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What You Need to Know About Fuel Contamination

Posted by Scott Goldfarb on

If you own anything with an engine, becoming familiar with the dangers, signs, and ways to prevent fuel contamination could save you a lot of money and a lot of trouble.

What is Fuel Contamination?

If a fuel tank becomes invaded by things other than fuel, it can prevent the engine from performing at its best, and can even cause damage to the engine. Fuel can be infiltrated by different contaminants, and the different contaminants can cause different problems.

Types of Fuel Contamination

Water: Along fuel's journey through the supply chain, while it is being stored and shipped before reaching your vehicle, there are many chances for water vapor to be absorbed into the fuel. Microorganisms can thrive off of even a droplet of water, which can create an environment where they thrive and cause damage.

Particulates: Rust, dust, pollen, rubber particles, fibers, biomass, and microbial by-products are all particulate contaminants that can enter the fuel through ineffective filters, split hoses, or damaged filters.

Other fuel: Just as water has multiple chances to contaminate fuel, so do other types of fuel. Small percentages of different petroleum products will not cause problems, but if too much enters the fuel to where it doesn't meet the standard of product, the fuel is unsalvageable.

Microbial: The atmosphere around us is filled with microorganisms. Most are unable to survive (let alone thrive) in fuel, but there are certain species that can. Bacteria, yeast, and fungi that thrive in fuel can cause damage to both the fuel and the engine that uses the contaminated fuel.

If the microorganisms from the atmosphere enter fuel and start to thrive and reproduce, small masses, known as biomasses, start growing. These growths can clog filters or begin to corrode the metal of the tanks the fuel is stored in from their acidic byproducts. Microbial fuel contamination is the most dangerous type of fuel contamination to your engine.

What if Fuel is Contaminated?

A few red flags might wave that could warn you the fuel you are using is contaminated. They include:

  • Decreased engine performance
  • Sputtering engine
  • Fuel gauge appears inaccurate or is inaccurate
  • Increased fuel consumption
  • Pinging sounds
  • Damaged pump components
  • Reduced heat efficiency
  • Failure to start
  • Increased residual deposits
  • Exhaust that is white
  • The "check engine" light turns on
  • Unprompted speed changes while driving
  • Damaged filters
  • Corrosion in metal
  • Poor mechanical performance
  • Leaking from the fuel tank due to corrosion
  • Diesel engine fuel injector malfunction

The worst case scenarios are that the engine completely stops working because it is too damaged and that the life of the vehicle and its reliability are both dramatically decreased.

Finding Fuel Contamination

You may suspect your fuel is contaminated, but how do you confirm it? Confirmation of contamination also depends on the type of contaminant.

Water: Simple, commercially available tests can show if fuel is below or above 30 parts per million. If a small amount of water is the culprit, you can drain the gas yourself using a syphon and then replace the tank with fresh gas.

Particulates: If the particulates are large enough, you can confirm the fuel is contaminated visually. If the particles are too small to decipher, a chemical analysis can also confirm your suspicions.

Microbial: Special fuel tests can be performed to determine whether or not fuel contains microbial contaminants. These tests can take days to perform. If the contamination has been going on long enough, though, it may have grown to have visible symptoms, too, such as biofilm or sludge in the fuel. Uncontaminated fuel is clear with a yellow tint. Fuel that has been contaminated for a long time may no longer be transparent.

Since driving a vehicle with fuel contamination can exacerbate the problems and encourage microbial growth (and thus cause more damage), if you suspect you have contaminated fuel, have your vehicle towed and inspected by a respected professional to determine what action needs to be taken. Let the mechanic know of your suspicions and have them determine the extent of the damage the fuel contamination caused.

Preventing Fuel Contamination

Small, simple steps to prevent contamination can help you avoid problems associated with contaminated fuel. Here are some ideas to keep your engine running smoothly.

  • Inspect your engine often. If things aren't sealing properly, water or other particles may find their way to the gas tank. Checking occasionally to ensure things appear squared away can help you spot a potential problem early.
  • Use your engine. As fuel ages it is more likely to have bacteria sitting and growing inside it. Don't let your gas sit for long periods of time.
  • Buy fresh fuel. The busiest gas station will have the freshest fuel, which means it is not sitting in their tanks for long periods and is less likely to come contaminated.
  • Fill your gas tank. A full tank leaves less room for air or water to enter. A partially full tank has more of an opportunity for those to bring dangerous contaminants with them.

Remember that even following preventative steps does not guarantee you will completely avoid fuel contamination, but catching it early can help you keep your engine in the best condition possible.

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