Reader Question: Will using higher octane "premium" gasoline increase my fuel economy?
Dear concerned car owner,
You know, I expect sticker shock when I go into an electronics store or a jewelry store…but the gas station? Prices are soaring again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves how much we love our big Suburbans and Expeditions. So what are we really buying-and how can we keep from spending any more than we really need to?
What does the number mean?
I drive up the gas station, walk around the back of my car, swipe my credit card, and reach for a handle. Which handle? Do I want 92, 96, or 98? How am I supposed to know? What does it mean, and how could a six point spread possibly be worth an extra $.75/gallon? If it was a final exam, a 92 would still be an A right?
The number posted on the fuel pump is the octane rating of the gasoline. The octane rating is basically an anti-knock (or ping) rating. Ping occurs while the engine piston is on the upstroke and there's a pre-detonation of fuel. And that's probably as technical as I need to get. The higher the number on the pump, the less pre-detonation of fuel will occur, and the lower your chances of knocking and pinging. This pre-detonation can also cause internal damage.
The octane rating of a fuel can be altered by several different processes. Usually it is either refined to the desired value or enhanced with additives. The refining process is very costly, so that's why you see all these advertisements for special "detergents" and "additives" from the gasoline companies.
Do I need the expensive stuff?
Now that you know what you're paying for…do you need to buy a higher octane fuel? Premium fuel, at a premium price, usually means a higher octane and some detergents. If your vehicle runs okay on regular grade fuel, by all means use it. Some vehicles will clatter or ping on fuel with minimal octane ratings, but this is rare. I use the cheapest grade fuel that is offered by a major refiner.
Don't get caught up in all the advertisements and flash that lead you to believe that your car needs the highest octane gasoline. Most automobiles built today will run great on 87 and above. Check your owner's manual for specific recommendations for your make and model. Spending money on an octane level higher than what's needed for your car is just spending money-it won't increase performance.
Should I buy a name brand?
I do not purchase fuel from convenient stores or from a lesser-known brand name unless I have no other choice. If I do get a tank of "bad" gas I want the refiner or the pumping station to take responsibility, and pay for what ever damage has occurred to my vehicle. Jim's Quick Stop #2 might not be able to or refuse to pay for the damages that their fuel caused to my vehicle. Whereas the large oil companies usually try to keep their customers satisfied, and have polices and procedures in place when things of this nature occur.
Should I use gasoline additives and treatments?
Gas additives and octane boosters are a big business, and that industry does a great job convincing consumers that their cars need them to run smoothly. I will admit that once in a while I will suggest to a customer that they try a gas additive in a car that "pings" due to low octane fuel. These additives do not cause any harm, so if you think your vehicle runs better when you use them, do not quit on my account.
But remember: don't expect something that comes in a can to fix a mechanical problem. If you've got engine problems, pouring an extra liquid in the gas tank isn't a magic cure.
How do I maximize my gas mileage?
There are several things you can do to make sure you're getting the best gas mileage possible. You'll notice that most of these items are also safety factors, so you'd be protecting your wallet-and your family-by checking them frequently:
- Tire pressure-make sure that your tires are properly inflated and in good condition.
- Speed-you'll use less gasoline at a lower speed; also traveling at a constant speed rather than accelerating and braking frequently maximizes gas usage. You'll travel 20% further on a gallon of gas at 55 mph as opposed to 70 mph.
- Air filter-make sure your air filter is clean.
- Tune up-keep your car on a regular maintenance schedule to ensure all parts are working efficiently and safely. Easy to use maintenance schedules can be found at our site.
- Extra weight-don't lug around everything you own in your trunk if you are trying to maximize gas mileage. Also, clear ice off of the car in the winter or you may be carrying around an extra 100 pounds or more.
- Maximize car usage-most of us would love to car-pool if we could work it into our schedules, but in reality we need our vehicles and the freedom they provide. At least we can be conscious to combine errands and avoid peak traffic times when possible.
What doesn't help?
Cars have really changed over the last several years. They aren't built with carburetors any more, everything is run by computer, and most are fuel injected. The tricks that your grandfather taught you probably don't apply to your new automobile. Here are a few items that either really doesn't help, or the difference isn't worth the hassle:
- Turning off the air conditioner-this will slightly decrease economy, but probably not worth the discomfort you will endure.
- Putting the car in neutral when you are at a stop light, drive-thru, etc.
Although I started this article stating that the cost of a gallon of gasoline is going through the roof, I can without a doubt say that in America we pay the least amount for our fuel. Other countries, especially Europe, have been paying 3 to 4 times what we pay in the States. I am eating a bowl of my favorite ice cream as I type this and have calculated the price per gallon of this creamy dessert to be $6.80! I guess I shouldn't complain too much about the "dessert" my car has been eating.
Austin C Davis
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