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What to do if your tank is empty or nearly empty

Worried about local fuel supply shortages? Here's what to do if your tank is empty or nearly empty, and why you don't need to panic.

Reports of fuel shortages and recent bouts of panic buying have led to long queues, escalating headlines, and general nervousness about how we’ll fill our tanks.
The fuel “shortage” is actually just a delay, caused by a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers, in getting fuel from refineries and terminals to the filling stations. We have the fuel, it’s just not where we need it to be. This is a temporary situation made worse by panic buying (remember the great toilet paper shortage of early 2020?). So, first things first, don’t panic. And don’t panic buy. This situation will resolve as soon as oil companies can get the fuel to the stations. That said, knowing it’ll all be alright this time next week doesn’t help if you’re running on empty today. And since some filling stations have shut because they can’t get enough fuel in time, we can understand nerves and tempers are up. So, what can you do about it?

What to do if your tank is empty or nearly empty

It bears repeating here – don’t panic.
In most cars, the fuel warning light comes on when you get down to between 10 and 15% left in the tank. New cars often tell you they’re empty before they actually are, so you fill up in time and avoid damaging the vehicle. That’s not to say keep driving around, it’s just to say, if your circumstances permit, you can wait until the fuel supply issues are resolved and fill up without worrying too much. If the warning light starts flashing, you’ve probably got less than 10% left in the tank. It’s not ideal but, again, it’s not a total disaster on a rare occasion. Some old cars have a reserve tank with a little bit of extra fuel in it for emergencies. If you’re unsure, check your handbook or look online.

Will driving with an empty tank damage my car?

Driving a car with an empty, or nearly empty tank, can cause damage over time.
The fuel at the bottom of the tank tends to collect debris and contaminants. If you repeatedly run this through your system, it can eventually damage your fuel filter, pump and engine. In the short-term, totally running out of fuel can lead to the fuel pump running dry and result in some costly repairs. And if you run out of fuel in the middle of the road, you’ll need towing (at best) and could even be at risk of an accident.

Can I drive to the petrol station on a nearly empty tank?

As above, driving on a nearly empty tank isn’t good for your car.
In terms of whether you’ll physically get there, it’ll depend on the make, model and age of the car – plus any other factors like the trim or any modifications. Many people assume they have around 40 miles left in the tank once the warning light comes on, but it can be much less. We strongly advise against people driving in any reckless manner, including with a low fuel level. If your breakdown causes an accident, you could get points on your licence for careless or dangerous driving. And remember: if you call out roadside services for a problem that could have been prevented, this will be noted and factored in when your insurance premiums are due to be renewed.
Driving without fuel can increase the risk of a breakdown
Driving without fuel can increase the risk of a breakdown

How can I fill my tank without going to the filling station?

If your car is stuck at home, you could fill a fuel can and take it back to your vehicle. You should only be filling fuel cans if you absolutely have to at this moment in time.
Every can you use must have a sign, or writing, on it stating the liquid being carried is highly flammable. There are legal limits to how much petrol you can store, where you can store it, and what you can store it in. • A metal jerry can (or suitable container) will hold 10 litres, and a motorist is allowed two cans for 20 litres in total. • A plastic jerry can (or suitable container) will hold five litres, and a motorist is allowed two cans for 10 litres in total. Before you transport petrol, you must research the laws and ensure you follow them.

Does petrol go off?

Yes, petrol goes off even when stored properly. Petrol stored in a sealed container, and kept at 20 degrees, tends to last six months. If it’s kept at 30 degrees, it’ll only last three months. If you don’t store it properly, or it gets hot, it’ll go off even more quickly than that.
So, if you don’t need it, don’t waste your money.

How to get the most out of a nearly empty tank

If the warning light has just come on, or it’s an emergency and you need to drive with a nearly empty tank (preferably to somewhere with fuel), then follow these tips:
• Maintain a steady pace, within the speed limit, and avoid accelerating where possible • Avoid sudden braking or changes in direction, as they can waste fuel • Stay in the left-hand lane so you can pull onto the hard shoulder if your car dies • Be aware of how the car feels – if it judders and splutters as you accelerate, you’re running dry and need to pull over where it’s safe and legal to do so • Turn off any electronic accessories and unplug anything charging – use the fuel purely to keep your car moving • Check your tyre pressure – as under-inflated tyres can increase the amount fuel required

Manage your fuel efficiency

Some stations are considering a fuel limit of £30 until supply issues are fixed. So, if you’re driving on an emptier than usual tank, we’d advise you to follow the above steps, plus those outlined in our guide to fuel-efficient driving.

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