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Does Running Out of Gas Damage a Car?

Stephen Fogel
April 12, 2019

gas can

Unless you drive a purely electric car, your vehicle likely runs on gasoline, or possibly diesel. Whichever petroleum-based fuel (which we’ll call “gas” here for simplicity) you use, if your tank runs empty, you’ll be stuck. 

Most drivers will never run out of gas. Between the gas gauge on your dashboard, a low-fuel warning light on most cars, and the more than 150,000 filling stations across the country, you should have plenty of warning and opportunity to avoid this fate. 

But, still, it happens sometimes. Maybe you don’t notice the gas level or light, you think you can make it to the next town on a road trip, or you’re short on cash when you need fuel. Getting stranded is never fun, but truly running out of gas can also carry bad consequences for your car.  

What happens to your car?

When you run out of gas, your engine will start to hesitate and sputter and eventually stop running. Your car will go dead, wherever this occurs.

This is bad for you, and for your vehicle. It can cause mechanical damage to your fuel system and engine, and it can increase the chances of getting in an accident as a result of the sudden loss of power.

Some of the mechanical damage can include:

Clogged fuel lines and fuel injectors: This can be caused by debris inside the tank that gets sucked in when it settles to the bottom of an empty tank. It’s more common in older vehicles that have deteriorating metal gas tanks (most modern cars have plastic tanks), but it can also be caused by an old or worn-out fuel filter that lets sediment in the gas get through.

Overheated fuel pump: Your fuel pump sends the gas in your tank to the engine. It lives at the bottom of your fuel tank, where it is both cooled and lubricated by the gas that passes through it. When you run out of gas, it can lead to overheating of the fuel pump, which can require an expensive replacement. The more times you run out of gas, the more likely the fuel pump will be ruined.

What to do if you run out of gas

For your own safety, it’s essential that you recognize what is happening when your engine starts sputtering. Get your car as far off the road as possible, before it totally dies. Being stuck in the middle of a busy highway or a major street puts you at severe risk of being struck from behind by another vehicle.

Either way, turn on your hazard warning flashers immediately to alert traffic that you have a problem. If you have any warning reflectors, put them out behind your car to give other drivers some advance notice of your situation.

The next step is to call for help. Try to get a friend or family member to bring you gas, or call your auto club or roadside assistance provider. 

If you’re in an area where ride-sharing firms like Uber and Lyft, operate, you can call a car to take you to the nearest gas station and then back to your ride. A tow truck is another option, or, if all else fails, call 911. In fact, if you’re stuck in a traffic lane, 911 is the place to start.

In some cases, you may have to walk to the nearest gas station and bring back enough fuel to let you drive your car there. Use your phone’s mapping app or a gas station-finding app to locate where you are, if necessary, as well as to find the nearest source of gas. Be sure to leave a note on your car in case the police check out the scene while you’re gone. Lock your car for security.

If you handle gasoline

If you’re going to bring some gasoline back from a nearby gas station to refuel your car, be careful. Gasoline is both flammable and explosive — that’s what makes it such a great automotive fuel. Follow these guidelines from the American Petroleum Institute to keep yourself safe from injury or worse when you handle this volatile substance:

  • Don’t smoke, or use matches or a lighter when handling or transporting gasoline
  • Use only an approved gasoline container
  • Place the container on the ground while filling, to avoid static electricity
  • Control the gas nozzle manually, never lock the handle
  • Fill the container slowly, keeping the nozzle in contact with the rim of the container
  • Do not fill the container to the top — leave it at least 5% unfilled for expansion
  • Place the cap on tightly — if the cap won’t seal, the container is not safe to use
  • When transporting the container, prevent it from tipping or sliding
  • Don’t get gasoline on your skin or in your eyes
  • Remove gasoline-soaked clothing immediately 

One more thing — do not drive around with a filled container of gasoline in your car. It’s a fire hazard. It could also could let gasoline fumes leak into your car, which is hazardous to your health in a different way. 

That said, there's no problem with keeping an empty gas container in your car. Just be sure that before you put it in your car, you let it sit out with the cap off, so that any remnants of old gasoline inside can evaporate. 

Stephen Fogel

About the Author

Stephen has been an automotive enthusiast since childhood, owning some of his vehicles for as long as 40 years, and has raced open-wheel formula cars. He follows and writes about the global automotive industry, with an eye on the latest vehicle technologies.