If you’ve ever had issues with the gas gauge of your car, you know it can be a bit like playing Russian roulette. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t run out of fuel. It can be nerve-racking, especially if you’re not keeping track of your mileage.
When you first notice your fuel gauge starting to go it can be a total head-scratcher and even a moment of complete panic. EMPTY?!
Personally, I had my first experience with a wonky fuel gauge while driving over the 7-mile bridge in the Florida Keys. As the name suggests this is a very long bridge and if you’ve ever driven to the Keys, you’ll know that this is a two-lane road with little to no emergency lane pretty much in the middle of nowhere. The crazy South Florida drivers towing their boats do not make the situation less stressful. You do NOT want to get stuck on this bridge.
Circumstances made this experience especially stressful. About an hour prior to reaching the bridge on my road trip, I had a run-in (literally) with some road debris. I hit an outdoor patio lounge chair, or what was left of it, on my way through the Miami interstate system heading South.
I hit a solid piece of the metal chair, it bounced around the undercarriage of my car and then bounced out for the next unsuspecting driver to deal with. Not ideal. After stopping to check my vehicle I found a puncture in my bumper and part of the chair wrapped up inside. Other than that my car was no worse for wear. Unlucky situation but very lucky the damage wasn’t worse I told myself.
I continued on my way reaching the gorgeous blue waters visible from the seven-mile bridge, rolling with the windows down and basking in the gorgeous spring air of a tropical South Florida day. I was jolted out of my peaceful and happy state of mind when suddenly I noticed my gas gauge was reading E. Impossible I thought to myself, I just filled up 50 miles back.. Then a horrible thought came to mind. That lounge chair may have punctured my gas tank. I felt the panic well up inside me and began hatching a plan of calling roadside assistance and getting myself to safety.
Well as it turns out I never did run out of gas and when I stopped to fill my tank it was practically full. After restarting my car after topping it off, that gas gauge went right up to F. Relief washed over me knowing that fixing a broken fuel gauge was much cheaper than replacing a gas tank.
If you’re finding yourself in a similar situation then this is the guide for you. We’ll discuss the ins and outs of the fuel gauge, where your problems are likely arising, signs to look out for, ways to track your gas usage until repaired, and much more. First, let’s get into the anatomy of your car’s fuel gauge and how it operates.
How Does A Fuel Gauge Work
Think of the fuel gauge system like the floater inside of a toilet’s water tank. As the water level rises the float controls the flow of water refilling the tank and stops the flow when the water is full. This is oversimplified of course but your gas tank also has a float which sits on the surface level of your gas tank.
The float is made of a buoyant composite foam which is connected to a thin metal arm which connects to the variable resistor. The variable resistor is an electrical device that resists the flow of electricity and has the ability to adjust how much resistance it gives.
As you use the fuel in your vehicle the fuel level in your tank drops and the float drops with it. A sensor indicates the distance the float is sitting from the top of the tank triggering a variable resistor to change the electrical current resistance which in turn makes your gauge give you an accurate reading of how much gas is in your tank.
When your gauge is stuck on Full or Empty or just changing erratically, you know there is a fuel instrument problem.
What Causes The Fuel Gauge Not To Work?
The fuel gauge can act up as a result of 5 components of the fuel gauge system that may be broken and need maintenance or replacement. An inaccurate fuel tank reading is most commonly caused by the sending system which reads the fuel tank level and sends the reading to the gauge.
Issues can also stem from a bad gauge, blown fuses, or corroded wiring. You can self-test all of these parts at home with a few tools. If you’re interested in doing this check out the detailed step by step guide at the end of this article.
Is There A Fuse For The Gas Gauge?
Yes, there is a fuse for the gas gauge. Every component of your vehicle that uses electricity will have some form of connection with the fuse boxes in your car. That’s right, a car will typically have more than one fuse box! Traditionally one will be located under the steering column on the inside of your car on the drivers side. There is also a fuse box located under the hood for most vehicles.
For accurate information regarding what fuses are in what fuse boxes as well as where to find these fuse boxes refer to the owner’s manual of your vehicle. Blown fuses can definitely be a cause of a gas gauge not reading properly and can be worth looking into as it is one of the easiest and cheapest repairs to make regarding this problem.
Signs That You Have A Bad Fuel Gauge
The signs of a bad fuel gauge are pretty straight forward. If your fuel sensor needle moves erratically or more quickly than you feel you are burning fuel this is likely indicative of an issue in your fuel gauge system.
Alternatively the gauge may read F and E all the time regardless of how much fuel you actually have. In some cases the fuel gauge will randomly read E and this can be fixed simply by turning your car on and then back on. This is likely caused by a wiring or sending unit issue.
Can You Drive With A Bad Fuel Level Sensor?
Yes you can absolutely drive your car with a bad gas gauge though it can be a bit like playing with chance if you are not diligent filling up your car regularly. Generally fixing your fuel level sensor is fast and inexpensive to repair, but if you’re in a tight spot and can’t repair this item really the worst that is going to happen is that you run out of gas. Which can of course lead to more problems.
How To Tell How Much Gas You Have With A Bad Fuel Sensor
If you have a broken gas gauge, a common problem many people face is anxiety and worry of being stranded on the side of the road with an empty fuel tank. If your fuel sensor is no longer operating properly and you don’t currently have the time or money to fix it there are ways to estimate how much fuel you have.
You can find the size of your gas tank located in your owner’s manual. Typically the average car has a range of 300- 400 miles and the fuel tank will hold between 12 and 20 gallons of fuel.
By estimating your vehicle’s fuel efficiency you can determine at approximately what odometer reading you will next need to fill up. Be on the conservative side of this range and I don’t recommend letting it get to the almost empty mark or you could find yourself stuck on the side of the road waiting potentially a couple hours for roadside assistance or walking down the highway to the nearest gas station to buy a portable gas tank.
How Much Does It Cost To Fix A Fuel Gauge?
The cost is going to vary depending on what the issue is. An issue can be resolved with a new fuse costing $10 or a fuel gauge sender replacement can cost up to $800 after labor. The answer is it depends. Here is a breakdown of the common parts that would need replacing and their cost.
Cost Of Replacing The Fuel Gauge Sender
The majority of the time it is the fuel gauge sender which is the problem. This part can be a bit pricey to repair and most of the expense is in labor costs. Depending on the make and model of your car and the specific sender that you purchase, costs will run on average between $250 and $800. You can save a lot of money replacing this part yourself if you feel comfortable.
Cost Of Replacing The Fuel Gauge Fuse
Another replacement part that may fix your fuel gauge is the fuse. This is very inexpensive and easy to do yourself. On average the cost of replacing a fuse is between $10 and $20 but some specialty fuses will cost around $100.
Cost Of Replacing The Fuel Gauge
If it is the gauge itself that is your issue, you’re in luck. This part is pretty cheap to replace and depending on the make and model of your car will cost between $50 and $200 for the part. You will have to consider labor of replacement if you intend on having this replaced professionally. Total costs will be between $200 and $400.
Self Diagnosing Your Fuel Gauge Problem
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There is usually a way to run diagnostics on your vehicle. If your vehicle was made in the last 20 years, check your owner’s manual for the instrument cluster self test procedure. This will usually involve holding the odometer down as you start the car or some other series of steps. The process is used to test the instrument panel gauges and lights. The fuel gauge should go up and down all the way during the test. If the fuel gauge needle doesn’t move, then you know you have an issue with the gauge itself. If not move onto the next check, fuses.
Your car has two fuse boxes, one under the steering column in the interior of your car and one under the hood. Check your owner’s manual to determine where the fuse is located for the gas gauge. Once located open the fuel box and check all the fuses inside. If any are damaged or completely broken, replace them. If this doesn’t seem to be an issue, you’re going to move onto the next check, the sending unit.
The sending unit is the most common problem which causes your fuel gauge to malfunction. This component physically measures the quantity of fuel and then communicates the levels with the gauge in the dashboard.
Go and top off your car for this one because you’ll need a full tank to test the sending unit properly. You’ll also need a tool called a multimeter to test the resistance. Finally, you’ll need to know what the standard resistance is for the make and model of your vehicle. You can find this in the repair manual for your car.
After you’ve received your resistance results, compare them to the standard for your vehicle. If the resistance is even a few ohms off you’ll know that it is your sending unit that is causing you issues. In some cases all you need to fix this issue is a bottle of fuel system cleaner which will run you about $10. While there is a chance that this won’t fix your issue, about 25% of the time it does.
In these cases corrosion is keeping the float of the sending unit from doing its job properly and a thorough scrubbing from a fuel system cleaner will get it back to proper working conditions. If this doesn’t work you can remove and replace this part yourself or have your car sent out for repairs at the mechanic.
The next cause can be as simple as a voltage issue in the gauge of the car. Follow your repair manual in steps to remove the instrument cluster in your vehicle. Use the multimeter to test the gauge which should come back as 12V. If the voltage looks good, then you likely have a faulty gauge that will just need replacing. A part can be ordered for this repair online.
If all of these tests go according to plan and you still are unsure of the issue, the answer is likely the wiring and grounding. A common cause is wire corrosion especially in vehicles that have been exposed to water damage. You’ll want to thoroughly inspect the wire running from your fuel tank to the gauge, cleaning or replacing if necessary.
If you’re still unsure after your self diagnoses you should take your car to the mechanic to have a professional work on it.
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