With South Florida life so wrapped around commuting, we spend a lot of time in our cars and use a lot of gasoline. Fortunately for motorists, Hurricane Florence did not affect drilling or refining operations and thus had “little to no effect on prices,” travel club AAA reported Monday.
In fact, the average price of a gallon of gas actually dropped 3 cents a gallon over the past week in Florida — from $2.77 to $2.74 for unleaded regular — but remains 2 cents more than a year ago, AAA said.
Still, gas prices in South Florida are more expensive than anywhere else in the state, so many of us choose the cheapest we can find. But is that the best way to treat your car? Opinions vary widely about how we should approach buying gas. We decided to consult experts.
Q: Why is gas cheaper at some stations than at others?
A: Many factors affect retail gasoline prices, according to most experts. One is that wholesale prices fluctuate every day, and every station likely paid a slightly different price for what it is selling on any given day, says Ned Bowman of the Florida Petroleum Marketers Association.
During periods when there are no external pressures pushing prices upward, rogue stations will seek a competitive advantage by undercutting their competitors, sometimes by noticeable amounts. Rival stations in the immediate vicinity will match the discounts, creating clusters of sharply lower prices at and around competitive corridors or intersections.
Various stations need to set different profit margins, depending on how they are set up, Bowman says. A mom-and-pop-owned station might need to make a penny or two more per gallon to make a profit, while a corporate chain can make little or nothing on the gas because they survive on profit from soda, beer, tobacco and snacks.
Q: Will I get more power if I use higher-octane gas?
A: While many cars today are manufactured to run on high-octane gas, engines made to run on regular 87 octane won’t benefit from using 89 or 93 octane, Bowman and DeHaan say. If a car’s computer detects that the injectors are burning faster because they’re using higher-octane fuel, the computer will adjust the timing to compensate, they say.
However, older cars with carbon buildups that begin to knock or ping might benefit by switching to higher-octane, according to several sources, including a posting at the Kelley Blue Book website. “That’s because carbon deposits inside the cylinders raise the combustion ratio, which in turn raises the engine’s octane rating,” the post said.
Q: What’s up with the E85 gas I see at many pumps. It’s quite a bit cheaper. Can I use it?
A: Aligned next to the familiar 87, 89, and 93 octane choices, you might think E85 refers to an 85-octane choice, but it doesn’t, DeHaan says. This is actually a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, and you should only use it if it says Flex Fuel or E85 in your owner’s manual, on the fuel door, or on a yellow gas cap. Even if you use it, keep in mind that your miles per gallon will be reduced by about 30 percent, wiping out any potential savings you might expect from the lower price.
Q: Is there any real difference between gas at “name-brand” stations such as Mobil, BP, Shell, and Chevron compared with cheaper, off-brand fuels?
A: Two years ago, travel club AAA had the same question about an additive formulation called TOP TIER, which some gas stations say provides significant benefits. “They wanted to know, ‘Is this just marketing hype?’” says Mike Kunselman, spokesman for the TOP TIER Center for Quality Assurance, a Midland, Mich.-based licensing organization.
The TOP TIER standard was established in 2004 by auto makers concerned that existing gas did not have sufficient levels of additives and detergents to prevent carbon buildup in modern engines — which are more likely to operate with higher compression, turbo charging, variable valve timing and direct gasoline injection. TOP TIER additives are added into tanker trucks at gasoline storage facilities, and even the smallest independent mom-and-pop station can order its shipments to meet TOP TIER standards if it chooses, Kunselman said.
To test whether TOP TIER gas is really better for car engines, AAA ran both TOP TIER gas and gas that meets the federal government’s 1996 minimum standard through an engine for 100 hours to simulate 4,000 road miles. The tests found TOP TIER gas produced 19 times fewer intake valve deposits than the minimum-standard gas, AAA reported.
According to the website operated by the TOP TIER licensing program, brands that manufacture gasoline to TOP TIER specs include Amoco, BP, Chevron, Citgo, Costco, Exxon, Marathon, Mobil, Shell, Sunoco, Texaco and Valero.
Does a station’s absence from this list mean it sells lower-quality gas? “We just don’t know,” Kunselman said.
Some companies might have their own additive formulations and choose not to seek TOP TIER certification, he said. But he said enrollment in the TOP TIER program is so inexpensive, a company would have no reason not to claim the designation if it were selling fuel that meets the TOP TIER standard.
A: The 1996 Environmental Protection Agency standard remains in place, meaning that gas can still be sold that does not meet TOP TIER standards or contain enhanced additives like gas sold by the major brands before the TOP TIER standards were introduced.
The AAA report notes that running an engine on non-TOP TIER gasoline for extended periods can result in carbon deposits building up on fuel injectors, the back sides of intake valves, and in the combustion chamber. As the deposits disrupt air and fuel flow into the engine, this can erode fuel economy and cause rough idle during cold starts and hesitation during acceleration. It can also result in knocking and pinging, and increase exhaust emissions.
Q: Sheesh. Does the average driver know how bad cheap gas can be for a car?
A: Not so much, according to AAA’s report. In a survey of 1,002 adults, six in 10 drivers said they believe there are differences in gas quality sold by different stations, but seven in 10 said they choose their gas based on price or location. Only a third of drivers said they usually buy gasoline that contains detergent.
A: Several points made by the AAA report suggest you shouldn’t panic if you’ve never made an effort to buy enhanced or TOP TIER gas.
First, the average price difference between TOP TIER gas and minimum-standards gas over the course of a year is just 3 cents a gallon, the report said. So even if you’ve based your gas-buying decisions solely on price and location, you’ve likely pumped a lot of TOP TIER gas without even realizing it.
Second, gasoline and additive industry research evaluated by AAA showed that switching to a TOP TIER or enhanced additive fuel will clean up the carbon deposits created by the minimum standards fuel. Intake valve deposits were reduced by 45 percent to 72 percent after running 5,000 miles with enhanced additive fuel, the report said.
“Gasoline with enhanced additive packages, such as those in the TOP TIER program, will not only help prevent carbon deposit formation on critical engine components, they will also reduce existing deposits that have accumulated over time,” the report said.