Is Cheaper Gas Really "Cheap" Gas?


You see them all the time; gas stations that aren’t selling national brands. They might be part of a small regional chain, or a one-man operation, but there are two consistent themes with these stations: you’ve never heard of them, and their gas is at least a few cents cheaper per gallon. Why is that? And is that cheap gas going to ruin your car?

The answer lies in two places: the chemistry of the gasoline you pump, and the marketing of the gasoline you buy.

Let’s start with the chemistry: gasoline isn’t just the hydrocarbons pumped out of the earth and refined into gas, it’s also the specific additives included in the gasoline. There are minimum federal requirements for gas, and all gasoline you buy has a specific mix of detergents designed to keep your engine clear and meet federal guidelines. The main ingredient in your gasoline is gasoline, of course, but these additives are carefully guarded secrets, akin to the mix of ingredients in Coca-Cola, and each major gasoline company has a different mix. Usually this is put in after the gas leaves the refinery; it’s some fairly complicated stuff.

This is where all those marketing claims come from, about cleaning your engine with your gasoline and so on. Each company obviously believes its mixture goes beyond federal standards into the realm of car ambrosia. But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s talk about the off-brand guys, and their gas chemistry.

Their gas has a mix of detergents as well, but they just use a generic package: detergents that will meet the minimum federal guidelines. If they skipped these detergents, you’d know in a hurry: you’d start having car problems sooner rather than later. Essentially, their gas meets the minimum requirements, maybe goes a little beyond, and that’s it. It’s part of where they save money: those generic chemicals just cost less.

But, of course, nobody ever made money by touting that they were adequate, which is where the marketing money comes in. Major gas chains like Exxon Mobil and Shell will spend millions just to tell you about their environmental efforts, forget actually selling you their gas. And they’re not willing to eat that cost, not when they’ve got a semi-captive audience.

So, the cost of marketing their gas goes directly into the cost you pay at the pump. Again, this is where the off-brand guys shave cents off the gallon. They don’t have to sell their gas as super-premium stuff that will scrub your engine and turn your minivan into a sports car. Their marketing strategy is “cost less than the guys with a fancy logo.” That’s a much cheaper marketing strategy.

So Should I Get The Cheap Stuff or Not?
Will the generic detergents and lack of marketing make life difficult for you down the road? Hard to say. As all the major companies closely guard their detergent mix, it’s not like these can be tested in a lab by non-biased scientists, and the government has better ways to spend our tax dollars than figuring out who’s gas is best: as long as it meets minimums, it’s OK by them.

But then again, we’re often talking small measures of performance, in the long run. And, really, if you need to save a few cents a gallon, at least you know there are some standards in place.

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