101: Your First Lesson in the Economics and Politics of Petrol
By: Mike Magda
© 2004 PickupTruck.com
Gasoline prices hit an all-time high in this Spring, and forecasters
are predicting more records for the summer. The American Automobile Association
(AAA) says gas demand could be up 1.6 percent for the year. Given the
already strained refining capacity in America and foreign countries—especially
in the volatile Middle East—tightening their production output,
pickup truck owners will not get a break at the pump.
High gas prices usually lead to a lot grumbling and complaining, but
very few motorists will change their driving habits or switch to a more
fuel-efficient vehicle. One recent survey noted that gas would have to
stay at $2.75 a gallon for six months before just five percent of the
survey’s respondents would purchase a different vehicle.
Economists say high gas prices don’t shock the pocketbook as hard
compared to price spikes when the first oil embargo hit this country in
the early ‘70s. Today, gasoline prices are a much lower percentage
of our disposable income. When you factor in inflation, gas prices are
quite reasonable. And when you compare the cost of American gasoline to
petrol in Europe, we have quite a bargain.
But gas prices do play an important role in the psychology of the average
American, and that’s why high prices can shake consumer confidence.
So if gas prices do go up dramatically this summer, expect the topic to
be heavily debated during the presidential campaign.
owners don’t have a choice: They need their heavy frame and gas-slurping
V8 for work or favorite recreation. But few motorists really know what
goes into their tank. There are numerous myths and misconceptions about
gasoline. So PUTC has compiled and answered some of the more frequently
asked questions about gasoline:
is gasoline and how is it made?
Gasoline is a liquid mixture of volatile hydrocarbons. Petroleum crude
pumped from below ground can be refined or distilled into a variety of
hydrocarbon products, ranging from lightweight methane gas to heavyweight
asphalt. Gasoline is produced by combining middleweight hydrocarbon products,
and then mixing in chemical additives to achieve desired performance levels.
Diesel fuel is made from slightly heavier hydrocarbons.
gasoline really come from dead dinosaurs?
A likely theory on the origin of petroleum focuses on organic matter—mostly
vegetable but some animal—decomposing under heavy pressure and the
absence of air over millions of years.
The octane number or grade measures a gasoline’s ability to resist
detonation and/or spontaneous ignition. The higher octane number, the
more resistance to detonation.
Also known as pinging or knocking, detonation occurs when there is abnormally
high pressure in the cylinder, forcing the piston backward against its
will on the compression stroke. A pre-ignition condition has a slightly
different cause and more destructive results, but the knocking noise is
the same. Both can lead to significant internal engine damage.
what does the octane number mean?
The original reference point came in the early 1900s when 87 octane gasoline
was a blend of 87 percent iso-octane and 13 percent heptane. Gasoline
formulas and octane rating methods have changed dramatically since. Now
called the Anti-Knock Index (AKI), this is the octane number posted on
the pump by law. Generally, three grades are available: 87 (sometimes
called regular), 89 and 91 (sometimes called premium). The numbers themselves
mean little to the average consumer, but every driver needs to be aware
that all vehicles require an adequate grade of gasoline.
is the proper grade of gasoline for my vehicle?
Check the owner’s manual first and be sure that the recommendation
is listed as an Anti-Knock Index number. Some foreign car manuals may
indicate a Research Octane Number (RON), which is higher than the AKI.
As a quick rule of thumb, you can subtract 5 from the RON to get the AKI.
The recommended grade should be adequate for normal driving, but if you
hear a pinging or knocking noise, step up a grade immediately. You should
also purchase a higher grade when carrying or towing heavy loads, driving
to a hotter climate or traversing mountain ranges as a precaution to knocking.
I mix different octane grades in my tank?
Sure. In fact, some gas stations have just two underground tanks and mix
the middle grade in the pump before it goes into your truck. Whether mixing
your own petrol cocktail is economical depends on the prices. The cost
of 89 is usually halfway between 87 and 91 anyway.
my truck run better if I step up to 91 octane?
Not necessarily. Quality fuel will not heal a sick engine or improve fuel
economy. A truck manufacturer may recommend high-octane fuel because the
engine is designed to run on premium. If the manufacturer recommends 87
octane, then use it until you detect knocking. Giving your truck premium
fuel is not the same as eating health food in place of sugar snacks.
all gasoline brands alike?
No. The actual composition produced at different refineries in the country
can vary, even within the same brand. Formulas are different for each
climate and season. Additives, such as detergents, are different between
brands. Laws are different for each area of the country regarding oxygenated
gas to help improve emissions. Even the way wholesalers, transporters
and gas station operators store and manage their stock can make a difference.
It is possible to get a bad batch of gasoline. When you find a brand and
station that suits your needs, stick with it.
do gas prices change so much?
Simple economics of supply, demand and competition. Gasoline prices not
only depend on the cost of foreign crude oil, taxes, refinery costs and
capacities, inventories and supplier/dealer profit margins, but intangibles
such as world events, financial markets and environmental regulations.
Local gas stations are independent operators and set their own prices
based on local competition, real estate rents and labor costs. Some speculation
is necessary because the current pricing has to pay for the next delivery
does gasoline cost so much?
Compared to other consumer liquids, gasoline is a bargain. Bottled water
sells for about $4 a gallon, mouthwash is around $18 a gallon and cold
medicine is close to $180 a gallon. Adjusted for inflation, the real cost
of gasoline is less than what it was 30 years ago.
are ethanol and methanol?
Ethanol is an alcohol fuel derived from corn and methanol is derived from
natural gas. Both burn cleaner than gasoline but aren’t cost effective
for general consumers. Mixed with 15 percent gasoline, ethanol (called
E85) and methanol (M85) can be used in a Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV).
is a Flexible Fuel Vehicle?
The engine in a FFV automatically adjusts between gasoline and other fuels
such as E85 and M85. Major vehicle manufacturers have FFVs for sale, sometimes
at a lower cost than gas-only models because of tax breaks. Alternative
fuels costs more, are harder to find and may offer lower fuel economy.
The upside is a cleaner burning vehicle, and sometimes there are tax advantages
and HOV-lane privileges.
do diesel engines get better fuel mileage?
The diesel cycle is inherently more efficient than the “Otto”
cycle used in gasoline engines. Diesel fuel is also heavier and contains
more energy. But diesel engines do not accelerate well, are extremely
noisy and pollute more. Those conditions are quickly changing as government
regulations will soon force diesel engines to run almost as clean as current
grandfather says he put mothballs in his gas tank to make his car run
faster. Does that trick still work?
No. It’s true that gasoline formulas in the ‘40s retained
some oxygen when mothballs were dissolved in the tank. This additional
oxygen might have compensated for a rich fuel condition in the engine
and improved performance. Today’s fuels and engine-management systems
are so sophisticated that mothballs will not make any difference, except
possibly to clog up filters.
I use over-the-counter additives?
Gasoline already has a high dose of chemical additives to keep fuel injectors
and valves clean under most driving conditions. If an engine has been
diagnosed with dirty injectors, then an over-the-counter additive may
help. As mentioned before, gasoline brands are different, and certain
driving conditions may lead to injector deposits that are not cleaned
by the additives in the driver’s regular gasoline choice.
long can I store gasoline?
About six months if the gas is stored in a sealed metal container and
placed in a cool location. A gasoline has deteriorated if it has a fowl
smell, is cloudy or shows signs of separation.
does the nozzle at the end of the hose on the gas pump know when the tank
A small hole is located near the tip of the nozzle, and from there a small
tube leads back to a check valve in the handle. When fuel reaches the
tube, the check valve releases the handle.