Gasoline: Changes at the Pump – Remember Ethyl? –

        Like most people, you may want your car to just “get you there.” You want reliability with minimal maintenance and even if you’re a car buff, you don’t want to need a degree in chemistry to understand the world of gasoline.

        That is until the cost of gas goes up, your miles per gallon go down or a time in the past when your technician may have called you to say, “Hey, I think I’ve figured out why your car’s leaking gasoline — have you been using any of that methanol or RFG at the gas pump?”

        “Huh? Metha-what or RFT? I use unleaded.”

        Yes, true. Everyone uses unleaded today — it’s the only fuel that’s compatible with the chemical requirements of your catalytic converter. But that topic already blew by most of us with little public information offered, except that the converter can overheat and cost a lot of money to replace. Remember when the exhaust system used to just mean a “muffler?”

        The world of automobiles is becoming increasingly complicated. And while there are some things you’d rather not understand unless you have to, gasoline is no longer one of them.

        As you are aware through your participation in the California Smog Check program, or elsewhere in the United States or world where newer formulations of gasoline are being created, the fact that leaded gasoline has long disappeared from the market is just one step in a series of actions to reduce air pollution.Even as environmental regulations are moving us toward cleaner air, car builders are racing to meet increasingly stringent requirements for emissions, petroleum companies are having to “reformulate” gasoline to help minimize what creates those emissions.


Get the Lead Out


        One of the most obvious changes at the gas pump was the move from one-way gas nozzles and hoses to two-way to vapor-recovery (vacuum) nozzles. The addition of a “coaxial” (two-way) pump hose and vacuum nozzle was incorporated to capture toxic gasoline vapors before they escaped into the atmosphere.

        Prior to the vapor-recovery systems, it used to be that you could even see the trace of vapors evaporating from gas pump nozzles — that blurry distorted look of air (similar to the heat out the rear of a jet engine). The vapor-recovery system is just one of a number of steps being taken to prevent our atmosphere from being loaded with toxic elements from gasoline.

        Yet, another area of change is in the gasoline itself. Leaded gas started being phased out in 1975 with the advent of the catalytic converter. The catalytic converter helps reduce toxic emissions by using a catalyst (substance that speeds a chemical reaction) to heat and ignite residual combustion gases coming out of the engine.

        When exhaust gases come into contact with the converter’s catalyst substance (usually platinum, palladium or rhodium), a chemical reaction occurs and drives heat up to as much as 1,400 degrees. It’s that heat that ignites some of those excess engine gases and turns them into harmless carbon dioxide and water. The only problem is that if lead is in the gasoline, when it exits the engine in the exhaust it will react so severely with the catalyst that it will melt the device. So much for leaded gas, eh?


More Changes at the Pump


        During the past two decades there have actually been a number of other changes in the composition of gasoline that are not as noteworthy, but all significant. One of the more recent changes was in 1992 when “oxygenated” gasolines were required during winter months. Because of the characteristics of the winter climate, modified gasoline has been introduced during the colder weather months of November through March. Actually, I’d like to say “reformulated” gasoline since that might be a more apt description for the increase in the oxygen content of fuel to reduce carbon monoxide emissions. But “reformulated” has a more specific place in this story.

        Los Angeles, also known as the heart of the South Coast Air Basin, is just that — a basin that tends to hold smog. And unfortunately, the smog of LA pushes as far north as Ventura County. That’s almost local news. On January 1, 1995 an all-new gasoline was introduced in Ventura County, along with the counties of LA, Orange as well as parts of San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

        The new fuel is called “reformulated gasoline,” or simply “RFG.” RFG is just one of several upcoming “phases” of gasoline changes we’re going to be seeing in coming years. The implementation of RFG is one of the results of the 1990s Clean Air Act Amendments and is required for sale year-round in nine major U.S. urban areas. But it also points the way of the future for changes in gasoline that will affect all of us — even in Santa Barbara.

        The Federal RFG has a higher oxygen content, a reduced level of toxic benzene and eliminates the use of heavy metals. It also contains detergent additives to reduce deposits in fuel injectors and on valves, helping engines to perform more efficiently. At the same time, there are some other things you need to know. Even though RFG is not being sold at gas pumps here in Santa Barbara, you’re very likely going to be fueling up on trips to LA or while traveling through Ventura.

        While industry studies claim that RFG reduces reduces toxic and smog- forming emissions as much as 15 percent over the gasoline of five years ago, it also can reduce fuel economy by as much as two to three percent. And since it doesn’t vaporize and ignite as easily as conventional gasoline, it can result in tougher cold-weather starting, too — though our warm summers and warmer overall weather will minimize this factor.

        More importantly, the reformulated composition of this new gasoline can have an adverse affect on “elastomers” — which means it could cause a gasoline leak in your car. Elastomers are used in automotive fuel systems as seals, “O” rings and hoses. The RFG chemical changes of reducing benzene and other products have potential to make some types of seals swell or shrink.

         Reports indicate that this is not a reason for panic, however, as most later-model vehicles will not be affected and contain RFG-compatible seals. But, to be certain — or if you own an older or high-mileage vehicle you should consult your technician about the potential replacement of fuel system seals, just to be on the safe side.

        (By the way, It’s great that we’re looking out for the environment with all of this “oxygenated” and “RFG” stuff, but if you’re like me you might miss asking for that simple gal’s name at the gas station — what was her name again?  Ethyl? ** For those of you born after lead disappeared from fuels, “Ethyl” was the term used for a mid-grade leaded gasoline. Maybe your grandfather knows who came up with the name that sounds like it could be some lady — and why a “gasoline” was named after her!! 😉  

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