The Department of Agriculture now offers a series of feature stories about the many things in agriculture that affects us all. Read all stories at mda.mo.gov.
Fuel that makes the grade
Missouri Department of Agriculture’s fuel lab benefits consumers
Fortunately, this scenario has become rare in Missouri. Thanks to a little-known program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, motorists can buy fuel confident that it will meet established standards and function properly in their vehicle. In fact, the department is so successful quietly monitoring the quality of gasoline, diesel and other fuels sold in the state, many Missourians are unaware they do it at all.
Given how Americans feel about their cars, few state programs touch people more closely than the state’s Fuel Quality Program, one of four major responsibilities of the Department of Agriculture’s Weights and Measures Division. Working from a small, one-story building in Jefferson City, five chemists and technicians evaluate fuel samples collected by field personnel to ensure that Missourians won’t get stuck with bad fuel.
“Our fuel testing program touches the lives of and benefits every single Missouri motorist,” says Dr. Jon Hagler, director of the Department of Agriculture. “Most Missourians are unaware of this laboratory, but the work our technicians do every day saves every citizen of this state money by making sure the fuels they buy burn efficiently and won’t damage their vehicle’s engines.”
Five days a week, the department’s three field inspectors fill bottles with gasoline and other motor fuels collected from storage tanks at filling stations, marinas, airports and bulk fuel terminals across Missouri and ship the samples overnight to Jefferson City. Usually within 24 hours, the fuel is analyzed to verify octane of gasoline, proper viscosity of diesel and other criteria. In the event that fuels don’t pass inspection, the source station is notified and sales of the product are stopped.
“If we find we have a problem, we want to get that fuel off the market right away,” says Ron Hayes, director of the Weights and Measures Division. “We probably have the fastest response time of any state that has a fuel quality program.”
The state of Missouri first tested fuels in 1865, when an inspector for oil used in lamps was appointed. In 1982, more than a century later, the state began a formal testing program for motor fuels. Today, department field personnel visit about half of the state’s 4,000 gas stations each year to collect samples.
Missouri’s fuel laboratory was created in response to an incident involving a St. Louis-area fuel distributor who mixed alcohol and methanol with gasoline in an attempt to cut costs and stretch supply. Although alcohol-blend fuels are common today, in the ’80s most cars were not designed for the fuels and unsuspecting drivers experienced problems. Most notably, the methanol caused rust and sediments in fuel lines and storage tanks to break loose and clog carburetors and fuel injection systems.
Missouri’s Fuel Quality law mandates a series of tests to ensure a reliable supply of gasoline, diesel, kerosene and aviation fuels. The tests ‑ established by ASTM, the American Society for Testing and Materials – measure a wide range of characteristics, depending on the type of fuel being analyzed. Among the qualities examined are alcohol content, octane, cetane index, cloud point, copper corrosion, distillation, flash point, sulfur content, lubricity, vapor pressure, viscosity and the presence of water or sediment in fuel.
While the science is beyond the grasp of most Missourians, the tests themselves would fascinate anyone who appreciates engines and fuel performance.
Beakers of gasoline boil atop burners in tests that measures distillation, or a fuel’s ability to vaporize. Improper distillation characteristics can cause poor acceleration, vapor lock, dilution of crankcase oil and poor fuel economy. Another test involves vibrating a tiny steel ball 50 times per second against a precision metal disc submerged in diesel fuel. After 75 minutes, the disc is examined for wear. Missouri was the first state to perform the test, which measures the lubricity of diesel fuel. The test is important because diesel engines rely on oil in the fuel for proper lubrication.
Perhaps the most surprising sight is the two large gasoline engines that dominate a central room of the fuel laboratory. These massive single-piston motors – one for testing performance at idle and the other to mimic an automobile engine running at speed ‑ allow technicians to confirm the octane rating of gasoline. With the turn of a handle, the operator can change the displacement of the engine, raising or lowering compression until the engine begins to knock. By comparing the performance of known fuel samples, the technician determines whether the fuel sample matches the octane rating posted at the pump.
Just in case any reminder of the importance of the tests to consumers is necessary, technicians keep a piston damaged by poor octane gas nearby. A hole is burned clear through the steel engine part, a failure directly related to bad gas.
While the tests performed in Jefferson City cannot prevent bad fuel from hitting the market, regular testing means that problems are discovered quickly. Timing is critical, as the risks to consumers from poor fuel quality are high.
In 1994, corrosive fuel from an Illinois refinery entered the market in St. Louis. Law enforcement agencies soon began experiencing fuel pump failures in patrol cars, a phenomenon that quickly spread to the motoring public. Testing at the Department of Agriculture’s fuel quality lab located the source of the bad fuel and more than 230 filling stations were closed temporarily.
In another case, the lab identified a supply of kerosene that was contaminated with butane. The highly volatile mixture caused portable room heaters to burn uncontrollably, resulting in home fires and even deaths. Thanks to tests performed in Jefferson City, more than 400,000 gallons of tainted kerosene were recovered.
The regular testing of the state’s fuel supply has resulted in more consistent quality gasoline and diesel for the driving public. Weights and Measures Director Hayes says that in 1989, the year the lab began testing octane, 17 percent of gasoline tested failed to meet posted ratings. Today, the octane rejection rate is less than 2 percent. The improvement in the quality of fuel sold in Missouri means motorists’ cars run better, last longer and pollute less. Furthermore, Hayes says, these benefits come at surprisingly low cost.
According to Hayes, the cost of testing equals less than a third of a penny for every 20 gallons of gasoline, or about 16 cents per year for each Missouri resident. In fact, with an annual budget just over $3.5 million, the per-citizen cost for the entire Weights and Measures Division is less than 75 cents each year. In exchange, the division confirms that scales used to weigh food and other purchased goods are accurate, food labels follow uniform standards, pumps at gas stations are checked for accuracy every year, taxi cab meters are calibrated correctly, egg and milk sellers are licensed and the scanners used by stores read labels correctly, among other services which increase consumer protection in Missouri.
In 2009, the department tested more than 8,400 fuel samples collected around Missouri. While consistent fuel quality has always been important, the tests take on new significance with the complex emissions controls on modern cars and federal air quality standards that specify different fuel formulations at different times of the year. Missouri’s renewable fuels mandate, which requires 10 percent ethanol content in most fuels sold after Jan. 1, 2008, also increases the need for monitoring the fuel supply as ethanol blends are particularly susceptible to water and other contaminants.
Ensuring consistent quality in the fuel supply is not just good for consumers. It also benefits retailers. Before testing was common, gas stations occasionally tried to beat the competition by tampering with fuel in order to reduce costs. Often, the station across the street would have little choice but to stoop to the same deceit in order to match a lower price. Uniform testing has largely eliminated that temptation because the odds of discovery are so great.
After more than 20 years of testing in Missouri, the fuel industry has come to recognize the Department of Agriculture as a partner in assuring reliable fuels and an equitable retail environment.
“Filling stations and fuel distributors know that we hold them to very high standards. Only fuel that is properly blended and meets national standards is acceptable in Missouri,” Hayes says, adding that careful scrutiny of the fuel supply means that consumers are justified taking the efforts of the state lab, and the quality of their next tank of gas, for granted.
“Thanks to the efforts of the Department of Agriculture’s Fuel Quality Program, motorists can buy fuel with confidence, knowing that fuel sold in Missouri is regularly tested,” he says.
For more information about the fuel quality tests performed by the Missouri Department of Agriculture, log onto mda.mo.gov.