Heels & Horsepower Magazine


3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Drive On Empty

By Vuyi Mpofu

Running out of fuel can have worse consequences than embarrassment and losing one’s street cred. It can cause serious damage to your vehicle.

For some drivers, the dreaded *ding* of the low fuel warning light is cause for panic while for others, it’s an invitation to tempt fate.

Those who panic are most likely to make a beeline to the nearest fuel station, whereas those who see it as an opportunity to discover just how far they can still drive, are likely causing serious damage to their vehicles.

When a car’s tank is all but empty, the engine works extremely hard to draw on the last few drops of fuel left in the tank.  

Even after refuelling, getting back on the move could continue to be a challenge, thanks to a build-up of air (and sediment) in the fuel tank and combustion chamber.  

Apart from misfiring or stalling altogether, here are three things that happen when you drive on empty:

1. Damaged Fuel Pump

A fuel pump’s job is to send fuel to the engine.  By design, it is submerged in the fuel tank and uses the fuel within the tank to keep it cool and lubricated.

Most fuel pumps can last for the lifespan of the vehicle but when you drive on low fuel levels the pump does not get the same amount of lubrication as it otherwise would. 

Insufficient lubrication causes the fuel pump to overheat resulting in premature failure.  Repairing a fuel pump requires the fuel tank to be drained and removed, a process that could be quite costly. 

2. Dirty /Clogged Fuel Filter

The fuel pump has a part called a fuel filter in it. The fuel filter’s job is to sift any impurities which might be in the fuel, ensuring that only the fuel gets into the car’s fuel line system.  

When you consistently drive on low fuel levels, the fuel filter gets dirty or clogged up quicker than normal because it has to work harder and more frequently to keep the dirt and debris (usually located at the bottom of the fuel tank) from getting drawn into the fuel pump.  

The dirtier the fuel filter is, the less (and slower) fuel can flow through it.  

Over time the fuel filter fails to do its job resulting in dirt getting into the fuel pump; the domino effect being a damaged fuel pump.  Replacing the fuel filter is relatively inexpensive however, replacing the fuel pump could prove costly.

3. Loss of Engine Power

The consequences of running out of fuel can be extremely dangerous, especially if it happens on the highway or similarly busy road.

Without sufficient fuel, your car loses power and simply stalls or comes to a complete stop.  A sudden loss of power impacts your car’s power steering functionality and brakes, making it difficult to control.  

It may seem like an insignificant action but clearly, ignoring the low fuel light is not a smart idea.  

Although almost all cars have a reserve tank, if you are in the habit of testing how far you can go when the light comes on you risk causing an accident, particularly if you are driving in the dark or in bad weather.

The best course of action to take when the fuel light comes on is to head to your nearest fuel station and fill up your tank.

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