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The Gas Light Goes On: How Many Miles Until Empty?

Empty fuel gauge

Who hasn’t played the miles until empty game? You know, the one that starts when the needle hits E, the gas light fires up on your dashboard and you realize that you suddenly need to figure out if you’ll be able to make it to the next fill-up or not.

Driving on E can be a stressful experience, as no one wants to end up stranded without a gas station in sight. Fortunately, you can relax, because 90 percent of the time, you’ll be able to get to the next fuel pump with miles to spare even if your gas gauge reads empty.

It’s Not Really Empty

The first thing to understand about how many miles until empty you can drive is that the E indicator on your gas gauge doesn’t really mean you’re out of fuel. Wait, what? Yes, it’s definitely confusing, but on almost every modern car (built in the past 25 years or so), E simply means you’ve tapped into your car’s fuel reserves. Your vehicle is letting you know you’ve almost reached bottom, and you only have a short driving range left to find fuel. As scary as that gas light might be when it illuminates, it’s more of a helpful reminder than anything else.

How Far Can You Go?

Fuel gauge

The next logical question after your gas light has turned on is how many miles until empty do you have before your engine shuts down? There’s no hard and fast measurement — each automaker turns the light on with different amounts of gas left in the tank — but a general rule of thumb is between 30 and 50 miles. You always want to make sure to aim for the low end of that estimate and find a gas station that’s within a 30 mile radius, maximum, of where you are once the needle hits E.

If you have a car, truck or SUV with a multi function dashboard, you may be better informed about your actual driving range on empty. The fuel gauge may read low, but the calculated range or distance to empty (sometimes labeled DTE) is likely more accurate. Just remember that the onboard computer bases its calculations on the amount of fuel left and your recent driving habits.

If you know you are running low on fuel it is wise to change your driving habits to stretch out every drop. Smooth, steady acceleration will conserve fuel, as well as keeping to the speed limit.

Don’t Make It a Habit

Now that you know the gas light isn’t as scary of a warning as it at first seems, it might be tempting to simply use it as your regular reminder that it’s time to fill up. In actual practice, this isn’t the best idea. Over time, deposits and other debris can build up in your gas tank, whether it be from heat, the occasional low-quality batch of fuel or corrosion caused by moisture. This gunk sits at the bottom of the tank, which means if you’re regularly running your car down to E before refueling, you’re risking that the fuel pump will suck in something it shouldn’t and potentially impact your engine’s efficiency, performance and longevity.

Fill up regularly and try to keep things above an eighth of a tank to prolong the life of your vehicle.

Check out all the fuel & emissions system parts available on NAPAonline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on how many miles until empty you have, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.

Photo courtesy of Morguefile.

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Benjamin Hunting View All

Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time.  I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.

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