A friend and I recently found ourselves at a gas station in Oklahoma faced with an extra option than we are used to when looking at the gas prices available to us. That got me to thinking about how many people are choosing the wrong gasoline for their cars, and how much money that might be costing them. This article is your guide to which gas you should buy to make sure you aren’t spending more than you should be with today’s high gas prices.
What’s the deal with ethanol?
Talking about ethanol (sometimes called alcohol) is difficult because it can be a very political issue with many factors such as the environment, the food supply, net energy gains, and foreign versus domestic production to consider. This is not a political website though, so I am going to just ignore all that stuff and just focus on whether or not it is a good deal for the consumer in the short term. If you have any political comments you want to make about ethanol, just let me know in the comment section.
I will talk about why my friend and I weren’t used to seeing gas prices like those in picture above though. In states that produce a lot of gas, like Texas and Oklahoma, you will see a lot of anti-ethanol propaganda. It is common for gas stations to have big signs advertising that they have no ethanol in their gas, or that they sell 100% gasoline. The propaganda you will see in states that produce more corn than oil on the other hand will be very pro ethanol.
That is why the gas station we were at offered gas without ethanol for the higher price of $3.30, which was $0.40 higher than the least expensive gasoline price of $2.90. The reason they can charge higher prices for ethanol free gas, is because gasoline has more energy in it than ethanol does. According to the department of energy, a gallon of gas without ethanol has about 3% more energy than a gallon of gasoline with 10% ethanol.
That means that ethanol free gas is worth about 3% more than gas with 10% ethanol. Unfortunately, in every case I have ever seen, ethanol free gas costs much more than a 3% premium, so it is no deal. In the case of the picture above, the ethanol free gas is 14% more. I don’t want to pay 14% more to get 3% more energy, so buying the gas with no ethanol is not the right choice.
One more thing about the ethanol free gas. It may not be free of ethanol. Two different energy industry insiders have independently told me there is a pretty good chance that the gas stations don’t really know what is in the gas the big oil companies are delivering to them, so it may well include ethanol, anyway. I can’t confirm if this is true or not, but if it is, that means there is no extra value in buying ethanol free gas.
What about the premium gasonline which in the picture above is referred to as “premium” or “plus”? Is there any benefit to paying more for those types of gas? According to the California Energy Commission, probably not. Your engine is designed to be able to run on a certain quality of gas, and buying gas of higher quality doesn’t really give you any benefit.
What I didn’t realize until reading that article from the California Energy Commission, is that even if your owners manual tells you your car needs a higher grade of gasoline that may not necessarily be true. This article states that may be more of a suggestion than a requirement. I’m not recommending you go against what your owners manual says, but it is interesting.
Years ago, I drove an Audi, that asked for premium gas. I was too cheap to pay for the premium gas though, so I bought the cheapest gas anyway. After a while, I noticed that my engine had started knocking, so I reluctantly started paying more for the premium gas. What I found though was that I didn’t have to buy the expensive gas every time. My old Audi did just fine when I bought premium gas only every other fill up.
So that leaves Regular gas as the right choice, which is nice because it has the lowest price. It has just slightly less energy than ethanol free gas, but the discount you pay more than makes up for that. In most engines regular gas will work just as well as the premium, so save your money and buy regular.
Gas in Colorado
If you ever find yourself buying gas up in the mountains of Colorado, you might find yourself faced with another option. While the regular gas in most places has an octane rating of 87, in Colorado you will often find gas with an octane rating of 85. This is because gasoline supposedly resists knocking better at higher altitudes allowing 85 octane gas to operate as well at high altitudes as 87 octane gas does in other places. According to AAA however, studies on this have been conflicting. It looks like AAA recommends to give the 85 a try, but go back to 87 if you notice any knocking in your engine.
TLDNR (Too long, did not read)
You should probably buy the cheapest gas available.