DennisBeaverDecember 27, 2008 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

That tank of gas that you just purchased — is there something in it which could cost you hundreds of dollars in repair bills for a damaged fuel system? How would you know? What are the symptoms? Can the damage be prevented?

That was what 78-year-old Ethel Girrard wondered, within 20 miles of filling her tank at a Flying J gas station in McCammon, Idaho. “The engine of my 2007 Chevrolet Impala began to sputter and would not run correctly forcing me to take it to a Chevrolet dealer in Pocatello,” she said.

“They examined the fuel system, and had to do over $600 of repairs, including replacing fuel lines, draining the tank and replacing fuel injectors. The shop gave me a statement that the damage was caused by the gasoline.”

As she had to rent a car while her’s was being repaired, and with other expenses, she was out almost $900.

Mrs. Girrard took her bills and the statement — along with a fuel sample — to the Flying J station to register her complaint. The matter was then referred to their insurance company. I’ll give you 10 seconds to tell me what the insurance adjuster concluded.

“This location sells over 5,000 gallons of gasoline daily, and there were no claims of contaminated fuel from other customers,” was the official word. Claim Denied!”

As chance would have it, Mrs. Girrard has a daughter who reads this column in Southern California. Sherry Stover contacted You and the Law after reading our article on warranties.

“Does this also apply to receiving bad gasoline from a service station?” she asked.

Thus began what was for me a real learning experience about gasoline, what’s added to it, the possible harm done to a car’s engine, and how to limit the chances of facing your own repair bill.

But something equally important resulted from Sherry’s e-mail. In researching this story — seeing if I could do something for my reader’s mom — I was in for a completely unexpected surprise with the people at Flying J. Everyone I dealt with proved themselves to be some of the most honest, forthcoming, customer-oriented people that I’ve met in a long time.

In an effort to find alternative sources of fuel for our cars, a very old source of energy was brought back in fashion, ethanol, better known as plain old alcohol. Today, every state permits gasoline retailers to add no more than 10 percent ethanol to gasoline. This is to help us reduce our dependence on expensive imported oil — and that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, we rarely hear about the potential downside of ethanol in fuel.

These fuels generate less energy than those without, so your miles per gallon are slightly reduced. But that’s not the worst of it for some cars.

As alcohol is an excellent solvent, it can dissolve fuel system parts, rubber, plastic, some fiberglass, and aluminum. But the more common danger is what happens when ethanol gasoline mixes with water.

Ethanol dissolves in water 50 times better than non-ethanol containing fuels. So, you may be thinking, “Why is this so important?”

The reason is that, with less than 4 teaspoons of water per gallon of fuel which contains ethanol, “Phase Separation” occurs in which the gasoline and alcohol separate into two distinct layers in your gas tank. One layer is gasoline, the other is a mixture of ethanol and water which will not burn correctly and can cause major damage to the car’s fuel system.

From the time You and the Law contacted Virginia Parker in the Public Relations Department at Flying J Headquarters in Idaho, things moved very fast. Despite the fact their insurance company denied the claim, she put me in touch with a number of managers in their fuel distribution system, all of whom showed real concern and a desire to help Mrs. Girrard.

“The gasoline was not contaminated, of that we are certain. When over 5,000 gallons of fuel are sold a day, if there is contamination, you’ll be receiving complaints from many customers. We had none,” I was told by a fuels manager.

When he said that, I expected to hear, “Sorry, we just can’t help.” But that’s not what he said. Instead, he pinpointed the cause of Mrs. Girrard’s problem: water in her gas tank which reacted with the ethanol, causing phase separation and damage.

The next day, my reader phoned; “Flying J just called my mom, and are going to reimburse all of her expenses!”

Indeed, Flying J did indeed care about their 78-year-old customer, helping her when they legally did not have to.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.