Getting Gas

This article won't be much use to those with diesel engines. It's about gasoline quality, station clearance, and getting in and out of gas stations safely, with a few stories tossed in.

Is All Gas the Same?

I can remember a running argument between my father and my grandfather (my dad's father-in-law) about gasoline. My Grandfather wouldn't buy anything but Shell gasoline and paid a premium for it. My father always told him he was being stupid, since gasoline was all the same. My dad liked to point out that unmarked gasoline trucks went from station to station, filling up the underground tanks. His position was that the only difference was having to pay for the company's advertising. My grandfather's argument was always that Shell had always worked well for him. Since there was no way of knowing how some other gas would have worked for him, it seemed like a pretty weak case, so I always went along with my father on this topic. Based on modern studies, though, my father and I were dead wrong.

A recent study by the American Automobile Association (AAA), found that after only 4,000 miles, inexpensive gasoline left 19 times the amount of deposits on engine intake valves when compared with top-tier gasoline. Fuel injectors are also subject to deposits. Deposits in both places can contribute to poor performance, decreased gas mileage, and shortened engine life.

According to AAA, 63 percent of US drivers believe there is a difference in quality between gasoline brands, but only 12 percent choose a gas station based on fuel quality.

What About those Unmarked Tanker Trucks?

It's true that the same gasoline is delivered to various gas stations. The catch is that for each gas station brand, the fuel wholesaler adds a custom blend of additives to the product. The additives are mostly detergents and the amount used varies by brand. The AAA study holds that cheaper brands don't have enough detergent in them to prevent deposits in the engine when compared with top-tier gasoline. A number of automakers agree that the current EPA minimum detergent requirements don't provide enough protection for their cars' engines. These include BMW, General Motors, Fiat, Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi. Cut-rate gasoline will normally be pretty close to the EPA minimums.

Finding Good Gasoline

The AAA study specifically compared top-tier gas to budget brands. TOP TIER™ is actually a registered trademark. It's a consortium of gasoline retailers who have agreed to guarantee that their gasoline will meet a rigorous set of detergent standards. You can check out their web site for more information.

So, the answer to getting good gasoline is to only buy gas from TOP TIER™ stations. Here is my short list of TOP TIER™ brands:

  • 76
  • Amoco
  • BP
  • Cenex
  • Chevron
  • Conoco
  • Costco
  • Esso
  • Exxon
  • Holiday
  • Kwik Trip and Quick Trip (QT)
  • Mobil
  • Petro-Canada
  • Phillips 66
  • Shell
  • Sinclair
  • SuperAmerica
  • Texaco
  • Valero

Here is the full, current list at the TOP TIER™ website. A number of retailers have been added since I started paying attention to fuel quality, so it's worth checking back periodically. You will pay a little more for TOP TIER™ gas, but since you will get better mileage and gain performance and longer engine life, I consider it well worth it.

Sadly, at this writing, Race Track and Pilot are not on the list. This is disappointing because they are often some of the easiest stations to get in and out of.

Filling Up

If you are new to RVing, filling up your tank can be a daunting experience, especially if you are towing a car. I've twice hit the roof of a low-clearance space, and twice, in my early days, I had to unhook my toad to get out of stations where the turn was too tight to make. Here's some advice that might save you the same experience.


When I pulled into the station in a small town in Idaho, I just assumed that I would fit. The station only had two pumps and when I went in to pay, I noticed that my rig pretty much blocked out the light entering the store. When pulling in, I heard a noise coming from the roof. It took me a while to realize that it was my CB antenna scraping against the roof. When I went inside, I told the owner that he should really have a clearance sign and he replied that he did. I went outside, and sure enough, there was one in small letters on the leading edge of the roof. It said the clearance was 11 feet 7 inches. My rig, at it's highest point, is just a hair short of 13 feet! The low clearance came from some flourescent light boxes hanging down from the roof. By sheer luck, I had missed them all with my satellite dome and air conditioners. Mercifully, the only thing that hit the roof was my CB antenna.

Another time, I took my rig to pick up some relatives at Tampa International Airport. According to the clearance sign (which I had checked out earlier), I had plenty of room. Unfortunately, the clearance sign did not include the signs that hang down indicating the different airlines. Luckily, they were hung on chains, so as I drove through the arrivals section, my satellite dome pushed each one out of the way. As soon as I moved to the left-most lane, the bumping stopped.

The first step in avoiding low-clearance locations is to know how tall your rig is. To do it properly, you need a straight piece of lumber, a level, and a tape measure that's at least 15 feet long. If you don't have those, you can measure from the ground to the roof and add the height of your tallest roof fixture (the satellite dome, in my case), but remember that many RV roofs are higher in the middle, so they'll be a little taller than the measurement to the edge of the roof.

With your tires fully inflated, lay the lumber (I used a very straight 2X4 — seven or eight feet should be long enough) across the highest point of the RV with one end on the high point and the other extending past the roof edge. Stand near the roof edge (not too close!). That will help keep the lumber from sagging. Using the level, hold the lumber as level as you can and have an assistant measure the distance from the ground to the lower edge of the lumber. Add an inch or more to be on the safe side and put a sticker on your dash to remind you of how tall your rig is. Don't forget to look for a clearance sign before entering if a roof or doorway looks at all low. It will usually be written along the lower edge of the roof as you drive in (in letters that are much too small). If there's no sign, you can assume that it's not a problem. Most modern gas stations have around 15 feet of clearance, which is more than enough for even the tallest rigs as long as you haven't forgotten to lower the TV antenna.

Avoid Unhooking

If you're driving a class-C rig or a pickup camper, and aren't towing a car, you can fill up pretty much anywhere. Diesel drivers can fill up a large truck stops in the lanes designed for huge semi truck-trailers — no problem. If you're driving a Class A gasoline rig over 35 feet and are towing a car, though, you need to be careful where you get your gasoline.

The first thing to notice when checking out a gas station is the orientation of the pump islands. If they are parallel to the store, they'll be much easier to get in and out of. If they are perpendicular to the store (in other words, your rig will be facing towards or away from the store when your gassing up), it will be more of a challenge — more so if there are cars parked with their noses against the store. In that case, make a note of the distance between the pumps and the cars, whether the cars are angled of straight, and whether there are any double-cab, full-sized pickups in the mix, or cars parked with their tails sticking out.

With a Class-A rig, your toad will almost always follow your path, taking up less room on the sides. If your rig will miss an object during a turn, the odds are excellent that your toad will too. Your Class-A rig will turn much sharper than you think because the wheels are back from the front end and can usually turn pretty far in the wheel wells. I often think I'm going to have to drive over a curb only to find that I have four of five feet to spare.

Your rig will also clear objects in front of you (like gas pump islands) better than you think it will. Try this: have a partner put an object that won't cause any damage if you hit it (a traffic cone works well) about 20 feet in front of your rig. Drive forward until you think you're less than five feet from the object. Then get out and see how close you are. In a Class-A rig, you'll be amazed at how much room you have left. Similarly, if you fuel up at a gas station with two pumps per island, your nose won't be sticking out nearly as far as you think it is.

With a fifth wheel rig or a travel trailer, however, your rig itself can hit things your truck misses, so watch your mirrors carefully as you turn.

Beware the fake driveway around the back. Lots of stations have what looks like a driveway around the back you could use to exit after getting gas. Some are dead-ends, some have large delivery trucks blocking them, and some have the nightmare scenario of being fast-food drive-through lanes with barely enough clearance for a pickup truck. Always check them out on foot before committing your rig to them.

Check out the number of pumps at each island. The more pumps, the easier the access. When there's only one pump per island and the islands are perpendicular to the store, my rig will almost never make it in and out. In many of them, my tow vehicle would completely block the driveway while I gassed up. Stations out in the country will almost always have much more room than ones in urban areas. When looking for gas on the freeway, an exit with multiple gas stations will usually have cheaper prices than one with a single gas station.

With perpendicular pumps, the pump island at the far end is your best bet as long as there's enough room to exit without hitting a stanchion or driving over the curb. Drive between the parked cars and the pump islands, so you'll be facing away from the store when you fill up. Stay close to the cars so you can make the turn, but watch the back end of your rig to see if it swings out too far as you turn. It's best to start with a shallow turn and make it sharper as you go. Do the same when you leave the pumps, especially if you're parked close to them.

At the best stations, there will be a driveway ahead of you and you can drive straight out. If you're very lucky, you'll find an end pump island that you can drive straight into from one driveway and then straight out of at another driveway.

If a station won't work for you, don't be afraid to just drive through it and go somewhere else. I keep a list of easily accessible top-tier stations on routes I travel often with notes about the best way to get in and out.

This can all sound pretty frightening if you've never done it, but after a few tries, you'll be able to spot a good gas station from the street and get in and out with very little trouble, no matter how big your rig is.

Broken Gas-pump Handles

My rig has a 75-gallon tank. When the catch is broken on a gas pump, it's a royal pain to have to stand there and hold it the whole time while gassing up. Murphy's law dictates that this always happens at stations with slow pumps. I often thought about carrying something to wedge in the pump handle, but never got around to it (and for most pumps, I don't need it). Finally, I found a great solution. A 12 to 16 ounce, empty plastic water bottle is the perfect tool to keep the pump operating hands-free. So far, there's always been one in the trash I could use. Using the bottle may be illegal, so I'm not officially recommending it, but it's always worked for me.


Thank you for visiting

  —  Bob Ray