“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” - Often attributed to Plato but likely from Ian McLaren (pseudonym of Reverend John Watson)

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Is it "winter blend?"

My 10 fill-up moving average fuel economy has declined steadily from 21.76 m.p.g. for my September 25 fill-up to 21.03 m.p.g. for my most recent fill-up on November 26. This is quite significant and is obvious in the graph of that statistic. Clearly I'd like to know the cause of this deterioration, which amounts to well over 3%. Among other possibilities are: more traffic jams and city street driving; vehicle maintenance issues (tire pressure, wheel alignment, etc.); and air temperature. But another possibility is the switch to so-called "winter blend" fuel which, as best I can tell, takes place around September 15.

There's a very good article produced by Chevron that discusses many aspects of automobile gasoline. It's written at a level appropriate for a curious layperson, i.e., not as a scholarly journal article but with a higher intellectual content than a brochure or other mass consumer outlet. It discusses a huge variety of issues with respect to gasoline formulation, but for this post I'm focusing on a statement that "The heating value of winter gasoline is about 1.5% lower than summer gasoline because winter gasoline contains more volatile, less dense hydrocarbons."

Heating value is how gasoline chemists and physicists evaluate the energy content of gasoline. There are a variety measurements (i.e., units) for this characteristic: b.t.u./gallon; megajoules/liter; etc. I typically calculate using a bastardized unit of megajoules/gallon. This makes various calculations easier for me, since joules are a S.I. unit of energy and are convenient for energetic calculations, but gallons are what I buy at the pump. Clearly, the less heating energy available in a gallon of fuel, the shorter the distance that gallon will take my vehicle.

So, while it's certainly possible that the switch to winter grade gasoline is a part of the reason for my deteriorating fuel economy, it doesn't seem at all likely that it's the full explanation. Among other pieces of evidence that this isn't the full story, I did not suffer a similar decline in fuel economy in September of 2007. There was a similar declining period in January of 2008, however. Could it be that the switch to summer blend was, for some reason, delayed in the winter of 2007-2008 as compared to 2008-2009? I can find no indication of anything like this.

As to the other possibilities, it is true that I subjectively feel like my recent trips have been more stop and go, and local. But my average speed over the subject tanks has shown a very small decline. Of course, I plot my fuel economy vs. average speed and so I can say that the decline noted above would be equivalent to about a 3.5 miles per hour reduction in average speed over the period of time in question. I don't see this in the data either. That leaves maintenance issues and other random factors. I'll keep looking.

1 comment:

aaron said...

My guess would be that winter fuel is the primary factor. The EIA site has some good info on fuel blends, which I believe has changed significantly in recent years.

Weather is also a factor. Temp, pressure, etc will affect the metering of gas pumps, your tank gauge, and mechanical efficiency. Construction and population changes in your region (construction doesn't need to be on your route to affect it) might add to congestion.

Weather affects road capacity, as well as mechanical efficiency. If the road conditions are poor, energy is lost to reduced traction. Vehicles cannot get up to speed as quickly, spending more time in inefficient low RPM ranges and vehicle speeds, and increasing congestion. More space is needed to slow down, so it takes less cars to slow traffic down to inefficient speeds (below 55mph fuel efficiency drops. below 45 throughput drops (for one major Ca freeway, I expect the threshold to vary by road design).).