cheaper and more fuel-efficient. If I sold my car today I'd probably clear about $5,000. Is it worth doing?

Diane MacEachern: Whether your concern is based on protecting the environment or your pocketbook, it always makes sense to burn the least amount of fuel possible. So before you do anything else, look at your transportation needs. Can you meet them by driving less, regardless of the vehicle you drive? Many employers now allow their employees to telecommute -- does yours? Can you carpool more or take greater advantage of mass transit? Can you shop online and use delivery services, which are more fuel-efficient than driving to the mall yourself? Can you combine trips so you're not coming and going so much?

More and more people are getting back on bicycles or walking for short distances. Others are buying efficient motor bikes. Think of your transportation needs separate from your car, and maximize ways to work, shop, relax and socialize without driving yourself to various destinations. Or, can you use Zip car, and rent by the day or even hour when you absolutely must have wheels?

Then think about the car. The energy and resources used to manufacture a car are pretty substantial, so trading it in for another vehicle, even one that's more fuel efficient, can make the transaction a wash unless your existing car is so old it's not viable any more. That doesn't sound like the case with your car.

Also, are you driving the car to get the most out of every gallon of gas? You can increase fuel efficiency 3.3 percent by keeping your tires inflated to their proper psi, or pounds per square inch. Getting a tune-up improves fuel efficiency by 4.1 percent. Driving "smart" -- at a nice, steady speed without tailgating and weaving in and out of traffice or racing between stop signs -- can improve fuel efficiency by almost 30%. You might actually be able to get 3-5 miles more out of every gallon of gas and save as much as $500 a year by improving the way you drive.

If you make $5,000 on the sale of your current vehicle and buy something cheap like a Yaris, which gets about 32 mpg and sells for around $11,000, at $4/gallon you'll save around $725 a year in fuel if you drive 15,000 miles a year. The more you drive and the higher gas prices rise, the more money you'll save on fuel. Still, it could be several years before you recoup the money you spend on the new gas saver compared to the money you've just spent on your almost-new Acura.

Bottom line: Figure out how you can meet your transportation needs by driving less. Drive to save energy when you do get behind the wheel. Hold on to your current car for now, but re-evaluate if gas prices continue to rise. When you opt to buy a new car, choose the most fuel-efficient vehicle you can afford.

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Chicago, Ill.: I enjoyed reading "Big Green Purse." Lots of great information. What's your feeling about alternatives to cars and what should the federal government be doing to support such alternatives?

Diane MacEachern: Thanks - I'm glad you liked the book! Everyone needs better alternatives. More cities need effective mass transit systems. We need more tax incentives to purchase the fuel-efficient but more expensive hybrids. Employers should be rewarded for helping their employees save energy through car pooling, telecommuting, and more. Great question.

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Anonymous: Hi Diane, I saw a Smart Fortwo on 95 N yesterday and the poor thing looked pitiful between two 18-wheelers. Should it really be driven on the highway? Thanks.

Diane MacEachern: It seems like a better car for local commuting, doesn't it?

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Bethesda, Md.: Why do you imagine the major U.S. automakers so misread the market for more efficient cars?

Diane MacEachern: To some degree, they were entrenched in "old school," "business as usual" thinking. Lee Iacocca had a meeting with Japanese automanufacturers in the 90's. They told him they were going to make hybrids. He told them the U.S. was going to make SUVs and Hummers! He now admits he and his U.S. colleagues completely misjudged the situation. But also, consumer demand has really fluctuated. Look at the ads - they never ask if you want cup holders or climate change, do they? They positioned the frills associated with low-efficiency vehicles as much more desirable than the longer term benefits associated with hybrids, and it's taken a lot for consumers to understand the real picture.

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Anonymous: Hi Ms. MacEachern -- do you have any advice for SUV drivers in particular? I have an SUV that's almost paid off (1 month!), so I don't plan on trading it in any time soon.

Diane MacEachern: Great question! Even though your vehicle is almost paid off, its minimal fuel efficiency argues in favor of keeping it in the garage! Honestly, figure out how to minimize the miles you need to drive it. Look into hypermiling (more on wikipedia.com) to get some great advice on how to maintain and drive the vehicle to maximize efficiency when you do buy it. Use mass transit and carpool whenever possible.

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Better than a Smart Car: Check out the Honda Fit. I drive one and love it- 4 door + hatchback (can put a TON of stuff in that). I drive a mix of city and hwy miles and average about 34 mpg. It's pretty cheap, too ($15k).

Diane MacEachern: Good idea. I've heard people like this car.

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Silver Spring, Md.: We drove 55-60 mph on a recent trip to New England and got 35 mpg from our four-cylinder VW Golf on the interstates. Will states ever go back to 55 mph? Is this safe to do when everyone is passing you at 75 mph? Any other tips for highway driving?

Diane MacEachern: I know several states are examining their speed limits right now. Call your local government reps and encourage them to be bold and help everyone save energy. Re highway driving: use cruise control to gain as much as 14% in fuel efficiency.

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Cheverly, Md.: I'm a total green newbie. What's the easiest way to start this type of lifestyle? I want to "green" my whole household.

Diane MacEachern: Do what you can to save energy. The driving tips here (drive less, carpool, use mass transit, keep tires inflated) will help you get started. Replace incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents. Use a programmable thermostat to save money on heating and cooling. Lots more tips at www.biggreenpurse.com.

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Clifton, Va.: Obviously Capitol Hill does not have kids. Most folks live in Fairfax County for the schools for their kids. The firefighters and EMS types I know refer to a Smart car as a very expensive coffin.No crush area. And if you are doing less than posted speed limit or traffic flow on the interstate stay out of left lane. And I would rather have a commute than live in a condo in an urban city. Don't like living on top of each other and it minimizes bad neighbors!

Diane MacEachern: Thanks for your comments.

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Moving to City, Not for Everyone: Ummm, remember that not everyone in this area works in D.C.! Instead of leaving the NoVa "suburbs" around McLean, I moved jobs. Yes, we did buy a home -central- to job centers in this area... meaning, good to Tysons, Dulles/Chantilly corridor, as well as D.C./Alexandria, etc. We also bought a home close to the terrific schools in our county... walkable right now, a quick drive when son hits middle or highs school--any gas savings achievable by moving to "the city" have to be weighed out with quality of schools, etc.

Diane MacEachern: Great idea. In fact, we need to focus on better work/life planning. Ideally, people would live close enough to their jobs to have a minimal commute. Glad you found that solution for you and your family.

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Washington, D.C.: We tend to carry around a lot of stuff in our car -- flashlights, first-aid kits and other stuff we rarely use. Are there any general estimates re how each additional pound of weight decreases a car's mileage?

Diane MacEachern: I don't have it at my finger tips, but you could check with fueleconomy.gov. Generally speaking, you do want to lighten the load in your trunk. You also want to remove a roof rack if you have one and aren't using it. Roof racks create drag on the car, which reduces fuel efficiency.

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Atlanta, Ga.: I use my day planner to keep track of errands I need to run and to write down my grocery list. When I go to the store, I try to bundle as many errands into one trip by strategically picking my route and destination. Where I go and what I do dictates my mode of transportation. I am lucky that I have both a car (30-35 mpg average) and a motorcycle (80+ mpg). I also have a public transportation pass, a bicycle, and two legs. If I can walk or bicycle, I do. If I can use my motorcycle, I do. If I am going to a particular store, I ask my roommates if they need to go as well. Just thinking ahead and planning carefully has helped me cut about half of my gas consumption.

Diane MacEachern: Great suggestions!

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Herndon, Va.: Hi. How did you become interested in the green way of living?

Diane MacEachern: Honestly, my interest in the environment goes back about 30 years! I remember waiting in gas lines during the 1973 oil embargo. The "hole in the ozone layer" was a big issue when I was in college. I've also witnessed many changes in the planet first hand. When I hiked around Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1983, it was still covered in snow. I was back there in 2000, and most of the snow had melted. The top looked like a minefield! Also, I have two kids; I've always been concerned about the world they're going to inherit from us.

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Burke, Va.: Why do American cars have worse gas mileage than comparable European cars? On a recent trip, we got 40 mpg with a mid-size sedan. Compare that with the earlier poster who only gets 23 mpg.

Diane MacEachern: Fuel efficiency has been a priority for much longer in Europe than it has here in the U.S. That's primarily because gasoline is much more expensive there (almost twice the price per gallon). Also, most European nations have to import oil, so they've used it far more judiciously.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have a friend talking about getting a hydrogen converter for her truck. The web sites say it's possible, for less than $1,000, to seriously increase fuel efficiency and it won't damage the engine. Is this true? Is this something we should all be looking into?

Diane MacEachern: The trouble with hydrogen right now is its lack of availability. I'd focus on driving less, driving more efficiently, and, if I needed to replace a car, getting the most fuel-efficient option possible.

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Warren, Mass.: Hi Diane. I have a Toyota hybrid (Prius), and I think (but might be mistaken) that cruise control actually uses more fuel than conscious/conscientious driving. Maybe cruise control has improved on the later models (mine is 2004).

Diane MacEachern: My Prius doesn't have cruise control, so I can't tell you what the impact is on that car. Certainly, you can make great gains through conscientious driving.

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Gas crisis our fault, not gov't: Hello -- I have to disagree with you that it's the government's fault for not continuing the efforts of the Carter administration. It's OUR fault. The vast majority of us went out and bought cars with poor fuel economy. Since the 70's, how many people have set up enough solar power to run their house? We can't rely on the government to manage our lives. We need to push corporations for better cars, better alternative fuel, etc.

Diane MacEachern: I definitely agree that we need to use our consumer clout to get corporations to produce more fuel efficient vehicles. But federal policy could certainly have played a more important role. Right now the government subsidizes the oil and gas industry in many ways while offering very few incentives to the alternative fuel industry. While it is the role of consumers to create demand, I believe it is the role of government to support initiatives that also bolster industry innovation.

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Tune up: You (and others) recommend a "tune-up." But most dealers don't provide any service called tune-up anymore. When you refer to this, what exactly are you talking about. In the old days, I would check plugs and wires, replace plugs as necessary, check belts, clean the carburator, replace air filters and probably do an oil change and call that a tune-up. What do you mean by it.

Diane MacEachern: Your list is pretty good!

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Arlington, Va.: GM, Ford and Chrysler along w/Toyta and Nissan produced cars that would sell at the time. Yes even Toyota with their full size pick ups and SUVs. That's what the marketplace wanted. A diesel hybrid or plug in hybrid or a Ford Fiesta would have sat on the lot while the full size pick ups sold. You can't force people to buy cars they dont want.

Diane MacEachern: I suppose that's true. On the other hand, the advertising campaigns promoting these cars never explained their true cost -- not only in continuing our dependence on petroleum, but in terms of their air pollution impact as well. I believe greater demand for fuel-efficient, less polluting cars would have existed if people had had a more complete picture of the impact of burning oil.

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Bethesda: Hey Cheverly, since you live in Maryland, you also have the option of changing your electricity supplier. I buy 100 percent wind-generated power for my house. I think there's also a supplier that offers other green options, like biofuels, that aren't completely carbon-neutral but are better than coal (which is mostly what you're buying now). It's easy to sign up and nothing changes (such as the wires to your house) except the billing.

Diane MacEachern: Thanks for the reminder! I buy 100 percent wind-generated power for my house, too!

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Falls Church, Va.: U.S. automakers do make fuel efficient cars. In fact they have more models than the foreign makers. They didn't sell them in the U.S. because people wanted SUVs but they did sell them in Europe and over seas. I don't think the U.S. automakers are in such a bind as people think they are. It won't take long for them to transfer those models and redefine their marketing. People just need to be open to what's out there and stop thinking that only a civic and corolla are what they should buy.

Diane MacEachern: There was a news report earlier this week that Ford was retooling one of its truck plants in Michigan to make smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. You're right. They can do it and they're starting to do it.

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Overall energy savings: Thanks for all the suggestions about saving gas/driving costs... do you know if people are putting as much energy, no pun intended, into ensuring overall energy savings in their home and lifestyle? Folks I know will obsess about mileage on their cars (I bought a hybrid in 2003, before they were "cool" and when gas was relatively cheap, so I don't worry too much), but leave the a/c on all day, or all their lights on. Our office also allows people to compress their work week to 4 days, and we've seen cost-savings from fewer PCs, office lights and other energy-using items on, which we fully plan to use to employees' benefits (read: a bit more in the paycheck and other benefits).

Diane MacEachern: It seems like the energy saving message is starting to penetrate beyond the pump. Millions of people have switched to compact fluorescent light bulbs, and the market for energy-efficient computers and appliances has also taken off. Employers have been increasingly responsive, too. I heard Farifax County (VA) was seriously considering the four-day work-week for its employees.

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Arlington, Va.: What do you think of electric cars? They may reduce the demand for gasoline, but if the electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, do they really cut pollution?

Diane MacEachern: Ultimately, they cut pollution because the engine is just so much more efficient.

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Re: Capitol Hill: I'm a suburbanite, and I applaud you. But did you sell your house? Are you a renter now?

Diane MacEachern: It sounds like the Capitol Hill commenter is a renter. That seems to be a solution that works for some people. I guess you need to look at your overall financial picture and determine where the greatest savings are.

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Re: 2007 Acura TL-S: How does anyone "clear" $5,000 on the sale of a used car? I think you may have misunderstood the post, otherwise, I need to learn how to make money on the sale of a used car, because I have never heard of such a thing!

Diane MacEachern: Hmmm -- I'm not sure. I know that with hybrids, even used vehicles are selling for almost as much as their original price.

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Diane MacEachern: I'm curious how many people have increased their use of mass transit since gas prices have gotten so high?

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Glen Echo, Md.: All this discussion about fuel economy of new cars has me befuddled. I have a 1998 model -- high performance sedan that was rated 20/29 and typically gets mid-20s in mixed driving around here. I can get high 20s on the highway and got 30 once but the performance is enticing and I dip the throttle often. My question is this - I looked to replace the car recently, and everything similar to it even had much lower EPA ratings. I know the ratings changed recently, but by how much? Have the manufacturers not cared about fuel economy in this period so the ratings reflect that, or is the testing that much different and my real world mileage would be comparable to something with a 20% lower EPA rating for a 2008 model?

Diane MacEachern: Fuel-efficiency actually has dropped over the last few years. It will be on an upswing between now and 2020, when manufacturers are required to produce fleets that average 35 mpg (which is still way below the 40 mpg or more that most environmental analysts believe we need to aim for). One thing you can do is go to www.drivesmarterchallenge.org and get a sense of how much fuel you can save given the vehicle you're currently driving. You can also compare that to the amount of fuel you'd save with any number of other vehicles.

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Manassas, Va.: I have not used mass transit in my daily commute to work. It will take me 20 minutes to drive to the closest subway, and riding the subway will take my commute from 35/40 minutes to 1.5 hours. I don't do buses (carsick). When I'm in the D.C. area I do take the subway but otherwise, no thanks.

Diane MacEachern: It sounds like you'd be a good candidate for telecommuting one day a week or maybe working four 10-hour days rather than five 8-hour days.

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Takoma Park, Md: Back to Big Green Purse, I'm concerned about the higher cost of green living.

Diane MacEachern: It turns out that saving energy and water and using less resources actually saves us money, too. Most people worry that "being green" will be expensive, but it usually turns out to be the opposite.

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Anonymous: Hi Diane, it was heartening to hear your comments about Mt. Kilimanjaro. What does nature and future have in store for us. Do you think we can make a really big difference? There are other countries in the world like China, that are just at the peak of industrialization. Would it be fair to now scale back after reaching a peak when other countries in the world are just discovering their production peaks? What is the future and what is ethical?

Diane MacEachern: Well, remember that the global community has been able to come together to ban CFCs to protect the ozone layer. I think we have a responsibility to do as much as we can. We've been leaders in the world before; it is time to step up again.

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Anonymous: Does running the air conditioner increase or lower gas mileage?

Diane MacEachern: The rule of thumb is, use the air conditioner on the highway (open windows create drag on the car and reduce mpg), but keep the windows down for local driving.

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Charleston, S.C.: I suppose I should consider myself lucky to live in South Carolina where gas prices are the lowest in the nation. Today, the average price of regular is 20 cents less than the national average. But my Acura TL takes premium which drives up the price of gas dramatically. I spent $50 last week to fill the tank. So my question is can I use a lower grade gasoline even though Acura says to only use premium? And if so, can I go down to regular?

Diane MacEachern: Honestly, use the grade of gasoline the manufacturer recommends.

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Alexandria, Va: Is there anything I can grow in my garden as a partial gasoline substitute?

Diane MacEachern: Hmmm. That would be a great question to Google!

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Chevy Chase, Md: I was considering buying a car and looking at gas prices, I dumped the idea and use mass transit more than ever before. I am so happy, I don't have any car hassles!

Diane MacEachern: Great. Glad to hear it!

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Diane MacEachern: Thank you all so much for the lively conversation. Our session must draw to an end. I've really appreciated the chance to hear about all your efforts to save energy. Keep up the good work!

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