The higher gasoline prices go, the more money business Web entrepreneur Jason Toewes makes.
He started an Internet site, GasBuddy.com, in 2000 to track daily gasoline prices using volunteers to e-mail what they find. "Hardly anybody ever used it," Toewes, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., recalled.
By 2004, 1 million people were visiting the site daily, although the numbers dropped when prices went down.
But at the pace hits were being recorded Thursday, the site was likely to break its record of 4 million visitors, Toewes said. As gasoline prices have risen, so have the hits on his site and another, GasPriceWatch.com.
"We have had to buy more servers and it looks like we will need more," he said.
GasBuddy.com offers information from 180 locations in the U.S. and Canada, including every major city. The site said the average price nationally in the U.S. was $3.22 for unleaded Thursday afternoon, compared with $2.86 a year ago.
Brad Proctor, founder of GasPriceWatch.com in Centerville, Ohio, said his site has added prices for ethanol, biodiesel, truck diesel and ultra-low-sulfur diesel. Hits on his site have doubled. As many eight people log in every second during peak periods, he said.
Dan Gilligan, president of the Arlington, Va.-based Petroleum Marketers Association of America, said the system is a good idea but warned consumers to remember that if they drive more than 10 miles to save a nickel, they are losing money. He also said there's no guarantee the price will be the same when they arrive.
"Many retailers are getting price increases twice a day. You may have a price increase within six hours," he said.
Other businesses are also tying technology to drivers' increasing efforts to find a deal.
A cell phone provider, Mobio Networks, launched a free service this week telling its customers the cheapest gasoline prices in their area.
BetUS.com, a sports betting Web site, was posting odds of the national average exceeding $3.50 before the end of the year.
Toewes' company, GasBuddy Organization Inc., claims to monitor 900,000 stations with several hundred thousand registered volunteers. GasPriceWatch.com says it tracks 170,000 stations.
People can send a message to gas(at)gasbuddy.com with a ZIP code in the text area, and the site will reply with the cheapest nearby stations.
The Web site also has a national map for those planning trips.
Relying on volunteers for price information does have its flaws. People occasionally make false reports of unrealistically low prices, Toewes said. "We do monitor them and we take them off and ban the person who sent it," he said.
He also gets calls from time to time from stations embarrassed to be on the list with the highest prices. "They don't want to be seen as gouging people," he said.
Supermarkets and stores such as Costco Wholesale Corp. locations often are the cheapest "because they use gas as a loss leader," Toewes said.
Calls and e-mails to the Web site lead him to believe the shock of $3 gasoline has worn off.
"People are budgeting for it," he said. "But many people will just put five bucks in until they can find a cheaper station."
Toewes said despite its increasing number of hits, the Web site has not made millionaires of him or co-founder Dustin Coupal, an ophthalmologist.
"But we do have enough advertising to sustain the operation," he said.