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Fuel For Thought
March 10, 2006 James Deakin

Fuel For Thought

There's a new gas about to be launched that is guaranteed to last 25 percent longer than your current brand. "I tried this new gasoline, and I'm amazed!" said one delighted customer, almost wetting himself with excitement. "Before, my tank used to only last three days, now it lasts four! Incredible!" The fourth day happened to be his coding day, but that will never make it to the brochure. Obviously.

C'mon, guys. I know we're all hurting, and these continuous price hikes are killing us, but please, are we so desperate that we have to swallow all the crap thats floating around about miracle fuels that promise relief, no matter how far fetched it may seem? Because as long as we do so, the only real killing here is what the ad agencies are making while they continue to peddle us hope.

There's so much that has been said about fuels recently that even Congress themselves are confused. According to a senior in a major oil company, during the discussion of the new ethanol bill, many Congressmen believed that bio fuels, hybrids and hydrogen were one and the same. Which is why I think its time to clear the air on all the hype and stop fuelling the fire on all the myths by answering some of your most common questions.

Do certain brands of fuel really give better mileage than others?

In a nutshell, I don't believe so.

The single biggest factor in fuel economy is you, the driver. Then vehicle condition. Then traffic conditions. Then road condition. Then the weather. All of that influences around 99 percent of fuel economy, leaving you with just 1 percent to play around with. One percent. We're assuming you're using branded fuel, of course. The difference is negligible. Now unless you're in politics, you can hardly give full credit to the one percent for the effort of the 99, can you? Would you credit Lance Armstrong's victories to his bottled water?

Who should I believe when it comes to fuel economy figures for cars?

Your own. Or a friend's. Or the manufacturer's international figure and add a few grains of salt.
Honestly, until we come up with an industry standard, and the guidelines are totally transparent, there are too many variables involved in achieving a credible figure. And too much is at stake. I've even been to a couple of 'independent' fuel economy runs where they fill your car to the absolute brim, then shake it violently and top it off to the point where you feel you're driving a fuel tanker - every crevice is filled, no air pockets wasted; open your ashtray and, ahh! There's fuel in there, too. They make you drive 50 or so kilometers downhill and then refill your tank until the first click. There was one car that was still overflowing when they opened up his tank. “This guy even earned fuel along the way!” they squealed in excitement. “He has more fuel than when he started! Its a miracle!”

Even the Department of Energy's figures are completely different to anyone else's. Including their own. Sometimes they're better, a lot of times they're worse, but they're rarely consistent. This is because of the difference in drivers. One car was advertised as doing over 26kms to a liter one time and then 20 another. Same car, same route, same fuel, different driver.

They also travel at midnight with a police escort and bypass the toll gates without paying so as not to break momentum. Umm... I'm not sure if I need to point this out, but, this is far from realistic. How many Crosswind owners travel with a private motorcycle escort to save on gas? Its counter-productive; like paying someone 50 bucks to watch your illegally parked car so you can save 30 pesos on the parking garage up the road. And seriously, if you can afford to have your own Moses on a motorbike that can part traffic for you I think its fair to say that its time and hassle you're trying to save. Not fuel.

What about fuel additives with octane boosters and injector cleaners?

Think of them like vitamins. You only need to take it to supplement what you're not getting from your regular diet. If the foods you eat are good enough, your peeing the rest away. The same goes for fuel. If you were using inferior fuel with lower octane, or you happen to own a super car that requires 98 octane, then by all means. Thats why its called an additive. Or a supplement.

Putting a higher octane fuel in a car rated for regular fuel is simply a waste of money. There is absolutely no advantage, except for the fuel retailer. Check your car's octane rating and use only that fuel. Today's branded fuels are all formulated to meet your car's engine needs and are only separated in quality by the skill of their marketing teams.

Don't believe for one second that a brand of fuel can get more power out of your car than what it was designed for. If your car is rated at a hundred hp and gets 10 km to a liter, lets say, then thats the most you can ever expect to get out of it. And just in case you have been watching too much TV, setting any road on fire while you're driving is not a good thing.

What about a bolt on fuel saving device?

Forget it.

There are many after market fuel saving devices that claim to save you 50% on fuel, clean the air, eradicate hunger in Africa and get Brad and Jennifer back together. Be afraid. Be very afraid. They work on the premise of introducing more air into the mixture and by bypassing key components in the fuel management system. Wow, why didn't we think of that?

After spending billions in research and development, the entire car industry has been left scratching their heads, wondering how they managed to miss this incredibly simple technique that could have prevented the US from declaring war on Iraq. Collectively, they seem to lack the intelligence of one man in Quezon City. And rather than spend their efforts and money on making this incredible system an OEM product, therefore shelving their billion dollar alternative power projects, they have simply used their global resources to conspire to conceal its brilliance. Lest they be embarrassed.

Is it okay to top off my tank, after the first click?

No. There's a reason why it automatically shuts off when it does. Fuel expands. You need to allow for this. Funny, for safety reasons, gas attendants won't let you use your cellphone while filling, but they'll happily send you off down the road with fuel literally bursting out of your pipes.

What about ethanol? Is that the future? I heard any new car can run on E10.

At the moment, ethanol is like putting a Bandaid on a huge gaping wound; it helps a bit, but it only offers minor relief, if any. There needs to be a long term commitment for it to work. But while we have nothing else, I applaud Shell for being the first oil major to offer the choice. But lets not get too caught up in the hype, either.

I guess the key word here is choice. For one, no matter what anyone tells you, not all new cars can run on an ethanol mix. Even Ford, despite being at the forefront of ethanol capable vehicles locally, with the introduction of the new Flex Fuel Focus capable of running up to a 20% mix of ethanol, admits that their very own Escape is not recommended to run on any ethanol blend.

Ethanol, because of its high water content, is corrosive. Although technically the Escape's engine can run on a blend of ethanol, the entire fuel system needs to be modified, like rubber gaskets, fuel lines, pumps, etc. in order for it to be fully compatible. Just as you would check with your doctor before taking any new medication, do the same with your manufacturer before switching to an ethanol blend.

Are there any performance gains with ethanol? Its supposed to have higher octane. What about fuel savings?

Honestly, I didn't notice any. And you have to believe me when I say I wanted to. Anything to ease the pain, I guess. That was my mindset. But when I drove the Flex Fuel Focus from Manila to Pampanga, loaded up with Shell's E10, I would be lying if I told you there was an improvement.

Then again, even if you notice nothing, then that means it is still better; after all, it is 50 centavos cheaper and it burns less carbon, right? Yes, but its not that simple. See, if this bill is hastily passed into law, then where is our guarantee that prices won't rise with demand, therefore putting us all back to square one? Sugar is a powerful commodity, too.

And lastly, while it is true that ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline, the refining process to make ethanol doesn't. So places like Brazil, who lead the world in ethanol consumption, have noticed little to no effect on the environment.

It is a step in the right direction, but lets not be too quick to jump to any solutions.

When will you finally get to the point?

I guess the point of this story is quite simple. Unless you are important enough to have Pocholo Ramirez drive you to work everyday, and you happen to live in Pagudpud and work in Sorsogon, I don't think you can realistically expect any drastic differences in fuel economy from one brand to the next, assuming of course you're not filling up at Aling Maw's petroleum plaza and carenderia.

Like anything, go for a brand you already trust. Be loyal to it because of everything else that it offers you. I for one fill up at my local service station as much as possible because I place more value on the attendant knowing my name, cleaning my windscreen, checking my air, oil and water than I do on possibly saving 2 pesos a tank down the road. I guess when it really comes down to it, I go to get refueled, not re fooled.

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Ardie Lopez18-Jul-2006 19:05
Love the last line dude... and that's telling 'em! Now if we can only be as straightforward about our politicians. -er, but that's a different story. Good work, James!