There are two types of drivers in the world: the ones that prefer to fill up the gas tank the moment their vehicle’s gas gauge nudges towards a quarter tank, and the ones who prefer to push the limit and drive it down as close to empty as possible.
Running out of gas is never fun. Depending on your current destination, it can leave you stranded in compromising places. It can make you late, and even put you in danger.
If you have a running out of gas story, chances are you remember the details of what happened. But have you stopped to think about your car? What goes on underneath the hood when there’s no more gas to feed the system? Does it hurt the engine? How about the other mechanics?
Today’s vehicles are finely tuned pieces of equipment with specific parts that help push fuel to the engine. If fuel no longer exists within the system, these components can quickly break down.
Where the process starts
You might assume that from the moment the gas tank empties, the car screeches to a halt and no longer works. It doesn’t work that way.
Instead, traces of gasoline continue to feed the system. The car will start showing signs that gas is no longer running through the system in the expected quantities. It may have power surges, engine sputtering, or even engine backfire. And in between it all, you’ll also notice a loss of power. This is your cue to get to safety. Pull to the right and get to safety as quickly as possible.
This process may be further complicated by the fact that your hydraulic power to your brakes and steering systems start failing as well. It won’t completely take away your steering or brakes, but you’ll certainly notice a difference. It will require additional effort on your part. If you have electric power steering, it will continue to function from the car’s battery, so you’ll have more control and power over other types of vehicles.
What goes on underneath the hood
If you start to notice the difference, you can only imagine what’s going on with the mechanics of your vehicle.
A car is designed for safety. It will do everything it can to keep you safe. When your car runs out of gas, the engine ceases to work. The loss of power will cause hydraulic assist to help with steering and brakes for a short time to get you to safety. It won’t cause damage to those components. But without gas flowing through the system, it can cause extensive damage quickly that surfaces as costly repairs.
Because running out of gas damages the fuel delivery system. Today’s vehicles are intricately designed to work together, fed by electronics and technology to ensure every piece is efficient as possible. Today’s modern cars are equipped with an electronic fuel pump that resides in the gas tank. That fuel pump stays in good working condition by using the gas to both keep the tank cool and provide proper lubrication. If no gas exists, there isn’t anything left to perform this function. With a minimal amount of gas in the tank, the fuel pump is very likely to overheat and fail.
That in itself can be a very costly repair. But it gets worse.
As this process occurs, the fuel pump is, in essence, self-destructing. As it’s trying to perform its function and can’t, it can shed a variety of debris that makes its way into the fuel system. That spreads the possibility of destruction.
The problems that occur when you run out of gas
Your fuel pump is only the beginning of where the damage can occur. Most car manufacturers today recommend filling up your gas tank at a quarter tank. Never let it go much lower to help keep an adequate supply of gasoline in the system to do its job. It’ll make your fuel pump last longer, and will ensure all working parts are well lubricated.
But as gas runs lower, the fuel pump starts running into problems, followed by other possible conditions.
The fuel injectors may also be impacted. Over time, debris and other impurities can create sediment that falls to the bottom of the gas tank. It’s the fuel filter’s job to filter this all out to prevent it from moving further into the engine. But when the fuel level drops too low, the impurities can make their way into the fuel lines, clogging the fuel injectors, which are tiny nozzles that spray gas into the engine.
Like the fuel pump, the fuel injectors may not display symptoms right away. If your car won’t start after running out of gas previously, it’s usually a problem with either the fuel pump or fuel injectors.
To start your car after running out of gas, don’t turn the key and crank the engine right away. After refilling the gas tank, turn the key to “on” without cranking the engine. Then turn it back off. Do this a few times to help prime the fuel pump with plenty of gasoline before you crank the engine. This helps remove any air that has entered the fuel lines as a result of being without gasoline.
If this doesn’t work, it’s time to let a mechanic check out the entire system. A qualified technician can ensure fuel injectors are properly working, and help restore power to your engine.
What to do when your car runs out of gas
Prevention is everything when it comes to keeping your car in good working condition. Pay attention to the gas gauge. As it nears a quarter tank, make plans to stop at the nearest fuel station to add gasoline back into the tank.
Yet if you do find yourself running out of gas, first and foremost is to stay calm. Find a safe place to pull over where you aren’t putting yourself or others at risk. If possible, exit the highway and find an open area or parking lot to stay free of traffic.
Turn on your hazard lights. This will help warn other drivers that your car is temporarily a hazard to driving, and will help warn them to stay clear. This is especially important if you are near traffic and you could become a problem.
Call for help. This is what roadside assistance is made for. You can rely on friends and family too if they are nearby.
Then have your car inspected to ensure there is no damage. Fixing minor problems early will ensure they don’t escalate and turn into larger problems.