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When is E not so empty?
The recent gas shortage has had motorists testing the limits of their gas gauge but at what cost?
Rich Scott, lead technician at Pro Import in Gainesville, holds a fuel pump he removed from a car for servicing. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

In a classic scene from the TV show "Seinfeld," Kramer test drives a car with a near-empty gas gauge. But rather than stop for gas, he coaxes the salesman to push it, accelerating down the highway and away from the exit that would bring them back to reality. 

"I can't believe it - where is the needle?" asks the salesman. Kramer replies, "Oh, it broke off, baby!"

And as they accelerate off into uncharted, beyond-E waters, mechanics around the country cringe.

With the recent gas shortage, Northeast Georgia drivers often found themselves faced with a similar predicament: Do I stop for gas now, or keep driving, trying to see just how far I can get before the "E" on the gas gauge really means E and the car kicks it on the side of the road.

"We'll let it get that close to empty," said Murrayville resident Aline Stevenson as she held her thumb and index fingers in front of her eyes, leaving just a sliver between them. "He (husband Dick Stevenson) asked me one day, he said, ‘how are we on gas?' And I said, ‘It's sitting on empty.' And we was in his truck."

But that was before the gas shortage, she added. Now they're a little more cautious about how much gas is in the tank - although, her husband added, they haven't had to make many long trips, either.

"If we make a long trip, I don't know," he said.

Cumming resident Al Izadi said he won't let his gas gauge get below a quarter tank full - but his wife, on the other hand, is a different story.

"I tell you what, who's got the most tolerance is my wife. Hers is like, below E. It starts in a yellow light, then it turns a little orangish and hers is like red screaming aghhh!" Izadi said. "I'm like, how can you stand it? And every time I get in her car.

"Mine, I don't have much tolerance. Even if it gets to like one-fourth, I get gas."

But Mildred Barns, a White County farmer, said a mechanic's warning given to her husband has them very cautious when it comes to how much gas they'll let their tank get down to.

"A half tank," she said, of where the gas gauge is before she fills the car up again. Her husband said it's because of the fuel pump, and "a mechanic told me, said if you keep pushing it over a quarter tank (left) you'll never burn it out."

And mechanic Fred Powell, owner of Pro Import in Gainesville, agreed.

"Some vehicles, if you run (the gas) too low, they use the fuel as a medium to cool the fuel pump. And if you run it consistently low, then what you're doing is essentially overheating the fuel pump," Powell said. "It's like old people - if we get older and don't take care of ourselves, we start to break down."

He and lead technician Rich Scott agreed that probably 90 percent of the cars on the road have an electric fuel pump - as opposed to a mechanical or external one - and the older a car gets, the more likely that pump could overheat when it's pumping up fumes instead of petrol.

"I tell teenagers (this) a lot because they run on empty and bring their cars in on empty," he said. "We've actually test-driven cars and run out of gas ... teenagers are the worst."

Even the son of a mechanic - Scott's teenage son - is guilty of driving a car hovering near empty.

"I'll get in his car and it will say ‘30 miles to empty,'" he said. "I had one run out of gas in my bay last week."

That further complicates matters when the car is in for servicing, low on gas. Scott said they won't even test-drive some because they don't know how long the fuel light has been on.

"We don't know if it's been on a week, or if it popped on when they came in through the door," he added. "And the other day we found out it had been on for a while, so one of the guys had to take a gas can out (and get gas)."

But Powell disputed fuel-tank rumors such as not pumping gas when the tanker truck has just delivered it - presumably because the pumping has churned up grit at the bottom of the tank - or not driving with a little gas because it pulls grit up from the bottom of your car's fuel tank.

Specifically, the idea that a low amount of fuel in your tank will pull gunk up through your fuel pump was something he saw 30 or 40 years ago, he said, but not today.

"A lot of cars will have the fuel filter right in the pump. When we change filters now, it's when the car has 100,000 miles on it," he said. "A lot of them, we'll dump it out to see what the fuel filter looks like and a lot of them are just clean as a whistle. We might see some darkness but we don't ever see sludge in the tanks or water or any of the nasty stuff we used to see."

When he started in the auto-repair business about 40 years ago, Powell said he would change the fuel filter every 20,000 or 30,000 miles. Today's cars are usually good for 100,000 miles.

But the fuel pump is a different story, and it could cost a few hundred dollars to get a new one.

And if you're driving along with the gauge firmly planted on the E, you better hope you don't hear a sound like bees buzzing. That's the noise a fuel pump makes before it runs out of gas.

"It's because you're pump's sucking air. You won't hear it long," Powell said. "You're going to be stopping because the pump is silenced by the fuel going through it. It's like a propeller out of water."

Izadi said there was one situation where his wife's tendency to drive the car until it's empty put the family in a very bad situation. "After that I thought she'd never, ever let her tank get low," he said.

On an overnight drive to Dallas, Texas, she woke up and offered to drive. "I said sure, and said pretty soon, try to get gas because we're getting a little low." But she drove too far and ended up exiting onto a dirt road in Louisiana, not knowing where they were with the low-fuel light screaming red.

"And I tell you, it's like those horror movies you watch. There's drunk guys ... The wall has bullet holes everywhere on it. I'm like, ‘Oh my God, we're dead.' And my little boy's sleeping on the back seat, and I'm like, ‘Uh-uh.' And then I look at the gas gauge and I'm like, ‘I have no choice.'"

After narrowly escaping a convenience store holdup and rushing to buy as much gas as he needed to get to the next gas station, Izadi said he jumped back in the car, sped off and didn't tell his wife the whole story until later on.

"But I said, ‘I'm telling you because I don't ever want you to run on low again,'" he said. "About two, three months, I notice she went back."




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