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Switch to summer-grade gasoline raises prices at pump

Dear Car Fix: I've heard there is a difference between summer and winter gasoline. Is this true, or another way for gas companies to charge us more money?

-- R.B., Cambria

Dear R.B.: Unfortunately for drivers, gas prices often go up during the summer, starting around Memorial Day. There are many reasons behind the increase in summer fuel prices, and some are fairly logical. More people traveling, especially on family vacations and road trips, increases demand. Also, in the spring months, energy companies conduct maintenance on their refineries, shutting them down and limiting capacity until late May. Because of these disruptions, oil supplies can become stretched. In addition, natural disasters, like hurricanes, can increase prices by disrupting transport routes and damaging refineries and other infrastructure.

The gasoline sold during the summer is different and more expensive to produce than that sold in the winter.

Twice every year in the United States, the fuel supply changes. It's known as the seasonal gasoline transition. This change is the biggest reason for the price hike in summer gasoline. Depending on the time of year, gas stations switch between providing summer-grade fuel and winter-grade fuel. The switch started in 1995 as part of the Reformulated Gasoline Program, which was established through the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments. The Environmental Protection Agency started the program in order to reduce pollution and smog during the summer ozone season, from June 1 to Sept. 15.

In order to reduce pollution, summer-blend fuels use different oxygenates, or fuel additives. These blends, the EPA says, burn cleaner. The EPA says this practice of using seasonal blends also encourages the development of alternative fuels. Remember that gasoline isn't just made up of processed crude oil -- it's a blend of refined crude oil and different compounds and additives including ethanol.

So what's the difference between summer-grade fuel and winter-grade fuel? Summer-grade fuel is more expensive for two reasons -- because of the ingredients it contains and because refineries have to briefly shut down before they begin processing it. Summer-grade fuel also burns cleaner than winter-grade fuel. This just means that it produces less smog and releases less toxic air pollutants. The actual difference in cost of production varies. One estimate claims an increase of only a penny or two per gallon, while another estimates it at 3 cents to 15 cents per gallon. No matter the difference in production costs, the increase at the pump is even greater, owing to the summer driving season, dips in supply, maintenance costs and companies converting to production of summer blends.


Dear Car Fix: About two weeks ago you addressed the subject of people not dimming bright lights for oncoming traffic. Now please address how inconsiderate it is for people to keep fog lights on when not necessary. When fog lights are on with the dim beams, the brightness is sometimes worse than high beams alone. Also, fog lights combined with dim beams are nearly blinding when they shine in the rear-view and side mirrors of the driver in front. It's just as dangerous as high beams! This is especially important when a truck is behind a car.

-- M.M., South Dayton

Dear M.M.: Fog lights are designed to be used when driving through not just fog, but also snowstorms or other adverse driving conditions. Low visibility is dangerous on a city road, but driving through the country or in a new area during a snowstorm or fog increases your danger and the potential for an accident. Turning the car's high beams on generally makes driving in a fog much worse. The light reflects on the water or snow, causing the light to bounce back into your eyes, creating blind spots.

Fog lights produce a wide beam of extremely bright lights that seem to cut through the fog, increasing your visibility. However, fog lights do not mean you can safely travel the posted speed limit. Common sense must prevail as you slow down, increase the space between your vehicle and the next, and stay in the slow lane. If the fog is too dense, take the next exit and find a safe place to park and wait until the fog lifts. Fog actually is a vapor that sits about 18 inches above the ground, which is why fog lights are aimed a bit lower than that, usually around 14 inches above the ground.

Be a courteous driver when driving through fog. Using your fog lights will enhance your ability to see, but you must still drive at a slow pace that allows others to see and react to your vehicle. Using your four-way flashers can help ensure oncoming drivers see you.