A week ago in Kannapolis, NC our client (lets call him Gamble) hopped in his car and started it up. The Low Fuel light was glaring from the dash and the gas gauge needle seemed to be propped up by the last leg of the letter "E". Immediately he knew he wasn't making it to the gas station before he would run out of gas. This wasn't the plan that morning and time was wasting. What's he to do?
Many of us face moments like this when our vehicle isn't ready for the day we had planned. Whether it's forgetting to fuel up, finding a flat tire or running into problems with a dead battery, many of these things can be overcome quickly with a little preparedness. Those same situations can escalate into a major issue if we react without caution. Unfortunately for our client his decision was about to cost a lot more than a tank of gas.
Back to our story. So Gamble gripes jumps back out of his car contemplating how to get to the gas station. "Maybe I could ask someone for a ride there. But what about a gas can? Maybe I'll just buy a gas can at the service station....ugh but they'll cost twice as much as if I buy one at a hardware store. So maybe a trip to the hardware store and then to the gas station before coming back home. Wait, everyone I know is leaving for work. No one is going to drive me around all morning. Maybe I can take an Uber.....ugh this is getting more and more time consuming and expensive by the minute!" So dismayed he remembers he has a gas can for his lawn mower and maybe it still has gas in it. Gamble runs to the back yard and finds the gas can. It's looking a bit rough. Dirty, dusty and the nozzle isn't on it. He thinks to himself - "The lid is missing but it should be ok. It's almost full and I doubt rain or anything could have gotten in there." He grabs the can and heads to his car.
Now you (Yes YOU the reader!) are probably sitting there on the couch reading this on your phone or at your office desk ***GET TO WORK!*** and are probably thinking to yourself "What a bad idea!". You know what? YOU'RE RIGHT!
In the tank the fuel goes. Splish splash five gallons rolls into the tank. Gamble hops in the drivers seat and fires up the engine. The fuel level gauge ticks up and off he goes.
Ring Ring the phone jingles on my office desk. "Thank you for calling Boles Automotive Service Center. This is Mark, how can I help you?". Gamble on the other end "Hey man. So my car wont start. It cranks fine but it won't run on it's own. My friend who used to do mechanic work thinks the timing belt may have jumped time. Can we two the car to you and have you look at it? What will a timing belt cost me to have replaced?". I answered him with a general timing belt quote for his engine but told him we needed to look at it first before we start replacing parts. I asked for more information about what happened and he told me how the car just died. His friend spoke with me and informed me of all the parts he had replaced in an attempt to get the engine to run. His deduction was that it had to be a slipped timing belt.
So now Gamble's vehicle is getting towed in to our shop. It's small Honda Civic. These are usually very reliable but it is possible for a timing belt to have issues if it hasn't been maintained. Once it's offloaded and parked I hop in and try to crank it. It cranks very slowly likely due to a weak battery from the repeated attempts by Gamble and his friend to get it started. I charge up the battery and crank it again. It starts and runs but not smoothly and only for about 10 seconds. At this point I can tell a lot about what is going on in the engine.
The fact that it starts and runs tells me the timing belt isn't broken. It doesn't rule out the timing belt issue but it is a good sign. We do a quick compression test and confirm the timing belt has not jumped time. If you care to learn how to do that type of test leave a comment and I'll create a new "How-To" article. So it runs but very poorly. I call Gamble and ask him if there is anything else, anything at all he can remember about the events leading up to this failure. "Oh I forgot to mention...." he says "that the car was very low on gas. I found a gas can in the yard and put it in my tank. Maybe I shouldn't have. It didn't have a lid on it and maybe some water got in there. I doubt it had that much water but I'm thinking maybe I shouldn't have used that gas." I responded "Yea that doesn't sound like it was a good idea. We better take a fuel sample and see what we find."
Fast forward to the day Gamble picks up his car. He pays his bill and we go start the car. It fires up quickly and runs as smooth as it should. I say to him "Wanna see what we found in your tank?" Gamble says "Yea was it bad?"
If you look closely you can see a line in the liquid where the leaves and sticks are floating. They aren't floating on top of the liquid in the bucket. They are actually floating on top of the water in this bucket and beneath the gasoline. Water is thicker than gasoline so it sinks. Gasoline is thinner so it will sit on top of water.
So what you see in the bucket is only a portion of what we recovered from Gamble's fuel tank. In all we removed about 3 gallons of water from his tank. That can only mean the gas can he thought was full of fuel was actually full of water. Not only was it full of water but it was contaminated with dirt, leaves, sticks and just about anything you might find on the ground in your back yard.
When we first sampled the fuel we found what you see in the video at the top of this page. Half water, half fuel came out of the fuel line at the motor. We commanded the fuel pump on while having the fuel line disconnected from the engine and routed into a bucket. When the fuel stopped flowing we assumed the tank was empty and added 3.5 gallons of fresh fuel. The car started up and ran well until we parked it downhill where it again stalled. This time we pulled it back in the shop and removed the tank. Fuel tanks can be designed in many different ways. Sometimes the shape is designed to purposefully separate the tank into a saddle like shape so it will fit over a driveshaft. Sometimes its design is shaped simply to fit the vehicle. Gamble's tank had two ridges in the tank that allowed for some fuel to remain on either side of the tank. Water and dirt was hiding in this pockets and when we moved the car it allowed those contaminants to mix with the fuel and stall the car. So we removed the tank and emptied it into a bucket. What you see in the picture is what came from the tank after we removed it. Pretty gross huh?
In all this trip cost him about $450.00. Not only did he pay for us to remove his tank, clean it and fill it with fuel but he also paid for an oil change. Gamble and his friend had tried to start the car so many times that the water being sprayed into the engine in place of fuel was actually making its way past the pistons and into the engine oil. We found about 1/2 quart of water in the engine oil. Yikes!
So what did we learn today? First - Always plan ahead. It's better to get fuel when your day is over than it is to rush in the morning. Secondly - If you aren't sure about something, don't use it. Lastly - Taking chances on using fuel you found in your yard can be a bad........Wait For It.....GAMBLE 🤣🤦♂️
Thank you so much to all of our amazing clients! It's so great to know we are helping Concord be a great place to live and raise a family. Have a wonderful day!