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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Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
2 months ago

I got deemed the winner of Fuel Light Bingo when I was just too tired coming back from Miller to a buddy’s house up in Salt Lake and didn’t have the energy to stop. I was also too tired to think about what might happen when you went to start it back up, but I did get to sleep.

I’ve also made it to the only gas station in miles on fumes before in west Texas. West Texas: where range anxiety with an ICE is still very, very real.

I used to run out of gas quite a bit being an idiot in college and having a dodgy fuel gauge. I usually try to fill up when it drops down to a quarter-tank, or shortly after I use the 411 at all. The 411 needs a fuel gauge.

AlfaWhiz
AlfaWhiz
2 months ago

I was extremely surprised to learn (twice), that when the fuel gauge in my Alfa 164 Q4 says zero, it does indeed mean ZERO, as in the moment it touches the zero mark you’re out of gas and stranded, with unparalleled precision.

M Wilkins
M Wilkins
2 months ago
Reply to  AlfaWhiz

Just found the old Dick Van Dyke episode where he says he’s getting rid of his new car because it ran out of gas as soon as the needle hit empty:
https://youtu.be/5TXjSUGsNIU?si=wLVqvTP20SjTta4w&t=1414

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

Both MBs have massive tanks (22-25gal), abysmal gas mileage (10-11mpg), and gauges whose accuracy I don’t feel like testing while driving, so I fill up when the tank is reportedly 1/4 full, or when gas is cheap, because those big old mfers are thirsty and only drink premium. Thankfully my local station is connected to the grocery store I go to, so I get some sizable discounts at the pump just for shopping there. 10-20 cents per gal is noticeable.

Morgan Thomas
Morgan Thomas
2 months ago

These days I get paranoid as soon as the gauge gets to 1/4, even though everything I am currently driving has a much more accurate gauge than my older stuff. Some of this comes from misreading the fuel tap on my first motorbike, and running out of fuel in the middle of the night on a freeway with roadworks, so there was no emergency lane or lighting, just 12″ of bitumen between the edge of the lane and a concrete barrier. I had to push the bike 2 kms to the next exit, and for most of it I walked on the outside of the barrier reaching over to push the bike, until I fell into the 2′ deep excavation up against the barrier, and had to walk right next to passing cars.

The one time I made it to a fuel station on fumes, I was driving my Datsun 180B SSS (Datsun 610 Coupe) that had an engine swap, so it had a ‘sump’ section welded onto the fuel tank (which was under the parcel shelf) to ensure it would not get fuel starvation when cornering with a low tank level. When I refilled it, all the dirt in the tank must have been rinsed into the sump and out into the fuel pump, which fed to a filter in the engine bay. The car started up, I drove to the exit and stopped to check for traffic, and it died and wouldn’t restart. I had no tools with me, but managed to use the edge of a key as a screwdriver to undo the hose clamp on the fuel line, where I found NOTHING coming out of the filter. So I undid the other end, flipped it round and hooked up the feed line, then ran the fuel pump – a few seconds of straining noises, then a great gob of dirt and rust came out of the filter with a loud BLORP, followed by clean fuel. Swapped it back around the correct way and was back on the road!

Boosted
Boosted
2 months ago

Too low, my kids have PTSD over it now. Towing a travel trailer up the 101, missed the last gas stop, thought i could make it to the next stop about 30 miles away, miscalculated how much more fuel I’d consume towing up a mountain climb. Ran out of gas on a bend that had no shoulder for me to completely pull off the road. Had to sit there and wait for AAA to bring me a few gallons of gas. That was a bit sketchy with my suv and trailer behind it. Almost made it to the gas station, i was about 3 miles away once i got going again

Travis Molleck
Travis Molleck
2 months ago

“This little light of mine. I’m gonna let it shine…”
I feel like I won if I’m within a 1/4 of a gallon of completely empty tank.

I also know I’m an idiot.

Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
2 months ago

I refill anywhere below the half-full mark — which means I drive by Costco about twice as often as is strictly necessary.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
2 months ago

For reasons long forgotten, two mighty warrior tribes went to war, and touched off a blaze which engulfed them all. Without fuel they were nothing.

They’d built a house of straw. The thundering machines sputtered and stopped.

A low fuel light doesn’t scare me.
I’ve got legs, a gas can and a leather jacket with one sleeve cut off.

Freelivin1327
Freelivin1327
2 months ago

Listen to me. When that car rolls into that dealership, and that tank is bone dry, I want you to be there with me when everyone says, “Kramer and that other guy, oh, they went further to the left of the slash than anyone ever dreamed!”

Last edited 2 months ago by Freelivin1327
Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
2 months ago

I made the mistake of parking facing up a steep hill with ~1/4 tank left. Turns out it was steep enough to drain the fuel away from the pickup on the tank. So I had enough fuel in the lines to start the car, and then it died after a minute of idling. So I don’t let it go below 1/2 tank on that hill anymore.

KevFC
KevFC
2 months ago

Especially in city driving with constant accelerations you’ll get better mileage by running on a mostly empty tank. On the other hand, if you are risk adverse and consider a power outage a real risk and the possibility of not having a functioning gas pump within miles then keep it as full as possible. I am risk adverse with mostly suburban driving so refill once a week, usually when still above 1/2 full.

Last edited 2 months ago by KevFC
Danny Zabolotny
Danny Zabolotny
2 months ago

I just drive until the gas light comes on. Never had any issues with that, and I’ve owned multiple cars with over 300k miles on the original fuel pump. I dunno how it is in other cars, but in BMW’s the fuel pump usually has gas around it until the tank is dry, so you’re not hurting it by running it to the gas light.

FlavouredMilk
FlavouredMilk
2 months ago

At least once a week, there is daylight between the lowest increment on the gauge and the needle that is now finding itself kissing the printed E. There’s about 5km of servo searching with the gauge there, as long as I’m light on the pedal.

Old Hippie
Old Hippie
2 months ago

Don’t you all realize that a fuel tank is just a rechargeable liquid-fuel battery? The more often you run the fuel tank down, the sooner it will die on you! Just like any battery, the tank has a limited number if fills before it just won’t take any fuel again and needs to be replaced.

Seriously….

If you’ve never had to hitch-hike on a lonely road at a lonely time of day or night while carrying a fuel can in one hand, you have no claim to eking the last drop out of the tank–or, like me, just forgetting some of the little details.

Old AC VWs and motorcycles with reserve tanks were the best! If the odo worked, they’d save enough fuel to limp to the nearest station. If not, they might just leave you with one and a half gallons in the tank of a Type II, seventy miles from the nearest fuel. Time to practice hyper-miling!

My favorite memories of running out or low were back a few decades ago, when small-town gas stations in the inland West often closed at 10 PM or so. Pull into the only town for a hundred miles in any direction with the needle bouncing on E and all the stations are closed… do any of you know how much fuel is still in the filler hose after the valve is off? You could often get near a gallon by draining the hoses at one station, then move on to the next one… and maybe, just maybe, get to a town with an open station. Or a police station–seems they consider this “theft” which they make a big deal of.

In the word of The Firesign Theatre, “While E stands for excellent in my book, I think it means we’re out of fuel….”

More seriously:

If you live, as I do, where temperatures undergo significant diurnal swings, keep the tank topped up. The less head space in the tank, the less condensation you’ll accumulate–at least, on the older rigs I drive. Daily temp swings cause the air in the tank to expand and contract, bringing in moisture with the air.

Last edited 2 months ago by Old Hippie
Paul Brogger
Paul Brogger
2 months ago
Reply to  Old Hippie

A + for the Firesign Theatre quote!

EXL500
EXL500
2 months ago

I live in Florida, so 1/4 tank most of the year (100 miles and under on the infotainment screen), and 1/2 tank during the peak of hurricane season.

That said, my Fit has a 10 gallon tank and I ‘ve never put more than 7 gallons in due to its optimistic reading.

Last edited 2 months ago by EXL500
Knowonelse
Knowonelse
2 months ago

When I was daily driving my ’80 Vanagon Westfalia with a broken gas gauge AND a broken odometer about 100 miles per day, when I was to run out of gas was a WAG. I carried a jug of gas on the roof rack and did need it occasionally. Since it was tied down with a small cord, people often notified me my gas container was unsecured. I added a cardboard box on top to hide it all.

Lhn91
Lhn91
2 months ago

Depends a bit on which car and where I’m going with it.

My 2011 Mazda 2 (which is my work daily) doesn’t have a needle, just an 8-segment digital display. As long as I’m just doing my usual route to work, I know I’m good to get to the next gas station once the last segment goes away. And honestly a full fill at that point is usually only 30-35 liters of a 43 liter tank, so I know I’ve got a good bit of range left because the gauge is pretty poorly calibrated.

If I’m driving any car somewhere where I’m not super familiar with the location of gas stations, I start getting leery around the 1/4 tank mark and start looking for a station.

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
2 months ago

My car has a fancy dancy rangeometer, so I have a clue as to how far I have before empty is achieved. Due to distances between preferred gas stops on long trips (Costco) I usually leave about 50 miles range. Last trip due to the reduction of MPG due to heavy wet weather, I arrived at the gas pump with 5 miles of range. Even at that reduced MPG of about 43, that means there were drops left in the tank.

David Escargot
David Escargot
2 months ago

I always fill up when I have 50 more kms range than will get me to my destination… my range guage is spot on too… I have had it down to 6km range… think less than 1 litre left… and as I turned in to the servo it conked out… then fired right up to drive to the pump…. it was an aggressive turn in

CSRoad
CSRoad
2 months ago

E is for Experimental.
I’ve been driving my wife’s Subaru for the last three months as she messed up her ankle and foot. It blocks my Fiesta in the driveway, my bikes are parked with the Winter weather here.

And the spousemobile normally never gets below 4 bars out of a possible 10 on the gauge. with me driving it had been down to one bar for about a day of around town driving the light came on and I just panicked my way to the nearest gas station. My Fiesta is good for about 50km (tested, oops.) on empty. Canadian Tire Gas Bar will sell you a gas can and fuel.

My Kawasaki Versys 650’s fuel gauge is a joke, it is greatly effected by inclines the warning light will come on when the gauge gets down to one bar. That typically means I’ve got about 150km of range left. I actually treat it like the rest of my bikes and reset the trip odometer when I fill up, sadly it doesn’t have “reserve” so that cushion isn’t there, but a tank is good for an easy 350km and should make 400 on the 21 litres safely.
There is something great about no gas gauge, the engine missing, and reaching under the dash and switching to “reserve” and having it clear up and go. Old VDubs and Porschees were the last time I was exposed to that in a car.

Jb996
Jb996
2 months ago

I don’t worry until the gauge is physically at 0.

I’ve collected the data, and I know that when the light comes on, I still have 60+ highway miles or more. Once the last bar disappears “0”, then I still have 30+ miles. I’ve gone 35 miles past 0 before, the CANBUS fuel gauge (which is linear, as opposed to the physical gauge) doesn’t read any lower than 9%. Even then, it still only refilled with 12.1 gallons into my 13.2 gallon tank (as per manual). If true, I could have gone another 35 miles, 90-100 miles after the light comes on.
The gauge calibration is so terrible.

I have as much range below 0, as I have in the upper third of the physical gauge.

Andrea Petersen
Andrea Petersen
2 months ago

Depends on the car. In my Alfa, once I hit a quarter tank I’ll find a gas station within roughly 20 miles, which, considering my commute distance, is 1-3 days. My MR2 is usuall kept hovering around a half tank because fuel is heavy and it shaves a few pounds for autocross while still having plenty of fuel to do it. I like to fill up my Lancia when I get to a half a tank simply because I don’t necessarily trust the fuel gauge that much.

Memphomike
Memphomike
2 months ago

Anybody else ever own an old British car with a mechanical fuel pump with primer handle?
I had a ’64 Spitfire with a broken fuel gauge in my poor college kid days and I got really good at jumping out and pushing it to the nearest station. Had to prime it after putting what I could into the tank.
These days I kinda know how far each of our cars can go. BRZ’s really pessimistic, but I’ve never gotten further than 1 gallon left. Crosstrek’s less pessimistic and low fuel message seems pretty accurate, so it never gets closer than 50 miles left.
My son drives a 21-year-old F150 and at the rate it sucks fuel you don’t want to test it; 1/4 tank and get some gas.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
2 months ago
Reply to  Memphomike

“Anybody else ever own an old British car with a mechanical fuel pump with primer handle?”

Yes.

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  Cheap Bastard

I’m sorry

Memphomike
Memphomike
2 months ago

Hey, changing it was ridiculously simple on a Spitfire and you could sit on the tire to do it…

Myk El
Myk El
2 months ago

I generally don’t let it get much below a displayed 1/4 tank. Mind you, my DD is generally good for over 400 miles on a full tank, I likely could get over 500 if it’s all highway miles.

Zyphane
Zyphane
2 months ago

I routinely fill up at half a tank. I rarely let it drop below a quarter of a tank.
After dealing with fuel shortages in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York, and the fact that I’ve spent most of the last decade living on the west coast of the US in areas that may be affected by various natural disasters at without prior warning: earthquakes, volcanoes, wild fires… I just like to know that I have enough fuel in my vehicle at any given time to travel 100–200 miles if I ever have to evacuate somewhere on short notice.

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