The coldest five minutes of a winter week are the five minutes you stand with your hand on a freezing metal nozzle, filling your car with gas.
Just ask Jackie Kapuszcak of Hamburg, who wasn’t wearing gloves while filling up Friday at Frank’s Automotive on Camp Road in Hamburg.
“It was cold,” she said. “But if I need gas, I’m going to do it.”
If the fuel gauge seems to be clicking more slowly sometimes, it’s not your imagination. Experts say several factors can affect the speed of gas delivery. One of them is not wind chill, which only makes if feel like you are standing there for a half-hour.
First, there’s the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA in 1996 restricted the speed of fuel dispensing to 10 gallons per minute for almost all gas stations. The restriction was implemented to avoid overwhelming a vehicle’s vapor recovery system, which could allow gasoline vapors to escape into the air, or even cause the colorfully named “spitback,” or gas squirting out onto the street or the person holding the nozzle.
“Ten gallons per minute, that’s a lot of gas,” said Steve Tricoli, owner of Snyder Automotive and the Valero at Main Street and Kensington Avenue in Amherst.
Even a Chevy Tahoe’s 26-gallon tank would take less than three minutes to fuel at that pace.
A Nissan Altima’s 18-gallon tank would take less than two minutes.
Of course, fueling your car requires more steps than just pumping the gas. Timed tests at several local service stations showed that it took between 75 and 85 seconds to add five gallons to a tank, including processing a credit card and printing a receipt.
Because of the EPA rules, most modern gas dispensers are manufactured to flow a maximum of nine gallons per minute.
Scott Robinson, NOCO’s director of real estate, said his company aims to keep all its dispensers moving fuel at between 8 and 9 gallons per minute.
Delta Sonic, which uses the services of a calibrating company to check its dispenser speeds, shoots for the same, said Dale Wittlief, vice president of purchasing and fuel operations.
Notice that the term is “gas dispenser,” not “gas pump.” That’s because while the machine you interact with has a touch screen, a credit card reader and a receipt printer, it does not contain a pump.
“There are still some very old gas stations that have a suction pump that is right underneath the dispensers, but almost every gas station around here uses pumps on top of the underground tank,” Robinson said. “When you lift the lever to turn your dispenser on, it turns that motor on.”
The size of that motor affects the speed at which fuel flows, Robinson said. Internal filters between the underground tank and the dispenser can also clog over time, and the frequency with which they are cleaned affects fueling speed, he said.
Tricoli mentioned other factors affecting speed.
“It depends on how long the piping is to that particular pump, how old the pump is and how old the submersible in the ground is,” he said. “When they’re brand new, they really pump quick.”
Tricoli said it seems that gas flows more slowly when all the dispensers on an island are in use.
“The more pumps that are pumping at one time, it will slow the rate down, you can almost see the dial slow down if somebody across engages it,” he said. “The piping can only handle so much volume.”
In some cities and towns, fire-protection rules ban hold-open latches that allow customers to prop open the nozzle, Wittlief said. The concern is that a driver who ducks into the car and then returns to grab the metal nozzle may create a hazardous spark with static electricity.
Brandon LeBeau, transport manager of Native Pride in Irving, said he has seen customers leave a hold-open latch engaged when they return the nozzle to the dispenser, causing gas to squirt out when the next customer grabs the handle. LeBeau said the station was busy on Thursday, as cold and snow warnings were issued.
“It’s a safety thing,” he said of the customers who were filling up tanks that weren’t even close to empty. “They don’t want to get stuck on the Thruway for 24 hours.”
Tricoli’s Valero offers full service at a few dispensers for 45 cents more a gallon.
“They are really popular during cold weather,” Tricoli said. “We have people say, ‘I normally go over to the self-serve, but it’s too (darn) cold, so you can pump it for me.’ If I sat down and figured it out, with the interruptions and the time it takes, we would probably be better off going to all self-serve, but we just feel that it’s a service to the neighborhood. We have a lot of older clientele, so we keep it.”
At NOCO and Delta Sonic, the emphasis is on speed, and not just because the customers are cold.
“We’re way too busy to have someone sitting there,” Robinson said. “We want to get them in and out, so the next person can pull up.”