With gas prices hovering near $3 a gallon, that bottle in the auto parts store or gadget on a Web site that claims to "improve fuel economy by 20 percent" can sound awfully enticing, but federal regulators caution consumers not to act too quickly.
A recent consumer warning from the Federal Trade Commission showed that gas gadgets such as air bleed devices, mixture enhancers and fuel additives rarely pay off. In fact, they're 0-for-93.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Ann Arbor, Mich., laboratory tested 93 additives, modifications and other products that claim to improve fuel economy. None received the agency's seal of approval. The lab's analysis, spanning 30 years, found only 10 devices that showed even a small improvement in fuel economy, and four of those increased emissions.
"Generally as gas prices go up, consumers are more concerned about saving on fuel cost, and companies or marketers take advantage by selling questionable gas-saving devices," FTC spokesman Hampton Newsome said. "These products often are found to have little or no savings in terms of fuel economy and can damage your engine or increase emissions."
Products flagged as scams include: ADAKS Vacuum Breaker Air Bleed, Electro-Dyne Superchoke mixture enhancer and Fuelon Power additive. Regulators say finding those exact brands is unlikely (the names of faulty products tend to change quickly), but similar devices abound.
Sometimes regulators take punitive action, as the FTC did last year when it claimed a $4 million settlement from the makers of FuelMax, a product that claimed to increase gas mileage by 27 percent but didn't come anywhere close to that.
Instead of trying questionable devices, regulators and auto experts say properly maintaining a vehicle is a smarter choice. Keeping tires inflated, changing filters and getting a tune-up are far more likely to increase gas mileage than trying a specialty item.
Not all fuel-improving products should be painted as worthless, however, said Bill Ponkowski, a manger at Glendale Auto Supply in Farmington, Mich.
He does recommend fuel injector cleaners but says drivers should be cautious with other products.
"Don't expect a miracle, but some additives can be very good at cleaning a dirty fuel system out," he said. "A lot of people do ask how to get better gas mileage. First we ask when they last had a tune-up, and then we'll look at fuel additives to make sure they're getting the best mileage they can."
The EPA started testing supposed fuel-saving devices in the 1970s when the Arab oil embargo and other events sent gas prices soaring and such products started popping up. At first most products tested were sent to the EPA from manufacturers seeking approval, which none received.
But lately most come from the FTC, when it's investigating false advertising claims, said EPA spokesman John Millet.
"Most of these additives don't have more energy in them than gasoline - there's no way they can improve fuel economy," he said.
He added that one product had the same active ingredients as moth balls. That might work in the closet, but not the tank, he said.
One reason these gas gadgets don't often work, he said, is automotive engineers tend to be smarter than over-promising marketers.
"If there was a device that drastically improved gas mileage or a different formulation of fuel, we'd already be using it," he said. "The best fuel-saving equipment is controlling your right foot."
Gas saving tips
Federal consumer watchdogs say gas gadgets don't work, but these gas saving tips do:
Stay within posted speed limits. The faster you drive, the more fuel you use.
Use cruise control to maintain a constant highway speed.
Go easy on the gas pedal and brakes. "Jack rabbit" starts and stops waste fuel.
Keep your engine tuned. A poorly tuned engine can increase fuel consumption by as much as 10 percent to 20 percent.
Keep your tires properly inflated and aligned.
Check and replace air filters regularly. Clogged filters can cause up to a 10 percent increase in fuel consumption.
Consider buying a fuel-efficient vehicle.
[Source: Federal Trade Commission]