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How to Pump Gas: A Step By Step Guide

Pumping gas is an essential part of operating a vehicle and a routine task for drivers around the world.

While simple and straightforward for many, pumping gas can be a daunting task for people that haven't done it before.

pumping gas

Just some of the people who may never had to pump gas:

  • Brand-new drivers or people who’ve just bought their first car.
  • People who previously had a partner or spouse who always filled the tank.
  • Those who’ve lived their lives in an area where self-service gas pumps have been banned. (New Jersey is the only U.S. state that doesn’t allow you to pump your own gas, but it’s also prohibited in some parts of Oregon and some municipalities. A few countries, like Brazil, have banned self-service pumps as well.)

Safety is an important factor in all aspects of driving, especially when handling fuel. When handling gas and other flammable liquids, there's always a certain level of risk involved.

The main danger at a fueling pump is not the gas itself, but the gas vapors. Heavier than air and extremely flammable, gas vapors can cause trouble if they come into contact with a hot surface, cigarette butt or even a static spark.

Although accidents involving any of these things are extremely rare, you should still closely follow the safety instructions when pumping gas.

Why Do You Have to Pump Gas?

It’s pretty obvious why gas has to be pumped into most cars: you can’t drive without it. The vast majority of vehicles use internal combustion engines that run on gasoline, which is used to trigger a series of tiny “explosions” inside the engine.

combustion engine diagram

These explosions create energy that’s transmitted through a “drive train” (transmission, drive shaft and axles) to the wheels that actually move your car. But without gasoline to start the process, the vehicle isn’t going anywhere.

The growing number of all-electric cars on the road (such as Teslas) don’t need gasoline; their batteries are normally charged at a “charging station.” Where-as hybrid vehicles do require gas, since their electric motors are powered by batteries charged by on-board internal combustion engines and regenerative braking.

When Should You Pump Gas?

One sure sign that your car needs gas is if it simply stops running. Needless to say, though, waiting until you run out of gas is not the best way to know that it’s time to fill up the tank. That’s why cars have gas gauges on their dashboards, showing you how much gasoline is left in the tank.

When the needle is in the gauge’s red zone, it indicates that you have less than one-quarter or one-eighth of a tank left. Most models also have LED indicators that light up when you’re dangerously close to running out of gasoline, and some speedometers show an estimate of how many miles you can drive on your current tank of gas.

empty gas tank

It’s not a good idea to wait until the last minute to fill your tank, however.

If you’re on the road with a nearly-empty tank, of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll find a gas station until it’s too late. A long walk to a gas station or a long wait for someone to come to your aid is a huge price to pay for waiting too long to buy gas.

There’s another reason to fill your tank earlier rather than later: trying to drive on an empty or virtually-empty gas tank can damage your vehicle. If there’s no gas left at all, your engine will probably overheat. If there’s just a small amount left, any sediment sitting at the bottom of your tank can be forced into the fuel line, clogging or blocking the filter.

That’s why most professionals advise making sure you always have at least one-quarter of a tank when driving, and even more in winter when the unexpected can happen.

Pumping Gas in Different States

Filling up your gas tank is a fairly simple process, but you might be surprised how traveling between different states can make it complicated. In the United States, the laws and common practices on pumping gas vary depending on the state. On May 1st, 1947, Frank Urich opened the first modern self-serve gas station in Los Angeles. Soon after, many other independent stations started offering self-serve, primarily in California, the Southwest, and the Southeast.

In 2018, a new law took effect allowing Oregon residents in rural counties with a population lower than 40,000 to pump their gas, after the state's decades-long ban of self-service pumps.

New Jersey is the last place in the United States that has a ban on self-service gas stations. In every other state, self-service is widespread and much more common than full service.

Pumping Gas Around the World

In different parts of the world, fuel standards, stations, and pumping etiquette vary. Gas stations may also be referred to as a filling station, petrol station, gas bar, or fuel station.

If you're traveling abroad, you should get familiar with the type of fuel you require, as well as local refueling policies. In some parts of the world, gas stations can be few and far between, so filling up your tank whenever you have a chance might be a good idea.

Depending on the location, gas stations might offer self-service or they might have attendants with a range of provided services. It's also important to note that some gas stations will only accept cash.

  • Full-service gas stations are prevalent in Thailand, Mexico, and Uruguay.
  • Self-service is more popular in Russia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Poland, and Spain.

Both services are available in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, France, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, and Portugal.

Self-service gas stations were made illegal in Brazil in 2000, while Japan only had them legalized in 1998. You can pump your gas in Japan, but attendants still have to be present at all times for safety concerns.

Pumping Gas for Disabled People

As people with disabilities may require assistance to purchase gas at self-service pumps, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires gas stations to provide equal access for their customers with disabilities, making refueling easier.

If necessary, stations must assist with refueling upon request of an individual with a disability. As of March 15th, 2012, any driving pump must not be more than 54 inches above the ground, thus ensuring access for people in wheelchairs.

On newly constructed or adapted pumps, everything has to be below 48 inches. This includes the credit card reader, the fuel grade selection buttons, as well as any buttons for requesting assistance.

The ADA also requires a way of communicating between the operator and the pump. Some stations have implemented systems that make it easier for drivers to alert the staff and ask for assistance.

All of this has improved access to pumping gas for disabled people, but it still doesn't guarantee assistance at all times, so further improvements are still needed.

How to Pump Your Own Gas

Pumping your own gas is almost always cheaper and faster – and at many filling stations, it’s the only choice you’ll have.

There are two key pieces of information you should gather ahead of time, before making your first visit to a self-service gas station. Determining each will take only a few seconds and will make things much easier when you pull up to the pump.

What Type of Gas Does Your Vehicle Take?

gas grades

Every car or truck manufacturer recommends a specific grade of gasoline, usually by octane level. (This recommendation is always in the owner’s manual and usually printed inside the fuel tank door.)

The most common grades are regular (87 octane), mid-grade (89-91 octane) and premium (92-94 octane), and per-gallon prices increase with octane level.

Cars that require premium gas (primarily those with turbochargers or high-compression engines) shouldn’t regularly be filled with a lower grade of gasoline, because that will hurt engine performance. If premium is only recommended the choice is yours, but you’ll get better mileage and performance with higher octane levels.

On the other hand, there’s no advantage to using a higher grade of gas than recommended – so if 87 octane is recommended for your car, buy regular gas and don’t waste money on premium. If your car runs on diesel or ethanol, stations that carry those fuels will sell them at clearly-marked pumps with differently-colored handles.

Is Your Gas Tank on the Driver’s or Passenger’s Side of the Car?

It’s difficult or impossible to pull a gas hose all the way to the other side of your car, so make sure the proper side of your car is next to the pump when you pull up and park.

You usually won’t even have to get out of your car to look; there’s a small arrow on most fuel gauges pointing either left or right, indicating the side of the car where the gas tank door is located. (On some classic cars, the gas tank door is underneath the trunk or even under a fold-down license plate holder.)

Pull Up to the Pump

Since you already know which side of your car needs to be close to the gas pump, simply pull up to a pump so the car’s gas tank is close to the pump’s nozzle. There’s some room in the hose to play with, so you don’t have to be lined up perfectly.

Put the car into park, turn off the engine, put out your cigarette (if applicable) and leave your electronics in the car before you get out.

How to Pay with a Card

Just about every gas station requires you to pay in advance. Most have pumps equipped with credit/debit card machines, allowing you to use your card to pay right at the pump.

All you have to do is insert the card into the proper slot and follow the directions you’ll see on the screen; you’ll usually have to either enter your zip code or PIN number for authorization.

Once your purchase is approved, leave the card in the machine until you’re done pumping gas and you receive your receipt. You can pump as much or little as you’d like if you’re using a credit or debit card.

How to Pay with Cash

If you’d rather pay cash or the pump doesn’t have a built-in card reader, make note of the number on your pump (usually printed right on the pump or on a sign directly above it). Head inside to the checkout counter, where a clerk will take your card or cash and program the pump to allow your desired purchase.

You’ll have to ask for a specific amount of gas (for example, “40 dollars on pump 6, please”), even if you want to fill your tank completely. These days, the only people who say “fill it up!” are actors in old movies.

If you don’t use all of the gas you paid for, you can get change (and a receipt) from the clerk after you’ve finished the purchase.

Getting Ready to Pump

You can’t put gas into your fuel tank until you’ve opened the “filler door” on the side of your car. In most cars, there’s a lever or button under the dashboard or on the inside of the driver’s door, which releases the latch holding the filler door closed.

Swing the filler door all the way open, and remove the gas cap by turning it counterclockwise. If your gas cap isn’t attached to the car by a plastic cord or ring, put it somewhere safe where it can’t roll away. Some filler doors have a notch where you can put it for safekeeping.

Remove the nozzle from its dock on the pump, insert it into the top of your car’s fuel tank (sometimes called the “fuel filler”) so it fits comfortably and completely, and push the large button (on the face of the pump) which corresponds to the fuel grade you want to use. The buttons are usually labeled with the octane number, like “87” or “93.”

The “gallons” display on the pump should reset to zero, and the proper price per gallon should show on the display as well. If that doesn’t happen, there may be a lever underneath the nozzle dock that you have to manually lift before the pump will turn on. If you’ve mistakenly chosen the wrong octane level, you can push the correct button before you start pumping.

Pump Your Gas

OK, you’re finally ready for action. Squeeze the handle on the pump, gasoline will start flowing into your gas tank, and the display on the pump will begin moving. You can watch the display to see in real time how much gas has been pumped and the total price of your purchase. Don’t let go of the handle; if you do, the gas flow will stop.

(Old-fashioned pumps or ones that are also used by attendants may have a metal hook that can be used to lock the handle into the “open” position, but you won’t see those hooks on most self-service gas pumps. It’s better not to use them anyway, since if you make a mistake attaching the hook you could end up with a major gas spill. Just hold the handle until your tank is full – it’s only going to take a couple of minutes.)

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the pump will automatically stop when the tank is full or when you’ve pumped the amount of gas you’ve paid for. Ignore the urge to “top off” your tank with a little extra gas, because that extra gas could prevent the proper operation of the car’s vapor recovery system; you could also end up with a messy gas overflow if you have a heavy hand. When the pump tells you that it’s done, believe it.

Finishing Up

Carefully remove the nozzle from your fuel tank, holding it pointed in the air to prevent leftover gas from dripping out, and place the nozzle back into the pump’s dock. Replace the gas cap and tighten it completely, and then close the filler door. If you had to lift a lever on the pump to start the gas flow, push that lever back down.

If you’ve paid at the pump by credit or debit card, the display on the pump will ask you if you want a receipt. Pressing the “yes” button will produce a printed receipt within a few seconds. If you paid inside, you can stop at the counter for your change (if any is due) and receipt.

Richard Reed
I've been a General Manager of a moving company and I've also been a Professional Mover for over 30 years. I've driven flat beds, reefers, dropdecks, moving vans, heavy machinery, etc. In my time as a Mover I've driven over 1,000,000 safe miles. My days of moving and driving truck are past me but The Vehicle Lab allows me to share the knowledge I've gained over the past 40 years.
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