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Cover Story


Running on Empty

    Read about five local people who have found alternative ways to beat high gas prices


By Michael Swanger

As oil prices reached record highs last week, climbing to $124 a barrel (nearly double that from $62 last year), and retail gas prices surge toward $4 per gallon for the highest national average of $3.65, Iowans are looking for ways to save money at the pump.

Once considered a necessary, but affordable expense to maintain their driving habits, some Iowans are exploring alternative means of transportation in an effort to reduce their dependency on foreign oil. From riding bicycles and scooters to work, to carpooling and converting their vehicles to run on vegetable oil, there are ways to trim spending on gas.

While there is no scarcity of news coverage of high oil and gas prices, including stories that focus on where to find the cheapest gas, to the residual effects including escalating prices for groceries and other goods and services, no one seems to know why gas prices are so high or what can be done to solve the problem. Discussion of the subject is so prevalent that it has become a part of the daily banter among presidential candidates, who, like Congress, debate passing a summertime suspension of the federal gas tax.

In the meantime, while the pundits point fingers and try to solve the gas mystery, summer travel is upon us and Iowans are looking for practical ways to control their own gas costs by making real-life changes to their driving habits. This week, we talk to five local people who not only have found ways to pay less for gas, but also help save the environment along the way. They range in age and vocation, but lead by example. See for yourself.

George and Karen Karaidos

Every king has a queen, and 74-year-old George Karaidos, owner and namesake of George The Chili King Drive-Inn since 1952, one of Des Moines’ most beloved eateries, is no exception. His wife, 59-year-old Karen Karaidos, you might say, is the Green Queen when it comes to saving money at the pump and helping to save the environment.

After reading two years ago online about two men from Ohio who had converted their Volkswagen Jetta to run on vegetable oil — the kind she and her husband use at their restaurant to cook tenderloins, fries and other foods — Karen researched the matter and convinced her husband that they should reconsider their dependency on foreign oil and buy a vehicle that could mostly run on vegetable oil.

“I worked up the nerve to call the guys from Ohio and they were so helpful,” she said. “I zeroed in on the vegetable oil part and ordered a DVD on how to do it from a company called Golden Fuels Systems in Springfield, Mo., and we’ve been driving on vegetable oil ever since.”

In the fall of 2006, the Karaidoses purchased a diesel-powered 1998 Mercedes 300 E. They added a 12-gallon tank inside the trunk to fill with vegetable oil, as well as a pump and filter system that heats the oil so it can function in extreme weather conditions. The conversion cost about $1,500, but the money they have saved at the pump, they said, was worth it as they approach their break-even point for their investment.

“People couldn’t believe it when we told them what we were doing,” George said. “We had to convince them it really worked.”

The Karaidoses, however, were sold on the technology. Shortly afterwards, George bought a 2001 Ford F-250 diesel pick-up truck and had a 75-gallon vegetable oil tank added to the vehicle. Along the way, they even convinced their son, Larry, to drive a straight vegetable oil (SVO) vehicle.

The Mercedes, they said, gets about 25 miles per gallon, while the truck gets about 14 m.p.g. — the same mileage they would get using gas.

“It has to be a diesel vehicle for it to work, and certain diesel engines work better than others,” Karen said. The couple usually starts their cars with diesel fuel before flipping a switch after driving a mile or two to burn vegetable oil. “The Ford 7.3 works best, but stay away from the 6.0 and Chevys.”

Diesel vehicles can be retrofitted with tanks that store bio diesel (a combination of lye and methanol) or vegetable oil. The Karaidoses chose vegetable oil because they could access about 20 gallons of it each week for free from The Chili King. Additionally, they also recruit friends in the restaurant business, like Smitty’s Tenderloin Shop on Army Post Road, to donate their clean vegetable oil. What they don’t get from restaurants, they purchase from Azure Biodiesel Co. in Sully.

“The only thing we have to worry about is cracker crumbs, but we filter that out,” said Karen, adding that driving an SVO is also labor intensive and that they have to change filters ($15 each) every 500 gallons. “It can be very messy when you’re pouring it or cleaning the sock (filter).”

But the restaurant owners said they don’t mind the work considering the payoff.

“It’s fun, we feel like pioneers,” Karen said. “George has said several times it keeps us young, and we’re pleased with the results.”

Added George, “It saves money and the environment. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

Brad Horn

Before you snicker at the guy on the scooter next to you in traffic during your commute, remember he is laughing all the way to the gas pump and getting to work just as fast as you.

Brad Horn, assistant attorney general for the State of Iowa Department of Justice, might be one of those guys. He drives his 2007 Suzuki Burgman 400 scooter from his West Des Moines home to work at the Hoover State Office Building near the State Capitol five days a week in most weather conditions [as cold as 16 degrees]. He won’t reveal his top speed [“it’s faster than you think”], but he likes to talk about his scooter’s fuel efficiency [60 miles m.p.g.] and surprising amount of storage room in hopes of converting a few “cagers.”

“It’s not chic or classy to have a scooter,” said Horn, a 42-year-old husband and father. “When you go to bike rallies, people look at you kind of funny. But their ears perk up when you tell them how many miles per gallon you get.”

With gas prices expected to exceed $4 a gallon this summer, Horn plans on saving gas money by driving his scooter as often as possible. He paid less than $6,000 for his Suzuki, saving him about $1,000 a year in gas when compared to the lower mileage he gets with his 2001 Nissan Xterra, which he uses for family outings and long distance trips. Horn’s scooter even has a real time gas monitor on it so he can adjust his driving habits to increase fuel efficiency.

“If you ride it consistently it will pay for itself in six years,” Horn said. “As gas shoots up, the value per mile is greater.”

Horn, who rode motorcycles when he was younger, first got the idea to buy a scooter while visiting France four years ago. He said scooters, small cars and bicycles were commonplace there. “I thought it made good sense,” he said.

In late 2006, Horn co-founded the Between Two Rivers Scooter Club to help unite fellow scooter enthusiasts and encourage people to buy them. The group has about 19 members who ride together and trade stories and information on the club’s Web site ( One such story on the Web site, by The Los Angeles Times, reported that while overall sales of motorcycles in the United States declined last year for the first time in 14 years, sales of Vespas, an Italian scooter, increased 18 percent.

“I think the days of $2 gas are gone, and as a culture we need to figure out how to move on,” Horn said. “Europeans figured it out a long time ago. After Americans introduced the concept of scooters to them in Italy during World War II, they made them part of the solution.”

In addition to saving some green by driving a scooter, Horn said he enjoys the time he spends on his bike.

“It’s effortless to drive and a lot of fun,” he said. “I actually look forward to the commute to work.”

Scott Holmes

This was supposed to be one of those stories designed to inspire people to ride their bicycles to work in hopes it might save them some money at the gas pump. Instead, it’s a light-hearted tale of coincidence and, ultimately, determination as evidenced by a broken bicycle and the six stitches on Scott Holmes’ head.

For the last five years, Holmes, owner of Holmes Jewelry Shop in Valley Junction, has ridden his Vision recumbent bicycle to work from his home near 36th Street and Kingman Avenue in Des Moines with little incident through wind, rain, snow, ice and heat. Five days a week, he travels city streets and part of the Walnut Creek Trail on his handmade bicycle as a way to get some exercise and save money on gas. Each year, Holmes estimates, he rides an average of 2,000 miles to commute to work and run short errands.

Two days before Cityview spoke with Holmes for this story, unfortunately, he had his first serious accident. While riding downhill on a street to work he hit a pothole, lost control and wiped out. The accident left him with a broken bicycle seat, lacerations and bruises to his left hand and six stitches above his left eye. Horn, who wasn’t wearing a helmet during the accident, chuckles at the timing of the event.

“I feel better than I look,” he said, adding that until his wounds heal he probably isn’t the ideal poster boy for last week’s Ride Your Bike to Work Week event. But like anyone who has ever fallen off a bicycle, Holmes dusted himself off and plans to ride one of his other bicycles to work in the meantime.

“I ride for the exercise. It also saves a lot of wear and tear on my car,” he said. High gas prices factored into his decision to sell his gas guzzling, V-8 GMC Yukon SUV and his powerboat in exchange for a more fuel efficient 2008 Ford Edge and a wind-powered sail boat. “I’m reminded why I made my decision every time I go to buy gas.”

Though Holmes, 56, said his medical bills from his accident will make riding his bicycle to work less profitable for him when compared to what he would spend on gas, he said the benefits still outweigh the risks.

“Even though my bike is equipped to handle wet streets, they can sometimes be a problem, and you always have to be aware of cars,” he said, adding that he spends about $100 on repairs during the course of a year, considerably less than repairs and maintenance for his car.

“The difference is riding your bike to work is really enjoyable,” he said. “It forces you to get outside and get your heart going… sometimes more than you want.”

And though the wounds on his hand and face are still fresh, Holmes encourages people to ride their bicycle to work as often as they can.

“Pick your days and ride as many as you can,” he said. “Even if it’s only twice a week, stick with it, because that’s a lot of riding in a year. You don’t need to spend $1,000 on a bike, just keep it simple.”

And watch for potholes.

Ann Pashek

When Allied Property and Casualty Insurance Co. moved its West Des Moines offices to downtown Des Moines a few years ago, it not only brought about a change in scenery and lunch options for Claims Administration Manager Ann Pashek, but a change in attitude towards commuting to work. Unable to justify the cost and hassle of driving her car from her home in Winterset to Allied’s offices at 701 Fifth Ave., Pashek joined the ranks of Des Moines Area Transit Authority’s (DART) RideShare program.

“I didn’t want to fight the traffic,” Pashek said, “and my husband drops off our four kids to school in our [GMC] Yukon, which leaves me with our full sized pick-up truck. The truck gets about 10 m.p.g. I knew immediately that RideShare would outweigh the costs of fuel and wear and tear on the vehicle.”

DART’s vanpool program includes a fleet of about 92 full-size passenger vans and minivans that transport groups of five to 15 commuters to and from work in Des Moines from as far away as Ames, Grinnell, Leon and Guthrie Center. Participants live within a few miles of one another and drive their cars to a designated pick up/drop off spot so they can ride together to save money on their commute to work. Monthly fares range in price from $74 for a minimum of four passengers for a round trip commute of 30 miles or less to $233 for five to six passengers traveling 141 to 150 miles.

Though the cost of the program has slightly increased due to rising prices at the pump, DART Chief Development Officer Brian Litchfield said RideShare is a convenient, economical, ecological and less stressful alternative to driving alone to work. During the last four years, he added, participation in the program has increased due to high gas prices.

“When you consider it costs about the price of a tank of gas a month you couldn’t ask for a better way to get to work,” he said. “It allows people to hold their jobs in Des Moines when if they were to drive themselves it might not be viable.”

Pashek said her monthly RideShare is $130 and that Allied reimburses her $35 to participate in the program. Because Pashek is a designated reserve driver, she is further discounted $10 per month, lowering her out-of-pocket expense to $85. After calculating the cost of gas to drive her truck to be about $125 each week, she said her conservative estimates show that she saves about $375 per month in gas alone, not counting costs associated with vehicle maintenance and parking, for her 70-mile round trip. During the course of a year, that’s a savings of at least $4,500 in gas.
“I’m extremely pleased with the program,” she said.

But the program’s benefits reach beyond her wallet, Pashek said. She said the time in the van allows her to complete work or pay bills that would normally detract from valuable family time. She also said that she has not lost her independence by vanpooling.

“Actually, I think I’ve gained more,” Pashek said. “I have a laptop and a cell phone and can work in the van if needed, or pay bills. Some days you just need the down time or want to talk to friends and it’s good for that, too.” CV

20 tips on how to save money at the pump

1. Don’t drive. Carpool, walk, ride a bike or take the bus when you can.
2. Use regular gas. Experts say most vehicles, even those that “require” premium gas, run fine on gas that is 87 octane.
3. Inflate your tires. Lower tire resistance results in better mileage.
4. Get a tune up. Change your oil (synthetic instead of mineral oil) and air filter regularly. Use fuel injector cleaner occasionally to clean fuel system. Be sure your car is in good condition to get optimum results.
5. Get a membership or rewards card. Some gas stations, department and grocery stores offer discounts on gas.
6. Shop around and check the Internet for deals. Visit,,
7. Buy a diesel car or truck. They get better mileage and allow for use of biodiesel or waste vegetable oil fuel.
8. Buy a hybrid car. In addition to savings at the pump, federal (up to $2,000) and state tax deductions are available.
9. Buy a motorcycle or scooter. They are often cheaper than a car and get better mileage.
10. Reduce your commute. Move closer to work, or work closer to home.
11. Avoid idling. Walk into the fast-food restaurant; don’t sit in the drive-through lane.
12. Plan your trips to save fuel and time. Also, buy a Global Positioning System (GPS) to find the fastest and shortest distance to your destination.
13. Drive at a consistent speed and avoid high acceleration and hard braking. Use cruise control.
14. Slow down. Go as slow as traffic and your schedule will allow. Drive under 60-65 mph since air grows exponentially denser, in the aerodynamic sense, the faster we drive.
15. Clean out unnecessary items in your car and remove unneeded racks. A lighter automobile and one with less drag uses less fuel.
16. Don’t fill your tank until your last quarter tank. It can extend your gas because you are carrying a lighter load as the tank nears empty.
17. Buy gas in the morning or evening. Gas becomes denser in colder temperatures. Pumps measure the volume of fuel you pump and not the density.
18. Don’t buy gas from a station that just replenished its underground tanks. The particles at the bottom of their tanks are stirred up and can become mixed in with the gas and clog your fuel filter and lead to efficiency problems.
19. Tighten the gas cap to prevent gas from evaporating.
20. Gas prices are statistically cheaper on Wednesday, but it won’t be true every week. Fill up three days before a holiday to save money.


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