An interesting article on Top Tier and gasoline detergents:
By James R. Healey and Chris Woodyard, USA TODAY
Gasoline prices hit near-record levels recently, and the government says the average will stay above $3 all summer, sending motorists shopping for lower-price fuel and making them wonder if they're hurting their engines burning the cheap stuff.
Their anxieties have lately been fueled by a $35 million Shell marketing campaign, warning that discount fuel is the petro-chemical equivalent of the road to hell.
And those anxieties are likely to go unresolved, because there seems no easy answer to the simple questions: What is bad gas? How can I avoid it?
•All gasoline should be adequate. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires a certain level of engine-cleaning additives in gasoline. And bulk gasoline before the additives go in must meet certain industry standards. But Shell and others trying to distinguish themselves from the discounters say that fuel meeting just those minimum standards won't keep your engine clean.
•Some gasoline probably is better. There is, in fact, a rating system that's supposed to identify the best gasolines. Called Top Tier, it's meant to steer motorists toward fuels that have strong concentrations of detergent additives to keep engines free of what even technical-minded people call "gunk." But even automakers who sponsor the Top Tier system say some brands not on their list are high-quality.
•A respected survey can't find a difference. A twice-yearly gasoline-quality survey by the trade group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers "hasn't identified any quality differences based on geography or brand," says Alliance spokesman Charles Territo. But, he adds, "That's not to say that certain vehicles won't perform better with certain fuels."
It's all about additives, which are engine-cleaning substances added in tiny amounts — a few parts per million — to ordinary bulk gasoline at fuel terminals. The type and strength of additives are the main differences among gasoline brands.
"We can prove there is a difference in fuels," argues Jens Mueller-Belau, Shell's global technology manager for fuels development. "We estimate 50% of fuels are meeting only government minimum standards."
Shell, a Top Tier brand, bases its claims on a test by Southwest Research Institute. The laboratory ran an engine for 5,000 hours, using Shell fuel on half the cylinders, an unnamed fuel in the other half. The Shell cylinders didn't have deposits, and the others did, the lab report says.
Shell has several demonstration cars that work the same way. In 16 tests of 5,000 miles each using different brands of gasoline, the test cars' intake valves had just one-eighth the residue with the Shell brand as with other, unidentified brands, according to data that Shell provided to USA TODAY.
Bunk, say some. "I see these ads on TV where Shell says, 'We filled up with Shell and some other gasoline and saw a difference,' and I think it's a myth," says Thomas Darlington, engineer and consultant at Air Improvement Resource in Novi, Mich., and formerly at the EPA.
"Gasolines today are very, very clean from the standpoint of not forming engine deposits" because of the EPA and industry requirements, he argues. What does he buy? "I'm not brand-conscious. I go for price, as long as it doesn't have ethanol." He says ethanol cuts mileage 1% to 2% because it has a lower energy content than pure gasoline.
"I really look at these commercials and wonder, 'How do these guys justify this?' I don't see the benefits," says John Frala, who teaches auto mechanics at Rio Hondo College in Whittier, Calif. He says he's never seen a breakdown due to engine deposits.
"It's hype," says Dennis DeCota, executive director of the California Service Station and Automotive Repair Association. "It would be very hard to differentiate" among brands.
Regardless of which gasolines prevent it best, and whether it's a major or minor issue, the buildup of unwanted material inside an engine eventually could make the engine run poorly, use more fuel and pollute more. Such degradation usually occurs over thousands of miles and years of use. But it has happened faster, which is what triggered some automakers to institute the Top Tier standard.
A few years ago, "All the manufacturers were having fuel-injector problems within a few months" after a new car was sold, says Gary Herwick, a mechanical engineer who's head of Michigan-based Transportation Fuels Consulting. He worked at General Motors at the time of the problems.
He says "it's fair to say" that some automakers' fuel systems weren't the best, but he believes skimpy additive packages should get most of the blame. Refiners "were minimizing costs, and we got down to the ragged edge" of EPA-required levels of additives.
Raising the bar
GM fuels engineer Andy Buczynsky and several other automakers' representatives came up with higher standards for detergent additives, hoping to "raise the bar" on additive concentration and erase the problem. Those Top Tier standards are endorsed by GM, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Volkswagen and Audi.
The strength of additive packages varies, but meeting Top Tier standards can require 2½ to five times as much additive as the EPA requires, according to Buczynsky and Shell's Mueller-Belau, whose company is a Top Tier participant. Even so, it adds less than a penny to the cost of a gallon, Buczynsky says.
To be able to advertise the Top Tier rating, a gasoline marketer has to promise the automakers in writing that every gallon it sells in the USA has a strong enough additive package to keep an engine free of deposits and that dreaded gunk.
BMW, notoriously fussy about engine matters, joined the Top Tier coalition because EPA standards were developed to minimize emissions and don't necessarily result in the best engine performance, says Wilhelm Hall, environmental department manager for BMW USA.
Buczynsky says the automakers check fuel randomly to be sure additive levels are as promised, and is working on a symbol for gasoline stations to display. The automakers introduced Top Tier in 2004, and today, roughly 40% of the gasoline sold in the USA and 50% in Canada meets the standard, he estimates.
Not all big names have signed on, while some obscure gasoline marketers have, as a way to show they're selling high-quality gasoline.
Complicating things, some respected brands not on the Top Tier list claim to exceed the requirements. They just don't think auto companies should tell them how to make or market their fuels.
ExxonMobil, for instance, wants "a more collaborative approach," says spokeswoman Prem Nair. Auto and oil companies should "work cooperatively to determine the optimal mix of vehicle hardware and fuel standards," she says. Exxon and Mobil aren't Top Tier brands, though Nair says they surpass that standard.
Ford Motor, not in the Top Tier coalition, says right on its gasoline caps, "Ford recommends BP," not a Top Tier brand. "Their fuel meets or exceeds what our vehicles require. We know their products" from collaborating on lubricant and fuel research, says Ford spokesman Said Deep.
GM's Buczynsky sees it a bit differently: "I think that was kind of an in-your-face to us."
How high a priority?
Some not on the Top Tier list say their customers don't care, and wouldn't pay the little extra it would cost to meet the standards.
"I don't think it's worth paying extra for branded gasoline" or extra detergent, says James Greene, a warehouse manager in Richmond, Va. "I've tried all kinds of brands and discount fuel, and I don't think it makes a difference. I do my own work on my car, so I know the fuel lines aren't varnished up, or anything."
"In this market, I think price is far and away the biggest factor," says Rob Garrett. He owns two Sunoco-branded gas stations in Northern Virginia and another in Washington, D.C. Sunoco, though well-known as the fuel of NASCAR racing, isn't a Top Tier brand.
Tesoro, which retails gasoline through 800 of its stations and distributes fuel to Wal-Mart and others, views the detergent issue as a gimmick. Tesoro doesn't put in additional additives because "our customers are price shoppers," says Senior Vice President Lynn Westfall. "We don't get any complaints from our customers."
Citgo Petroleum, the Venezuelan brand, is another big name that's not Top Tier. Using stronger additives costs more, and even if it's just a penny a gallon, "We don't see a corresponding benefit to our customers of similar magnitude. We want to provide quality products to the consumer at the best value," spokesman Fernando Garay says.
"People will switch for a penny. It might not make financial sense, but they'll do it," says Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores. Its members sell three-fourths of the gasoline in the USA.
Nevertheless, brands that are additive-conscious can be pretty picky.
"When my driver goes into a (bulk fuel) terminal, it's all computerized. He punches in that he's picking up a specific brand, and that brand's additive package gets injected while the truck is being filled," says Jinger Duryea, president of C.N. Brown, a petroleum distributor and retailer based in South Paris, Maine, that operates 80 Big Apple convenience stores selling a variety of branded and unbranded gasoline. Her drivers sometimes have filled up with bulk gasoline, then had to stop at a branded terminal for that brand's additives when the bulk terminal was out, she says.
Further clouding the question of what is good gas, brands often sell one another's fuels.
"Gasoline is fungible. Marathon can market Shell or Mobil gas, for example," says Darlington, the consultant and fuels expert. Marathon stations "normally get it from a Marathon refinery, but if something happens to a Marathon refinery and there's a pipeline where they can get Mobil and market it as Marathon, that's the way it is," he says.
The substitute fuel might contain a different additive package, but it's supposed to be at least as effective as what the station normally sells.
If motorists don't buy into the Top Tier ratings, how can they tell what fuels are risky? Says Herwick: "It's difficult for the average person to determine."