Consumer Confidence Rides on Fuel Testing
A Louisiana consumer fills his gas tank with an expensive high octane gas rated at 91. He is curious: Am I really getting high octane gas?
To be sure, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry’s Motor Fuels Laboratory in Baton Rouge runs a battery of tests on more than 50 fuel samples weekly to ensure that the buyer is getting the octane he’s paying for.
Gasoline octane and diesel cetane levels are measured in addition to tests that check for distillation properties and water contamination.
Calls from consumers complaining their cars began to run poorly after pumping gas at a certain filling station are investigated by the LDAF. All gasoline and diesel fuel must adhere to strict federal and state standards and quality requirements.
LDAF inspectors and technicians ensure that the Louisiana consumer and environment is protected.
The LDAF was given the regulatory power to monitor fuel quality more than eight years ago. Specialists have the capability to do some preliminary field testing, but if fuel samples do not test well in the field then they are sent to the Baton Rouge lab for more precise testing.
One such test that can have far reaching implications on air quality, especially in the metro areas of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, is the Reid vapor pressure analysis that measures the volatility of gasoline. It is used as an indicator of air pollution.
“For instance, a five-parish area around Baton Rouge is being closely watched by environmental agencies,” said Richert Williams, Assistant Division Director of Weights and Measures. “Gas is formulated to be sold in certain areas around the state, but the federal requirements for gasoline volatility in other parishes and states may be less stringent than Baton Rouge. If gas designated for another geographic area is sold to the consumer in Baton Rouge, it could add to air pollution levels. The Reid test identifies this infraction,” Williams explained.
Since gasoline refineries do not monitor where a batch of fuel is actually sold, Weights and Measures is left with the responsibility of enforcement. “It doesn’t happen that often, but when we catch it, the violations can mean a fine of $5,000 to $10,000,” he said.
Williams said the Reid test is conducted randomly on samples but is done often during the summer months when warmer temperatures create more hydrocarbon fumes that can escape into the atmosphere.
Another measure of gasoline volatility is the distillation range test.
“There are components in gas that allow an engine to start when it’s cold and others that vaporize at higher temperatures,” said Howard Watts, an Ag Specialist with 18 years of state service. “Plus, there is a component in the fuel that keeps the gas from creating a vapor lock in between the carburetor and manifold. In other words, the distillation test measures the fuel’s capability to perform properly when your car is cold, warm and stopped.”
The LDAF also uses three internal combustion engines in its Baton Rouge laboratory to test gasoline octane levels.
Ag Specialist Terry Crotwell has been running tests on gasoline and diesel for 27 years for the state.
“Gasoline must be within a half octane measurement of its claims,” Crotwell said over the din of an engine conducting an octane test. “We pour the gas in one of these carburetor bowls and start the engine. We can change the compression and measure the octane levels by checking the knocking on the Knockmeter.”
If a tested gasoline fails to meet the federal octane standard, the retailer’s gasoline pump is padlocked until further tests show that the octane level is corrected, but only two to three percent of the samples fail, Williams said.
Federal standards dictate that ‘super’ or premium gas must have a 91 octane level, mid-quality gas, 89, and regular gas, an 87 octane.
“It’s all designed to protect the consumer,” Williams said.
Consumers can call the LDAF Division of Weights & Measures at 1-800-247-1086 if they have questions concerning gasoline quality or measurements.