Petrol in the US

Gasoline prices and oil reserves

Petrol in the US

Three grades of unleaded petrol, known as gasoline, are available: regular, special or mid-grade and premium or super as well as diesel, which is used by most small trucks, but few cars.

Leaded petrol has been banned in the US since 1996. Petrol is sold by the US gallon, which is equal to 3.8 litres and is smaller than the British ‘imperial’ gallon. Petrol is much cheaper in the US than in other western countries (petrol tax is only 10 to 20 cents a gallon in most states), although the cost fluctuates depending on the world oil price (see for the lowest prices in your area).

Prices are usually higher during holiday periods. Premium petrol is typically 30 to 40 per cent more expensive than regular. Prices are usually lower in cities and suburban areas, where there’s lots of competition, and highest on turnpikes, freeways and in rural areas (where the next petrol station may be 100 miles away). Unless you’re desperate, it’s best to avoid petrol stations that don’t display their prices. On suburban highways, the first and last stations may be the most expensive. Independent petrol stations are usually cheaper than those operated by large oil companies, although many oil companies provide stamps or tokens that can be exchanged for gifts.

When motoring in rural areas, you should keep your tank topped up (and check your oil and water), as petrol stations are often few and far between, and may be closed on Sundays and holidays (many petrol stations are also closed in the evenings and at weekends). In some states, e.g. California, it’s an offence to run out of petrol, for which you can be fined, so it pays to pay attention to the fuel gauge.

Reserve supplies

In many states, it is illegal to carry cans or other reserve supplies of petrol in the boot of your car due to the danger of explosion and fire if you’re struck from behind (rear-ended). If you wish to purchase a reserve supply of petrol, you must have a regulation steel petrol can (gas can), made specifically for the storage of petrol. These can be purchased at most petrol stations and automotive supply shops.

Petrol (gas) stations have ‘full-serve’ or ‘self-serve’ (‘U-serve’) pumps, although it isn’t always easy to tell whether a station has self-serve pumps (except in New Jersey and Oregon, where there are none!). At full-serve pumps, the attendant checks your oil and cleans your windscreen free of charge and also checks your tyres and radiator water level if asked (it’s unnecessary to tip for these services). When buying petrol, make sure that the pump is reset to zero, particularly if an attendant is filling your car.

It’s best to check your own oil level, as a garage attendant may ‘short stick’ the dipper so that it doesn’t register. These services aren’t available at self-serve pumps, but the price of petrol may be slightly lower. At many petrol stations, you must pay before filling your car, particularly at 24-hour and late night stations (common in cities). You pay the clerk and collect any change after filling your car.

Some self-serve stations are simply old stations (with old equipment) where the owner has decided to dispense with full-serve. They aren’t equipped with automatic pumps informing the cashier how much you owe, and the attendant must take your word for how much petrol you’ve used or check the pump himself (thus defeating the object of self-serve stations). When filling your own car, check the instructions. Usually, you insert the pump in your tank and push it down to lock it into position, then pull up the base of the pump holder to signal to the attendant that you’re ready.

Take care not to splash yourself with petrol. It may come out faster than you expect or the automatic cut-off device may not function properly (particularly with old pumps). US petrol stations (particularly those in rural areas) tend to be far more dilapidated than their counterparts in Europe.

Some petrol stations accept only cash, others only credit cards, and some stations may make a surcharge of a few cents per gallon for credit card payments (‘discount for cash’). Most garages also accept dollar travellers’ cheques. Major oil companies issue ‘credit’ cards to pay for petrol, servicing and spares at petrol and service stations (application forms are available from service stations). Although generally called credit cards, most oil companies’ cards are charge cards, with the monthly balance due in full at the end of each month, although a few companies allow you to pay off the balance over a period.

Most petrol stations have toilets (restrooms), sometimes located outside the main building, when it may be necessary to ask an attendant for the key (cleanliness varies). Some petrol stations also sell confectionery (candy), hot and cold drinks (usually from vending machines), motoring accessories, newspapers, household goods and various other items. Oil is normally sold by the quart, equivalent to 0.9 litres or 1.6 ‘imperial’ pints, and is less expensive from discount shops.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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