Running On Empty

3 min read
Driving with a near-empty tank can damage your car.

We stick to routines, follow rules, and stay on the side of caution to keep us sane and happy. So why don’t we apply the same to our cars? It is not exactly the cheapest thing to own in Singapore, and any damage to it may cost us a pretty penny.

How many times has our car told us it needs filling up — the fuel indicator stubbornly pointing at or near ‘E’, which stands for ‘empty’, is a hint — and yet we keep ignoring it, thinking we can push the car further.

Modern cars have a built-in safety margin, allowing you to squeeze out a few more miles even when the fuel indicator hits ‘E’. But this is a gamble that you take only if you really are in an emergency and don’t have the opportunity to fill up. Otherwise, heed the warning, because doing this on a regular basis could potentially lead to other problems for your car.

Pump Problems 
If you managed to run your car till it’s completely dry of fuel, your car will break down. The fuel in your car acts as a coolant for the electric fuel-pump motor. When there’s not enough fuel, the pump sucks in air instead, which heats up the pump. If done repeatedly, this will in due course wear down the pump prematurely and cause potential failure. This could lead to expensive repairs that cost a lot more than what you spend for a full tank of petrol. If there is dirt in the fuel tank, this could lead to blockage of the fuel filter and — you guessed it — even more money spent on repairs. You don’t want to be caught stranded on a busy expressway or be unable to tend to an emergency if your car suddenly breaks down.

Other Issues 
If you often drive with your fuel tank running low, your car may experience start-up problems caused by fuel not reaching the engine. Your engine could also start shaking while the car is idling, or even fail to start. Your car may hesitate while accelerating or while driving up a hill, which is the possible result of a weak or compromised fuel pump. Over time, you may suffer from decreasing fuel mileage, the result of a failing release valve located in the fuel pump and, as mentioned earlier, overheating in the fuel pump. The engine is working harder than normal to try and pull in enough fuel for it to run and, if the engine gets too hot, your car could stall or your engine could fail altogether.

Fuel prices are not exactly cheap these days, and you may feel the pinch every time you fill up, but consider the bigger picture. The fuel indicator on ‘low’ gives us an early warning so we can use that time to look for a petrol station. As a rule of thumb, it is better to fill up when your car has a quarter tank left. This negates any overheating issues with the fuel pump, helping the engine to keep cool and functioning properly.

Modern cars are engineered to last longer and be more reliable, but even the most advanced engineering cannot withstand constant and prolonged abuse. You depend on your car and it depends on you as well, so this is one routine worth sticking to.