December 12, 2011

Is Cheap Gasoline Bad for Your Car?

Various gasoline stations sell gasoline at different prices.   The different  major brands often boast that their gasoline has the bestest* additives and that their gasoline will do great and wonderful things for your car.  But what about that other station that isn't a major brand name and sells gasoline for 5¢ cheaper?   Should you be concerned about the quality of gasoline you get and is cheaper gasoline inherently poorer quality?

The good old days.
This is one of those topics that has some serious arguments.  One side is insistent that some gasoline stations sell bad gasoline and the best gas is sold by a specific company.   On the other side of the argument are people who state that all gasoline is the really same and the only differences are minor detergents and marketing campaigns.

Personally I've been of the understanding and belief that gasoline is all pretty much the same.    There are few refineries in the USA and the gasoline basically all comes from the same places.   The differences are in the additives added to the gasoline which will have marginal if any impact.  

I found an article from The Morning Call newspaper that reported "Consumer Reports magazine tested gasoline brands in 1995, and found no differences significant enough to make recommendations, according to senior auto test engineer Gabriel Shenhar."   I think this is a pretty good data point to back up the idea that gasoline is pretty much all the same.    Yes there may be differences but are they significant differences?    Not according to Consumer Reports.

Gasoline Vendors Give NO Proof Theirs is Better

I randomly selected Shell as one of the major brands.   I then browsed to their site about Shell gasoline fuel.
They talk a lot about how great their gasoline is.   Shell  has a patented formula for "Shell Nitrogen Enriched Gasolines" which they say "Acts as a protective barrier to shield and PROTECT intake valves and fuel injectors".and "Helps improve engine performance as you drive."  Ok, well I don't doubt any of that per se.   However how much does any of that really matter?   I don't see anything on the Shell site that really proves any useful difference.   They do say they've tested it : "Shell Nitrogen Enriched Gasolines have been extensively tested, clocking more than a half-million miles in various engines and vehicles, ..."   But I don't see any results.   If Shell tested their gasoline and found that it improved engine power, increased fuel mileage or significantly impacted engine life then why aren't they showing us those results?   My guess is that their testing didn't really result in any significant improvements from using Shell gasoline.  If they tested their gasoline and found it was better in a significant way then wouldn't they be bragging about that?   I also checked out Exxon as another test and didn't find anything special there to prove their gas is better either.

The big gas companies use some marketing to convince us that their gasoline is better.   But they don't back it up with anything specific.   There are no scientific tests done to illustrate concrete benefits.   There are no 3rd party assessments to support their claims that their gas is best.   Don't you think that if one company had gasoline that was really significantly better that they'd be bragging about it with specific proof?   You bet they would.   The mere fact that individual gasoline companies aren't bragging with specifics tells me that they don't have any specific proof of significant benefits from their gas. 

Unless a gasoline vendor can provide objective and useful information about why their gasoline is better I'm going to go with the assumption that it isn't really significantly better.

Isn't Top Tier gas better?

When researching this topic I came across a couple mentions of Top Tier gasoline standard. This is a standard for gasoline developed by some auto makers.   Theoretically I see nothing wrong with this and I can't imagine why it isn't good gasoline.  But I see nothing on the Top Tier website really explaining HOW this gas is better and WHY its better.    Similar to the gasoline companies there is nothing proving to me objectively that I ought to worry about gas that isn't Top Tier labeled or anything significant to show why Top Tier gas is better.  Lacking such evidence I am going to conclude that Top Tier gas is fine but not significantly better than other blends.   I would also point out that Top Tier gas is not endorsed by all automakers and several of the major gasoline brands are not Top Tier.

The EPA's rules

EPA regulates content of gasoline in a variety of ways.    So every gasoline station has to put certain things in the gasoline.  For example, in the winter in some parts of the country it is mandated that gasoline contain 10% ethanol.   Otherwise the EPA generally mandates some content of gasoline focused on making sure that that pollution from gas is lessened.   But the EPA doesn't seem to look at fuel quality otherwise.   The point here is that all gasoline vendors have to obey these rules so something like the 10% ethanol requirement won't vary from one gas station to the next.

Your State Government Probably Has Your Back

Your state may perform quality testing and inspection on gasoline.   My state has a department that inspects gasoline stations for quantities and quality.   They test the quality of the gas and make sure you're getting a full gallon.  There are inspection stickers on the gas pumps indicating when it was tested most recently.   Many states have programs that randomly sample and test gasoline quality.   For example the state of Missouri does various fuel quality tests on gasoline.  Unfortunately I couldn't find a complete list but I did find many individual states that have such testing.   I'm assuming that most states have such testing and inspection, but I don't know for sure how how many states do it and which ones might not.

Bottom Line :  No cheaper gas isn't bad for your car.  Gasoline is pretty much all the same.

Photo by Adam Jarmon Brown

* Yeah I know that ain't** a word.
** that one too.
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