We’ve all reached a point where we watch the fuel level of your vehicle move closer to empty, without a gas station in sight.
It can be a scary experience if you’re out on the highway with few cars around you.
For some, letting the gas tank empty out is a rare experience. For others, it’s a regular routine.
What happens as the gas tank moves towards empty? Can it impact your vehicle in other ways?
Experts say it’s a bad idea to allow your gas tank to get that low regularly. Here’s why.
Is empty really empty?
Drivers learn quickly that an empty warning sign doesn’t mean empty immediately. People often push a little further, pressing the limits of what their cars can do.
As the car’s gas tank empties, it triggers a warning light, letting you know the gas levels are low. Each auto manufacturer sets its own guidelines for how much gas is left inside the tank when that connection is made. Most do so to allow you to drive another 30 to 60 miles, enough to make it to the next gas station.
If you have a smart car, it may also give you mileage numbers on how many miles you have until your next fill-up. Keep in mind that these are estimates. Sitting in traffic, climbing hills, or driving at high speeds can all impact the fuel efficiency of your vehicle, and impact how much gas you’ll use in between fill-ups.
What driving on empty can do
As a general rule, manufacturers suggest that you not let your fuel level drop below a quarter tank. There are a few reasons for this.
The most obvious is that it can leave you stranded. If your car runs out of fuel, the engine will stop. That means it comes to a halt wherever you are – on the highway, on a country road, in the middle of the city, or out in the middle of nowhere. You’ll have to call for help or walk to the nearest filling station. In addition to being a major inconvenience, it can also put you and your passengers at risk.
It can also damage your vehicle. Your engine runs on gasoline. Without it, it comes to a grinding halt. Without proper levels of gas in the system, it tries to make do with what’s in the system. That can cause components to work harder than necessary, and damage them internally.
Like your fuel pump. It isn’t designed to work without proper levels of fuel. The fuel pump sends fuel from the tank to the engine. The fuel pump relies on full levels of gasoline to keep it cool and lubricated. By driving on low fuel levels, your car isn’t getting proper lubrication, which puts the fuel pump into overdrive trying to keep up.
The fuel pump also has a filter, which can get dirtier faster if you drive with low levels of fuel. Dirt and debris can filter to the bottom of your tank, blocking the filter and causing significant damage to the system.
If fuel isn’t available to work its way through the system, it can take in air instead. Because your engine isn’t designed to work on air, it can cause misfires. You’ll likely feel this in the way of loss of power, hesitation, or vibration.
How does a car act when it’s running out of gas?
As your car runs on the last drop of fuel, it’ll be obvious as it comes to a halt. You’ll experience a brief hesitation as the engine misfires, trying to compensate for lack of fuel. When this happens, try to pull out of traffic to safety. From there, the engine shuts down and your vehicle will lose complete power.
If you reach that point, it’s important to pull over, if possible. Turn on your hazards and move to a safe location. If you know you won’t make it to a gas station, worry about safety first. Move your vehicle out of traffic and away from potential harm.
Then call for help. If a family member is nearby, a friend is in the area, or you have access to emergency road assistance, all can help by providing enough gas to make it to the next gas station. If those aren’t available, call in a tow truck or a non-emergency local police department.
Running out of gas causes damage to your vehicle
Think of fuel as the lifeblood of your vehicle. Without it, it can’t run properly, and will wear out faster and cause more repairs over time. Running out of gas can lead to:
Overheating – if the fuel pump is working harder to move gas into the engine, it can lead to overheating. Without proper cooling, it’ll impact the way your engine operates.
Corrosion of fuel injection system – condensation can start to occur with low fuel levels. This impacts internal temperatures, which can lead to corrosion in the fuel injectors. This can be a big concern for older cars that may still have tin gas tanks instead of the more modern plastic ones.
Clog filters – without gas in the tank, it can draw residue from the bottom. This residue is typically hidden in a full tank, and won’t impact the filters. As residue surfaces, it can start to clog filters, which leads to problems with the fuel pump.
Protect your fuel system
If you let your fuel levels consistently move towards empty, you’ll pay the price both in repair work and in higher fuel bills when you do fill up. Make it a priority to:
- Keep your gas at a quarter tank or above
- Use quality gas that keeps your vehicle operating well
- Control speed or rapid acceleration to increase fuel efficiency
- Be aware if you’re nearing empty and take the necessary precautions
And if you’re worried something may be wrong with your fuel pump, injection system, or filters, schedule an inspection today.