Going Light on the Water

Now every gallon counts: Eric Slaughter, co-owner of District-based Capital Yacht Charters, has begun asking passengers to limit their numbers on the upper deck of his pleasure boats to help smooth out the ride and conserve fuel.

"It's a small thing," said Slaughter of the new policy, "but it can save you gallons an hour and that can go back into your pocket."

Saving a few gallons can mean a lot to the operator of a boat that can burn more than 80 gallons on a three-hour cruise.

Thanks to the run-up in diesel prices, Slaughter pays $400 more this year for the 1,000 gallons of fuel it takes to operate his fleet. And his boats burn fuel at a rapid clip. Celebrity, a 100-foot luxury yacht with a full dining room and dance hall, burns an average 25 gallons an hour.

Last year, Slaughter said he paid $1.89 a gallon for a bulk delivery of diesel. His last fill-up cost him $2.29 a gallon, a 21 percent jump. That's a bargain compared to the $2.59 a gallon charged at James Creek Marina, the closest boat fueling station.

To avoid passing on his higher costs to customers, Slaughter has done everything he can to ensure that his boats glide more efficiently down the Potomac -- stopping short of throwing the plush red "early bordello" couches off his cruiser called "Finished Business."

He's taken heavy tools and spare parts off his yachts. He's reduced the amount of drinking water he takes on board by 500 gallons. He spends extra money to regularly maintain and clean his engines so they burn less gas.

All of this saves the charter company about 5 percent in fuel costs, Slaughter said. To make up for the rest, Slaughter and his business partner, Lisa-Lisbeth Finney, work round-the-clock to take care of chores that would otherwise be done by paid employees.

They've also made the difficult decision to limit the number of free rides they offer to nonprofits and charities for fundraisers.

"As fuel goes up," said Slaughter, "that is one of the thousand points of lights that gets dimmed a little bit."

-- Mark Chediak

Deliveries: A $60,000 Hit

Driving around is what David Guernsey's company does. Each day he sends out a fleet of 100 vehicles that travel an average of 135 miles delivering office products and furniture across the Washington region. That means he's paying gas for 13,500 miles of driving every day and 3.4 million miles a year.

When he set out his budget for the current fiscal year in the spring, Guernsey estimated that gas would average $2.15 a gallon.

Not even close.

These days Guernsey pays $2.447 per gallon to fill his diesel trucks and $2.4934 per gallon for his regular ones through a deal with a commercial provider. (One-thousandth of a penny matters when you're buying millions of gallons of gas.) All told, it costs his company about $2,100 a day, about $250 dollars more than he budgeted.

"Truthfully, we don't know how to budget anymore," said Guernsey, president and chief executive of Chantilly-based Guernsey Office Products. "We thought [$2.15] was the high-water mark and we were just woefully wrong."

None of his competitors has passed the costs on to customers, so Guernsey hasn't either. The result: "Right now, based on what we are spending, that'll be about a $60,000 a year hit to our bottom line," Guernsey said.

Guernsey said that amount could be absorbed this year because business is good, but "it's being mitigated rather significantly by increased gas prices. Clearly, we're not enjoying the full benefit of a strong economy."

To try to cut down on costs, Guernsey has switched gas suppliers and made sure his drivers are taking the most direct routes.

And he's awfully happy about a decision he made nearly three years ago to build a second distribution site in Beltsville to augment the company's main one in Chantilly.

"A Guernsey truck never crosses a bridge in the Washington, D.C., area," Guernsey said. "That helps keep costs down because, truth be known, that's where the biggest bottlenecks are."

"In the first month alone," he added, "we saved 1,200 gallons of gas."

With today's prices, that's almost $3,000.

-- Steven Ginsberg

Lawn Service Surcharges

For Russell Stout, the general manager of Complete Lawn Service Inc. of Vienna, it's frustrating enough to have to pay for his own rising gas costs. What also hurts is having to pay for the higher prices incurred by other companies.

Stout has to cover the fuel expenses for his own operation's 15 pickup trucks, which serve Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria, and for a collection of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, chain saws and other tools.

But that's not all: Whenever he takes in a delivery of topsoil from a dump truck, or a load of mulch off a tractor trailer, he's handed a bill that includes a gas surcharge.

He also is paying more for the PVC pipes he uses in lawn sprinkler systems because petroleum goes into their production and his supplier has increased his prices to compensate.

"I'm very upset" about fuel prices, Stout said. "It's hard to plan. It's hard to run a business."

The company's pickups get about 10 miles to the gallon, contributing to the 2,000 gallons of gas and diesel the lawn service used during a peak month this summer.

Stout recently added a Ford F-150 to his fleet of F-250s for the better mileage, and is considering future purchases of the less powerful trucks.

To offset his rising costs, Stout said the company is doing only what it must: tacking on its own. In September, the lawn service will impose its third since last August.

The cost for mowing an average lawn on a quarter-acre lot will rise to about $38 from $35.

The surcharge will be higher for more costly jobs. Because of higher fuel costs, he said, the company also is considering instituting a charge for estimates, which are now free.

"We really do this begrudgingly," Stout said of the surcharges. "We've been around a long time. We've only done it once before -- back in the mid-'70s. Things are different now."

-- Justin Blum

Pain for the Van Pool

As co-owner of a van pool fleet, Rick Hood feels good about reducing auto emissions and traffic congestion on area roadways -- not to mention the stress level of commuters who no longer brave highways alone.

But pumping in fuel to keep his ABS vans rolling is a painful experience.

His fleet of 65 Ford E350s burned 8,361 gallons of gas last month to transport commuters on 60 routes from spots such as Woodbridge, Front Royal and even Charles Town, W.Va., to workplaces in Northern Virginia and the District.

The average monthly cost per van: $443.21.

That's a 31 percent increase from an average $339.38 Hood said he paid in July of last year.

He expected this month will be downright deadly. "My next bill is going to kill me," Hood said, predicting that he will spend an average of $480 to $500 per van because of the most recent spike in gas prices.

ABS Vans Inc. bumped up prices on routes by an average of $10 when gas started climbing above $2.10 a gallon about three months ago. "Now that they've gotten up to $2.60, we're going to have to look at another increase," he said.

ABS's loyal customers do have an opportunity to influence the company's bottom line. Volunteers drive each route and are in charge of parking the vans at night. The drivers carry an ABS credit card so they can fill the tank for each day's ride. Not everybody's a penny pincher, however. "We know that Wawa and Sheetz are some of the cheapest places, but most people use the station that's most convenient to them," Hood said.

Hood noted that skyrocketing petroleum prices not only make filling the tank more expensive but also make oil changes, brake pad replacements and other crucial maintenance work for the van fleet pricier. Plus, Hood said, both the cost of parking and the cost of van fleet insurance have escalated over the past year.

There are hidden costs, too. Sometimes, Hood suspects, the van pool drivers take the vehicles out for a joyride at night or on the weekends, burning up gas and putting on additional wear and tear. "There's really no way to watchdog," Hood said. "It's not like a train that's tied to tracks."

-- Elissa Silverman

A Lost Night Out Each Week

The reality of high gas prices hit Roman Blazauskas on Thursday morning when he looked up from the pump and saw how much he was paying: $2.70.

"The $2.70 number really stood out for me," Blazauskas said. "I think about $2.20 and $2.50 and I think: That's not unreasonable. When I look at the pump at $2.70, I think: Is it ever going to stop?"

Blazauskas drives his 2002 Mercury Mountaineer about 75 miles each day from his home in Ashburn to his job in the District. He said it gets 14 miles a gallon "on a good day, going downhill," which translates to about $52 to fill up his tank, something he does every four days. A year ago it was around $30. Four months ago it was around $40.

Filling up in the city, something he makes sure to never do, would add another few dollars a tank.

What all that means for Blazauskas, his wife and two children is that they don't go out to eat so much anymore. "I'm looking at roughly an additional $30 or $40 a week that I'm paying in gas," he said. "That's about one night at a restaurant for us. We have to do what we have to do to make it work."

It's not all bad, Blazauskas said. High gas prices and dinners at home have made him nostalgic for the 1970s when he grew up in Boston during an oil crisis. "It's like reliving my youth again," he said. "In a lot of ways, it's enhanced the family, somewhat."

The thought of getting rid of his SUV has crossed his mind, but Blazauskas said it's convenient and his family uses it for all the sports they play. Still, "when it starts hitting the $3 level, I'll be very concerned."

For now, they are compensating by doing things a little differently. A 10-mile drive to the mall is coupled with other trips and they're rethinking some family vacations.

"We obviously don't drive around as much anymore," Blazauskas said.

-- S.G.

An RV, an Arm and a Leg

The Bergstroms, who drove the Ford F-250 from St. Paul, came east for a family reunion -- and it was the family part that kept them, at several junctures, from turning around and heading home with a case of gas station sticker shock. "If it were optional for us to travel right now, we wouldn't," said Michael Bergstrom, 62.

The couple's favorite way to cut travel costs -- a Jayco Eagle RV, with a full kitchen and bathroom -- also drags down their pickup's fuel efficiency from about 16 miles per gallon to 10. Back in Minnesota, where gas cost $2.11 when they set out three weeks ago, that was less of a worry. A stop at the pump there cost $33.

But in Pennsylvania, it crept up to $40. In Ohio, $46. In Indiana, $56.

As the couple pushed from county to county, state to state, gas prices rose 64 cents a gallon. To fill a 25-gallon tank, which the Bergstroms did up to three times a day, that represented a jump of $16 -- another movie ticket, another dinner out, another share of stock.

So now they are experimenting with new kinds of frugality. A few nights ago, they split a plate of Chinese food at Union Station.

"It's too bad," Bergstrom said. "Somebody's getting rich off this. But who can you blame?"

-- Michael Barbaro

Lisa-Lisbeth Finney, co-owner of Capital Yacht Charters, said her company may have to raise prices in response to higher fuel costs. David Guernsey Dan Prewitt, right, and George Adkins of Complete Lawn Service have been forced to pass along part of the fuel bill. Rick Hood has bumped up prices on his van pool routes, and he's considering another increase.

Roman Blazauskas Michael and Karen Bergstrom's trip from Minnesota has been a trail of escalating pump prices.