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Running on empty: How far can you really go?

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Posted: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 8:00 pm | Updated: 3:32 am, Wed Apr 9, 2014.

(BPT) - Whether intentional or purely circumstantial, it’s likely that most experienced drivers have seen the low-fuel light illuminate their vehicle’s dashboard at least once. For some drivers, the fuel light is a source of anxiety as they search for the closest gas station. For others, it can be a bragging right, proudly boasting how far they push their gas tanks to the limit.

It's no secret that an automobile can continue to run after the fuel light comes on, but should drivers rely on the extra mileage it allows?

For traveling musician Chris Jones, 30, of Sioux Falls, S.D., seeing the fuel light on his dashboard usually comes as no surprise. Jones, a professional graphic designer during the week, travels with his band across North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa nearly every weekend of the year.

“I’m constantly driving across the Midwest with my band, and I run low on gas more often than I should admit,” Jones says. “It seems the gas light always comes on when I’ve just passed the last gas station for miles. Considering the areas where I travel, I get pretty nervous about running out of gas on the side of a remote highway. It’s not a good feeling, but I think we’ve all been there.”

It’s likely most drivers would agree that the fuel light often comes on at inopportune times. Stuck in traffic on a freeway; running late for an important appointment; or driving on a country road with no towns or gas stations in sight, is when drivers decide to push the fuel gauge past the ‘E’ signal.

Some popular car models can make it between 30 and 50 miles after the fuel light goes on, according to a study by Pick Analysis. The average Chevrolet Silverado will continue for about 33 miles beyond empty. Smaller cars like the Volkswagen Jetta average about 43 miles and the Toyota Corolla tops the list at 47 miles.

Knowing how far a vehicle can drive with low fuel may be reassuring, but the effects of low-fuel driving can be damaging to the car.

“When you’re running low on gas, it’s best not to push your luck,” says Neil Hoff, a refined fuels specialist with CHS, which supplies more than 1,400 Cenex branded gas stations. “Stopping to fill up before your gas gauge hits ‘E’ could save you stress, damage to your car and time spent on the side of the road."

Hoff explains that by allowing a car to run on empty, dirt and contaminants are more likely to become suspended in the fuel and block the fuel filter. When fuel is extremely low, the fuel pump is no longer suspended in fuel and can overheat. In some cases, low fuel can even affect power steering and brakes.

To avoid an expensive trip to a mechanic, Hoff advises taking a proactive approach to fueling, advising drivers to always keep at least a quarter tank of gas in the tank at all times. Running out of gas in heavy traffic is not only inconvenient but also dangerous, so Hoff recommends fueling up before getting on highways or major roads. Also, becoming familiar with where gas stations are along a driving route will also help prevent running out of gas on long trips. Always keep a gas can in the trunk in case of emergencies.

“Keeping your car fueled is cheaper and safer, in the long run, than driving on empty,” Hoff says. For more helpful automotive information, gas-saving tips and to learn how to nominate someone to win free Cenex gas, visit www.tanksofthanks.com. "I think we all know someone who is always running on ‘E’, so why not make it easier for them and nominate them for a tank of free fuel? They, and their car, will thank you.”

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