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

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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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Dangerous_Daveo
Dangerous_Daveo
2 months ago

If there isn’t less than zero kms left on the little trip thing, I’m not filling up (unless the fuel price cycle lines up with less than half a tank, as we can have a $0.40 per L swing, which is also why I run it down, as it normally lines up with that pretty good…) I think I’ve done a good 70km after hitting zero a few times, so still a fair bit left.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago

Username checks out

Angry Bob
Angry Bob
2 months ago

The fuel gauge in my truck has been broken for the entire decade I’ve owned it, so I go by the odometer. 400 miles is no sweat. I’ve gone to 450 before it starts to choke out on acceleration. 38 gallon tank and 16mpg means there’s another 10 in there so the pickup tube must be broken.

My motorcycle doesn’t have a fuel gauge. It’ll go 120 miles before I need to twist the knob to reserve. I leave it on reserve all the time and just start looking for a gas station at 120 miles.

On numerous occasions, Angry Ex-Wife managed to run the car out of gas pulling into the driveway. I’d go to start it and it’d be dead empty. How she did that, I have no idea.

Beer-light Guidance
Beer-light Guidance
2 months ago
Reply to  Angry Bob

Was your driveway on an incline? Had enough to get home but then what was left pooled where the pump couldn’t get it to get started again?

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
2 months ago

As my boss at the auto-body shop used to say: “It doesn’t cost any more to run it on full than it does on empty”. That said, I generally fill up between a quarter and a half. There have been exceptions of course.

It took being stranded twice to learn that my ’73 Karmann Ghia’s gauge tank was actually empty when the gauge showed 1/4.

It only took being stranded once in my ’71 Cadillac sedan deVille to learn that car had the same gauge-characteristic as the Ghia.

The gauge didn’t work at all in my ’72 Mercedes 220D, so I just reset the trip odometer and filled up after it hit the 150 mark.

My ’94 Cadillac deVille had a digital gauge showing range to empty, and that took me awhile to get used to. If I ran it down to a certain point, the range would quit and the message center would read “low fuel level”. If I kept going, the message would change to “Fuel Level Very Low!” and would start flashing at me. That was actually kind of jarring.

I used to run my 2014 Spark down almost to empty a bunch of times when I first started driving it regularly. My wife never warmed up to the stick shift, so I started driving it in the winter leaving our 2012 Volt at home so she had something to drive when her ’95 Escort wouldn’t start. I had gotten very used to almost never filling up the Volt, so going back to stopping at a gas station once a week took some getting used to.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago

> As my boss at the auto-body shop used to say: “It doesn’t cost any more to run it on full than it does on empty”.

A full 15-gal tank weighs about 95 lbs, the size of a young teenager, petite woman, or average man with no legs. Which isn’t a big difference, especially at cruising speeds, but I’ll bet it does cost a few pennies more to run it on full 😉

Last edited 2 months ago by The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
2 months ago

That is true. I also seem to remember a recommendation to keep my Volt at a third of a tank if I was driving mostly on electric in order to maximize distance. However, mentioning use cases such as these to my old boss likely would’ve netted me a grunt, a center-finger salute, and the task of drilling out spot welds the rest of the day :-).

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago

I routinely run my tank until the engine dies. I have a twin tank Ford pickup and so when it starts sputtering I just switch to the other tank.

I don’t buy into the idea that that little 12v fuel pump gets hot enough to really need to be cooled by fuel.

Outofstep
Outofstep
2 months ago

Usually I fill up at a little over 1/4 of a tank. I haven’t gotten down to an empty tank in about 20 years and I don’t plan to anytime soon. I actually let it run lower than usual last week because I was running around and hadn’t noticed how low it had gotten. I put in 12.75 gallons in a 14 gallon tank. Too low for my tastes.

I got stranded in that big blackout on the east coast all those years ago because I was on fumes and had a 23 mile drive home. Sure I got to play hide and seek in a Blockbuster but I didn’t enjoy crashing on my friends floor. So now I make sure I have a decent buffer to get around just in case.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago

The fuel light is currently on in my Civic, and the computer thinks I have about 30 miles left. On average, I drive between 5 and 10 miles a day, so I’ve got 3 to 6 days before I’ll need someone to push while I steer…

David Smith
David Smith
2 months ago
Reply to  MATTinMKE

If it’s your car, you push and I’ll steer. I’d expect nothing else if it were my mistake.

Last edited 2 months ago by David Smith
MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

Yeah, that’s fair.

But I’m not admitting to any mistakes.

David Smith
David Smith
2 months ago
Reply to  MATTinMKE

If you need a push, you’ve probably made a mistake. If it weren’t for mistakes how would you know how to avoid them?

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago
Reply to  David Smith

I prefer miss-calculation.

David Smith
David Smith
2 months ago
Reply to  MATTinMKE

I found that Miss Calculation was a mis-calculation. The english language is fun to play around with.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
2 months ago

I normally fill up at around the quarter mark or just below. My motorcycle has no fuel gauge but has two fuel petcocks so reserve on petcock 1 is find gas soon, reserve on petcock 2 is find gas now! but I haven’t hit second reserve in 20 years

Jeff N
Jeff N
2 months ago

Back in my poverty days, I used to run my DD down to E because I only wanted to fill up once per week. If today wasn’t fillup day, I’d just risk running it further down towards E. This strategy, as dumb as it was, didn’t pay off as I killed the fuel pump and unceremoniously had to get towed from work and bum a ride home. It was 2 days before the shop got the car back to me, so I had to bum a few rides just to get around. The pain in the arse factor wasn’t worth it anymore, so after then I started looking for fuel somewhere between 1/4 tank and the light coming on.

Now I fill up somewhere between 1/2 and 1/4 tank. That may sound crazy, but me for it is psychological: I have a 25-gallon tank so filling up long before E is less of a shock, even if I am using the same amount of gas than if I waited to closer to E. That and my gauge has a non-linearity to it that is also psychological: the first half of the gauge represents some 60% of the tank, with at least 2 gallons or so hiding above F (no, I don’t click 6,000 times, just once, and this is how GM rolls). I seem to go a long way at F before it starts to drop fast, slowing down its descent rate until the halfway mark. The next 1/4 tank indication then disappears at an alarming rate.

DrDanteIII
DrDanteIII
2 months ago

Usually I fill up at before the 1/4 tank mark. However, I have run my BMW’s range into the low single digit region.
It took 17.5 gallons to refill the 18.5 gallon tank from there, so I actually had another 30 or so miles of range.

Theotherotter
Theotherotter
2 months ago

I used to be a chronic tester of the limits of the range of my Sentra SE-R in my 20s. I had done it enough times to know that when the low fuel light went on, I had 25 miles left.Once, around 2000, when I still had two gas cards that my parents paid for, I left a gas station on nearly-empty because there was supposedly an Amoco a few miles down the interstate. I ran out of fuel as I was accelerating down the on-ramp. The AAA driver was understandably confused about how I ran out of gas less than half a mile from a gas station. For a long time I continued to run tanks as far as I could. Now I’m smarter and I fill up as soon as the light goes on, or just before, or at a quarter tank if I’m somewhere remote or I’m in the TDI and diesel is hard to find.

Clark B
Clark B
2 months ago

In my 1972 Super Beetle, I usually let it get to one gallon before refilling. There’s a red zone labeled “R” on the fuel gauge that indicates you have one gallon left. Not sure why it’s considered a “reserve” when it’s all one tank. Probably a holdover from Beetles that didn’t have fuel gauges and did have a reserve of one gallon. You’d just tap a lever on the floor with your foot to switch to reserve. Since my Beetle covers less than 1,000 miles a year I like to make sure I run as much of my previous tank before refilling.

In my Sportwagen TDI, I usually try to refill before the indicated range drops below 50 miles or so, but usually sooner than that. Especially on road trips. On the way home from Detroit a couple years ago we were maybe 15 miles from home when a semi overturned on the highway ahead of us. Glad we had just stopped at a rest area, or we could have been in the middle of it all instead of stuck in traffic behind it. Anyway, we had plenty of diesel to get home, but not enough to idle in traffic for a couple hours. Ended up having to turn the car off, which sucked because it was hot that day. So now I try to refill at about a quarter or third of a tank when on the road. Sure, I know I can get 500 miles out of a tank (550 was my best), but I don’t usually wait that long.

Bill D
Bill D
2 months ago

I typically fill up around 1/4. Strangely, my ’23 VW Tiguan’s owner manual recommends letting it get down to where the “Low Fuel” light comes on a few times a year. Not sure why.

Dennis Birtcher
Dennis Birtcher
2 months ago

Depends how much I trust the car. My old Focus I knew when it was on E and the display read 0 miles to empty, that meant there were still 2 gallons left. I believe my current Fusion has the same 2 gallon buffer, but it’s also far more obnoxious in warning me, so I find gas just to shut it up.

On the other hand, my older, carbureted cars, where acceleration, braking, or just stopping on a hill can swing the fuel gauge 1/8 of a tank up or down… can’t trust that.

On a third hand I almost forgot about, my long languishing project Fiero used to run out at half a tank. I suspect the fuel pump was on its way out, but numerous other problems sidelined that car first.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
2 months ago

So, this is just a random tidbit, but I know that Toyota calculates the empty light coming on with a 20% reserve. i.e. a with a 20 gallon fuel tank, the light will come on at 16.

Pat Rich
Pat Rich
2 months ago

I rarely let the light go on. I find that the Cruiser likes the top half of the tank more than the bottom.

Scott Wangler
Scott Wangler
2 months ago

I put my destination on Wayze. I like to watch the battle between miles left in my trip and miles to empty battle it out. Fun fact when a Ford Focus reads zero mile to empty there is still fuel in the tank.

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
2 months ago

A German friend says that in Germany people take their cars back to the dealership to fix the defective fuel gauge if the car doesn’t immediately run out of fuel the moment the needle touches the empty mark.
Apparently “running on empty” is a weird American thing.
Anybody know what the norm is in other countries ?

Thomas Metcalf
Thomas Metcalf
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

This gauge! It says empty but the car is running. How can the car run with no fuel?

Hugh Crawford
Hugh Crawford
2 months ago
Reply to  Thomas Metcalf

His words exactly!

Glutton for Piëch
Glutton for Piëch
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

I don’t know how true this is, but when I worked for MBUSA, our rep said Mercedes calibrated the US-bound cars to have a 10-20% reserve (usually about 2-3 gallons), and the German bound cars to hit E when it’s actually empty.

I wouldn’t be shocked if it is true.

David Escargot
David Escargot
2 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Crawford

My brother drives a hilux with approximately 75km range after the guage shows empty

JDS
JDS
2 months ago

I grew up in the 4 Corners area. In that part of the world, it’s easy to end up 40+ miles from the nearest gas station. Running out of gas in the desert in SE Utah or on a mountain pass like Wolf Creek or Lizard Head can be dangerous, not just inconvenient. That’s why I still get nervous when the gas gauge is under 1/4 tank, even though I now live in Denver and Costco is less than a mile away.

Back in the misty past of about 1987-88, I had my first vehicle, a 1964 F100 with a big, thirsty V8 (8 MPG in the mountains) and a non-op gas gauge. I kept a long stick of wood with notches cut into it in the bed as a dipstick for the gas tank. Thanks to poor planning, a Sunday afternoon with no open banks or any of those newfangled ATM’S at old gas stations, and teen me with no cash in hand, I was facing a long drive home over two major passes (Coal Bank and Red Mountain) with the very real prospect of running out of gas. Luckily, that old truck didn’t have power steering, or vacuum assist for the brakes, so when I shut off the engine at the top of each pass to coast down, it drove exactly the same, just quieter.

I finally ran out of gas and coasted to a stop about 50 feet from the pumps at Trimble springs just north of Durango, CO. The gas station was open on Sundays and had a shiny new ATM in the lobby. That’s the last time I let myself run that low on gas.

Doug Kretzmann
Doug Kretzmann
2 months ago
Reply to  JDS

we used to do that going fishing, three mountain passes to the lake.. no money, so would turn off and coast all the downhills..

my first car didn’t have a working gas gauge, luckily the odometer worked so I’d fill up after 300km – 10l/100 and a 45l tank. Only ran out of gas twice in six years – first time in Zimbabwe where we got a little lost on the dirt back roads. We traded a jar of instant coffee for a gallon of petrol at the nearest group of huts. The second time was on the way home from a night out and wasn’t paying enough attention.. 5 mile walk at 1am did focus the mind some.

these days it’s a quarter tank, partly from the superstition about fuel pumps that Thomas mentions, partly because it’s not hard and it is really unpleasant running out. In winter, half a tank.

My wife on the other hand doesn’t fill up until the low fuel warning light has been on for a day or two. ‘I know my car’..

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  Doug Kretzmann

A 5-mile walk at 1am on dirt roads in Zimbabwe could have made for very interesting stories. Especially for the lions.

Citrus
Citrus
2 months ago

If the “distance to empty” thing says under 100kms that tends to be when I fill up, unless I get wind that the gas price will be lower further down the road, then I might push it further.

UnseenCat
UnseenCat
2 months ago

The fuel level sender on my old Dodge diesel truck was broken when it came into my hands… But the trip computer still works so I can get the average MPG from that and calculate range off of consumption against a 30-gallon tank. When range gets down to 50 miles or so, it’s time to find fuel.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
2 months ago

My Honda Fit has a fuel light. When it goes on, I fill up. And the light goes on when the 41L tank is down to having ~7L of fuel left… which is enough fuel to go at least 100km.

I don’t like to let it run close to dry as I know the fuel pump is kept cool by fuel in the tank.

But at the same time, I don’t want to make dozens of trips to the gas station, which is why I don’t fill it up when it gets down to half as some people do.

HOT_HATCH
HOT_HATCH
2 months ago

My FZ-07 will go about 25 miles once the gauge shows empty, which is about half a gallon.

A MK6 GLI will go 7.4 city miles once it shows zero miles to empty.

JCat
JCat
2 months ago

My hybrid daily I try to go all the way to E, despite the fuel pump wear. I drive a 15 mile round trip to a gas station that’s > 30¢ cheaper than next to my house, and the math checks out that the distance is cheaper than the convenience.

On my ‘Quest I don’t let it go below 1/4 unless I know I’ll be storing it or lifting up the rear end.

Geo Metro Mike
Geo Metro Mike
2 months ago

Used to run out of gas all the time in the geo metro before I pinpointed what part of the E where it was a critical situation. Right now I’m in a 95 civic and about to experiment what part of the gauge constitutes absolute empty.

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira
2 months ago

My Honda Element has an very pessimistic fuel gauge. When the light comes on I have roughly another 80 miles left, so I frequently drive with the needle below E, which infuriates my wife. My Fiat Abarth on the other hand has the most optimistic fuel gauge. When the light comes on in that I scramble for a petrol station stat! The 9.5 Gallon tank might be a factor though.

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