Today’s gas pumps are a potentially confusing array of names, colors and alphanumeric symbols. Gasoline comes in five or more varieties, and that doesn’t account for diesel. Mix them up and the results may range from a ruined engine to corroded fuel lines to “no harm, no foul.” In my opinion, this is the worst mix-up: Filling a diesel-engine vehicle with gasoline. It’s going to be either expensive or extremely expensive.
“If you notice (that you’ve filled a diesel car with gasoline) before starting the engine, you just have to clean the whole system,” said Jim Gill, head of product and technology public relations communications for Volkswagen. “This primarily entails draining the fuel tank and refilling with correct diesel fuel.”
But if you do realize that you’ve put gasoline into your diesel engine, don’t drive it or your engine may suffer serious damage. You’ll need it towed to a professional mechanic or dealership that can flush the system properly.
“If you notice (that you put gas in a diesel engine) after you started the engine, then catastrophic failure of the injection pump, the injectors, and finally the whole engine will likely occur,” continued Gill. “Nobody really can tell you when that will happen. But it is not a long time or distance.”
Of course, there are technical reasons gasoline can be fatal for a diesel engine, and a gasoline engine won’t run on pure diesel. First the petroleum refining process (creation of gasoline) results in products that have progressively higher boiling points. Gasoline boils somewhere between approximately 105 and 410 degrees Fahrenheit, while diesel boils around approximately 500 degrees Fahrenheit to 650 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the European Automobile Manufacturers Association.
Second, both gas and diesel engines mix fuel with air, and then compress the mixture as the piston moves toward the top of the engine’s cylinder. Diesel engines rely only on compression to ignite the fuel: They do not have spark plugs. Compression ratios for diesel engines range from 18:1 to 23:1. By comparison, gasoline engines typically boast a compression ratio of 9:1 or 10:1, according to Engine Builder Magazine. The increased pressure of the early ignition of gasoline in a diesel engine can break pistons, bend connecting rods or even blow the head off the engine; failures normally seen only on highly stressed drag-racing engines.
Putting diesel in a gas-fueled car is a different matter. A couple of gallons of diesel may only make the car run poorly, but it can smoke like a steam locomotive. If fed only diesel, a gasoline-fueled vehicle will quickly stop working.
As mentioned above, gasoline engines typically have a compression ratio of around 10:1, far from enough to ignite diesel, even with the help of a spark plug. If you put diesel in a gas engine and pretend it didn’t happen, the fuel pump, lines and injectors could be ruined, the fuel filter clogged up and other damage done. If you do realize your mistake before you start the car, have the vehicle towed to a repair shop where the fuel tank can be drained.
Pump nozzles and vehicle filler necks on gasoline-fueled vehicles have been designed to help prevent against putting diesel in a gasoline car, but some drivers can be very determined to put fuel (even the wrong type) into their vehicle. Some of the safety measures designed to prevent fuel mixing include: A separate diesel dispenser, color-coding the handle, designing the diesel nozzle to be a larger diameter so it won’t fit into a gasoline tank filler neck and including a protective flap inside the gasoline filler neck to further help prevent diesel from entering the tank.
Unfortunately, the smaller-diameter gasoline nozzle fits readily into the larger diesel filler neck. To combat this scenario, some manufacturers have developed devices that help prevent fueling if a smaller-diameter nozzle is inserted. Unless your diesel vehicle is fitted with such, you may want to avoid loaning it to anyone, especially someone who isn’t familiar with fueling a diesel vehicle.
Now that you know why it’s important to avoid confusing gasoline with diesel, and vice versa, what about all those octane numbers: 87, 89, 91? Unless your vehicle calls for it (in the owner’s manual), filling with higher octane, say 91 instead of 87, will do nothing you can notice except waste money. If you put 91 in a car that calls for 87, there’s a slight chance the computer will advance the timing, but this would be noticed only on a drag strip timing slip: Anything else is the placebo effect.
Unless it’s a vintage or sports car, if vehicle calls for 91 and you fill it with 87 octane, it’s likely nothing bad will happen except the car will be slightly slower and may get worse fuel mileage, according to Edmunds.com. Modern cars have knock sensors that report if the fuel is igniting before it should. The car’s computer will then make adjustments to the engine timing and, perhaps, to the fuel flow to fix the problem. (Older generations will remember knock and ping from the days of carburetors and before cars had more computers than a spacecraft. Ask your grandparents.)
How about E85 in a vehicle not made for it? Flex-fuel vehicles are designed for this mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline: Other grades of gasoline are typically 10 percent ethanol unless marked, according to PopularMechanics.com. If you accidentally fill a non-flex-fuel 2001 or later vehicle with E85 once, nothing bad will typically happen, except fuel mileage will suffer. That’s largely because ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but also because the car’s sensors will think the engine is running too lean and increase fuel dispensed.
The check engine light will almost certainly appear. A tank of normal gasoline will probably clear the light. If you make a habit of running E85 in a non-flex-fuel vehicle, it may be result in some significant repairs, says PopularMechanics.com. The reason: Ethanol is corrosive and may harm fuel lines, the fuel tank and perhaps, fuel injectors not designed for it. If you have a 2000 or older model, you may consider searching for alcohol-free gasoline: Yet another fuel choice: E0.
Does all this make you long for the ‘50s when the gas station attendant (although some locations in New Jersey still offers this) came to your car, asked “Regular or ethyl?” and then filled your car and washed your windshield? Me, too.