Home » How Low Do You Let Your Gas Gauge Needle Go? Autopian Asks

How Low Do You Let Your Gas Gauge Needle Go? Autopian Asks

Aa Outta Gas Ts
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The late Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “I still believe that a car with the gas needle on empty can run about fifty more miles if you have the right music very loud on the radio.” While that may be an exaggeration, it brings up an interesting question — how low will you let your fuel needle swing before filling up?

 

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This edition of Autopian Asks was inspired by David Tracy’s recent tempting of fate, eventually filling the 20-gallon tank of a 2005 Toyota Sienna with 19.5 gallons of gas. Given the all-wheel-drive Sienna’s EPA combined fuel economy figure of 18 mpg, the fuel in the bottom of the tank may have given him a range of nine miles. That’s not much of a margin.

My general rule is to never let the fuel needle swing below a quarter tank, primarily because fuel pump replacement sucks and so long as you keep the pump cooled by fuel, the lifespan of the part should theoretically be prolonged. Given how reliable most modern low-pressure fuel pumps are, keeping a quarter-tank on hand feels a bit superstitious, but I’ve yet to experience any adverse effects of having plenty of fuel remaining.

However, I do have two notable exceptions. If I need to do any work that requires fuel tank removal, I’m running that thing pretty much dry. Draining fuel sucks, and the less to drain, the better. In addition, if I’ve been storing a car with a full tank of stabilized fuel, I let that first tank of the season run down to about an eighth of a tank before filling with fresh stuff, just to get the old but hopefully still good stuff out of the system.

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So, how low do you let your gas gauge needle go? Are you one of those people who argues with the range remaining readout once it hits zero, do you take a perhaps overly cautious approach, or are you somewhere in between? Whatever the case, I’d love to know.

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GreatFallsGreen
GreatFallsGreen
2 months ago

Typical daily driving, lowest I’ll go is by the 1/8 mark, usually little before if I time it around a Costco trip. This is assuming the trip odo is at the usual pace, that usually puts me shy of 300 miles and within range of typical consumption. Based on my fuel logs, around the 1/8 mark leaves me around a gallon and a half of the 13.2 remaining usually. But these are times I know I have access to stations and I’m not driving far. Other trips will vary based on destination but would be looking for a station at a 1/4 if not already refilling; if I’m driving somewhere for work I’m timing it around that distance for the reimbursement.

By the time the low fuel warning comes on I’m already planning around a stop, but I don’t rely on as it’s calculated based on range and average MPG, and counts down in increments of 5 miles. If it comes on at the start of a drive, but I’m driving conservatively like highway or I’m hitting all green lights or something, I’ve seen the number go up.

Drew
Drew
2 months ago

As with most of you, I’m team 1/4 tank. My girlfriend is team “the gas light came on so I will probably get gas after I go to the store.” But she also got annoyed when her TPMS told her that her tires were low when the weather got cold. She insisted she’d never had to air up her tires in the winter with her previous car (which might be true because of winter tires or because she had indirect TPMS and they all deflated equally). Her car habits stress me out.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Drew

On the other end of the spectrum, I was talking to an ex-girlfriend recently and she was relaying to me how frustrated she’d been with her Toyota FJC as the low tire pressure warning kept coming on intermittently. She’d checked each tire several times and they were all inflated to spec, so WTF? Then it hit her – it has a full size spare on the back. Yep, the system was reading that one!

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

I hate that I had a jeep commander that would do that and it was usually in the bitter sub zero cold and the valve faces up on the spare under the back and in front fo the rear bumper so to get the light off I had to drop the spare and pull it out from under the car.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

We were getting big temperature swings at the time, so it bedeviled her for a least a week until she figured it out. Fortunately, her spare is on the back, so it was just pull the cover off; those under-vehicle ones are much tougher.

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago
Reply to  Jack Trade

esp when they are valve up. ????

Jim Stock
Jim Stock
2 months ago
Reply to  Drew

My mom knew how many miles to empty every car could go after the light came on way back to there being low fuel lights. I have run out of gas coasting up next to gas pumps.

Drew
Drew
2 months ago
Reply to  Jim Stock

My mom irritated my dad a few times before the podunk town I grew up in got a gas pump. Nearest gas station was about a 20 minute drive. Nearest gas was the can for the lawn mower, and that had to be used to ensure she could get to a gas station on more than one occasion. They still don’t like to get the overpriced gas at the store in town, but at least it’s an option now.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
2 months ago

See that photo up there, that’s how low. I don’t use the MPG display, so I see the light, I stop.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 months ago

I ran my old VW to an indicated remaining range of zero a couple times.
It took a couple litres to fill more than the claimed tank capacity.

It was always a case of not paying attention – not that I wanted to stretch it that far.

Uncle Cholmondeley
Uncle Cholmondeley
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

In his book Out West, Dayton Duncan describes driving a VW microbus he has borrowed from his sister. He’s miles from the next town and the needle is just about on E, but he figures that, like every other car he’s driven, he has at least 10 miles before he is truly out of fuel. The vehicle sputters out with the needle exactly on the E mark, and he curses the Germans’ commitment to precision.

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
2 months ago
Reply to  Spikedlemon

I had a Touareg that would have 6 gallons remaining when the low fuel light came on and THREE when it hit 0 miles remaining. Seems like things have changed.

Spikedlemon
Spikedlemon
2 months ago

I like to think that the Germans creatively think they’re smarter than us by protecting us from mundane problems like running out of fuel (despite having three systems in place to already alert you).

It doesn’t make up for all the other annoying German car ownership challenges.

Maymar
Maymar
2 months ago

It’s a digital gauge in my 2, once it goes from the last bar flashing to no bars and the E flashing, that’s 10L left (out of 42L), and I fill up at the next possible opportunity (I’ve comfortably got over 100km left). I’m only getting about 400km on that 32L, so I’m not inclined to fill up any early if I don’t have to.

JaredTheGeek
JaredTheGeek
2 months ago

Going that low is terrible for the fuel pump. I used to let it go to a quarter tank before I would get fuel. I also mostly had cars that got terrible mileage.

ElmerTheAmish
ElmerTheAmish
2 months ago

I’ve had to make a drastic change with my newest vehicle. My last car was a 2016 Kia Optima with an 18.5 gallon tank. Through some testing early on, when the gas gage hit “E”, I still had 2-3 gallons in the tank. (The rate of consumption shown was otherwise very accurate as far as I could tell.) So with the Kia, I wouldn’t have an issue running the needle all the way down before stopping.

Now with my ’22 CX-30, not only has the fuel tank shrunk massively (it only holds 12.5 gallons), but the damn needle is pretty damned accurate! If I run down to “E”, I’ll have to put 12 gallons into the tank. With this, I’ll normally start looking for a convenient time around 1/4 tank indicated.

Fun story to go with all of this: The first car I ever bought on my own was a 2007 Chevy Malibu Maxx. The sales guy (the most stereotypical used-car salesman I’ve ever encountered in real life) was kind of an asshole, and in the end, sent me on my merry way without even the courtesy of filling the tank. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I do remember stopping at the gas station across the corner from the dealer. I put in slightly more (indicated) fuel than the owner’s manual stated was the capacity of the tank. I’m glad I stopped when I did!

Mark Tucker
Mark Tucker
2 months ago

1/4 = empty. I do not like to gamble. I ran out of gas once, when I was sixteen, and it was enough of a hassle to make sure it never happened again.

My wife does not share this view; quite often when I get in her car, the light is on, and the gauge doesn’t move off the peg. There’s a gas station a mile from our house, but it’s uphill to get there. Once or twice I was sure I wasn’t going to make it. So far so good…

ElmerTheAmish
ElmerTheAmish
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

My wife isn’t quite that bad. However, it does seem that every time we take her car somewhere, she always needs gas, and I’m always the one out in the cold/rain/whatever filling it up! lol

James Carson
James Carson
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

It’s a running joke with my wife and I. I get nervous at a 1/4 tank. She runs miles past when the lights start flashing and the bells sound out. Does it with all the cars. I often get to refill whichever car I end up driving.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
2 months ago

The ND Miata has about 2 gallons in reserve when the range indicator hits 0, which I figure is about 50-60 miles. That’s plenty of time for me, so I’ll let it go to 0 almost every time.

MahNaMahNa
MahNaMahNa
2 months ago
Reply to  Rad Barchetta

Same with my ND! I would keep driving but seeing that 0 miles weighs on my psyche.

JerryLH3
JerryLH3
2 months ago

I typically fill up at the most convenient time after hitting 1/4. However, depending on trip length/tank level, I may fill up before then. I follow a lot of the same exceptions you do though. If my fun car has been taking a long time to get to 1/4 based on not being able to drive it much, I will try to take it down a little lower.

755_SoCalRally
755_SoCalRally
2 months ago

Add me to the 1/4 tank cohort. I had an 83 or 84 Datsun/Nissan 720 with a bad fuel sending unit, so until I got to 1/4 tank the car read as empty. I got in the habit of 1/4 tank fill up timing and I’ve not changed since.

My stance was justified when we had wildfires where I live and I was able to evacuate without stopping for gas. That experience cemented in me the need to always have at least 1/4 tank in my cars.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

Like most here, 1/4. Made easy as my Focus has a dash light reminder (she’s pre-screen) right in the middle of the gauges that goes on about that point. A useful nanny for once.

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
2 months ago

Depends on the car, they all read quite different relative to whats actually in the tank.

an 88-98 Gm Truck, when that needle hits the last hashmark, you have exactly 5 minutes of runtime before she starts sputtering.

in a 97-2006 Wrangler, when the needle hits empty, you still have 3-4 gallons left.

Those are the only two I have actual experience running empty, but as a rule, I never ever go below 1/4 tank.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  H4llelujah

This may not be consistent across all cars even of the same make and model because a slight bend in the skinny wire fuel float arm will make a big difference.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago

In the truck, I aim for half, which means that when I get around to actually doing it, it’ll be 1/4. That’s mostly Petrol Traumatic Stress Disorder filling it up from near empty and buying twenty-six gallons of gasoline at once.

The bike is an absolute pain the dick to fill and I wait until it’s at 2/10. I constantly have to burp it after a certain point, and the air bubbles up in a short-lived but very messy gasoline foam. I don’t top off in regular cars, but if I don’t do this dumb dance with the bike, the venturi valve will shut it off half a gallon short of full. That’s a big deal when you can only hold 3 gallons in the first place.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

You think 26 gallons is crazy? Lol

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

I mean, it doesn’t blow my mind in the grand scheme. But 26 is, I think the sum of almost every other vehicle I’ve had. It’s a lot to me, considering I’m happiest dailying a motorcycle.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

Yeah I figured. My f150 has 37 gallons capacity between both tanks, and later years have 40+, so yeah 26bisnt crazy in the grand scheme.

And when you’re driving a semi, anything under 200 gallons is a notably small tank.

My Goat Ate My Homework
My Goat Ate My Homework
2 months ago

I once put 17 gallons in a tank with a listed capacity of 15.8 gallons. I also twice ran out of gas on the highway. So, that’s my baseline.

In the winter I have a hard rule to not let it get below 1/4 tank in case I get stuck somewhere and need to idle for heat. But otherwise, my car will let me know when it’s really out of gas.

Daemoss
Daemoss
2 months ago

Around town, I top off at half a tank. On a road trip, I’ll let it go to a quarter before I start searching for a gas station.

SLM
SLM
2 months ago

I juste keep it going low until I have some money on my bank account. I’ll take my bike if it reach minus 1/8 of tank.

Younork
Younork
2 months ago

I have a very short commute which has several gas stations and a Costco either on the way or very short out of the way, I can go several days below a 1/4 tank. Usually, I fill up at about 1/8th, unless I’m going somewhere outside my normal radius, at which point I fill up quick before leaving.

Uberscrub
Uberscrub
2 months ago

Rarely below 1/4 tank. More often in winter so I don’t get stuck in a ditch and run out of fuel and freeze.
Road trips I fill up at pretty much every time we stop.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
2 months ago

I fill up when it’s convenient. Sometimes that means a third of a tank and sometimes that means the dreaded zero bars left. My current car reads empty when it has a little over 3 gallons left, which depending on the conditions will get me anywhere from 80-120 miles. It’s pretty much useless.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
2 months ago

Between 1/4 and 1/2, will do it sooner on trips through Virginia to ensure I always have enough to get well past the DC area without stopping

TheHairyNug
TheHairyNug
2 months ago

My Fit has 1.5 gallons left when the light comes on. It gets about 40 MPG… It’s a pretty big buffer lol

Ron Bitter
Ron Bitter
2 months ago

I had a fuel pump blow up on a junky old Chrysler I drove back in College. I habitually ran that car down until the fuel light came on and then put less than $5 worth of gas in it due to general student poverty. After than expensive breakdown I usually, but not religiously, fill up at a quarter tank.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
2 months ago

I’m with you, I try to refill at 1/4 tank. I real long drives I’ve been on E a couple times.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
2 months ago

I avoid going below 1/4 tank, for the same reasons of preserving the fuel pump life – I’ve replaced a lot of fuel pumps in my lifetime, and I’ve never found it one of those repairs that gets me excited to do.

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