Last summer I enjoyed a road trip down the spine of America, visiting clients and FIRE meetings along the way. A few months later my credit card had an unauthorized charge.
Capital One was good about it. They sent me a notice instantly that someone in Houston filled up with $175 of gas. I responded the moment I got the alert on my phone. My card was cancelled and a new one issued. Unfortunately, the miscreants got away with $175 of gas.
Scams can do serious damage to a family budget. Worse, not all scams are easy to spot. Vigilance is the price we constantly pay in protecting what we have accumulated over our lifetime.
Gas stations are a growing source of credit card scams. Skimmers and readers can steal your info while you still retain your card. My trip last summer that reached to Austin, Texas is when my credit card information was stolen. It wasn’t a gas station (I think); it was a tourist spot where I paid the entrance fee to a dinosaur park between Austin and Bastrop (again, I think). And my card was still in my wallet.
But what about gas station scams?
Worse, what if the gas station is in on the scam? What if the scam is nearly impossible to detect and only detectable once you have been scammed multiple times? What if the scam is so elaborate the credit card company will not cover your loss? What if the scam happens every time you fill your tank with gas? What if most scam events only cost you a few dollars with periodic financial bloodlettings?
What if the gas station committing the scam has been ranked the #1 gas station in America four years in a row?
Kwik Trip Gas Scam
Kwik Trip is the pride and joy of Wisconsin. They always have clean bathrooms and hot food that outranks any other fast food selections in the community. Kwik Trip has built rapport in the communities they serve.
Kwik Trip has an aggressive rewards program with plenty of emails and texts once you get in their system. They use this advantage to get as many votes as possible to win the USA Today’s Readers’ Choice for best gas station in America.
You can imagine how I felt when an auto mechanic informed me Kwik Trip is watering down their gas.
I didn’t believe it at first. Water and gasoline do not mix. Mixing water with gasoline is a really bad idea and I still feel this is 100% wrong.
So I decided to ask around and started hearing similar stories that there is something wrong with Kwik Trip gas.
As I started researching for this article things started to fall into place. The mileage my car gets on Kwik Trip gas is 11.315% lower than gas from the Mobile station. Whatever the reason, this adds up to 30¢ or more per gallon. Now I’m not the kind of guy that will drive around town to save 3¢ a gallon on gas. I will pass Kwik Trip and use the next gas station, any gas station other than Kwik Trip, if their gas is 30¢ or 40¢ more per gallon based on the quality of the gas.
But it gets worse. A lot worse. Much worse than losing $5 or so every time I fill up.
Worse Than Water!
Many auto mechanics told me they refused to use Kwik Trip gas because it was “watered” down. Of course, it makes no sense Kwik Trip would run the water hose into their gasoline reservoirs.
So if they are not mixing in water, what are they mixing in?
I don’t have proof of this, but it seems like they are mixing a lot of ethanol in their gas. (This is proved wrong in the experiments discussed below.)
Why? Because there are a lot of tax credits for ethanol production. The federal income tax credit is $1 per gallon with a $5 million cap. But even a modestly talented accountant can easily bump that higher. Plus there is the potential for other tax credits, as well.
Instead of 10% to 15% ethanol, it seems possible their blended rate of gasoline and ethanol tilts toward ethanol at Kwik Trip gas stations. Or it might be something else.
True Costs to Consumer
We can see the motivation for Kwik Trip. Blending more ethanol is a excellent way to spike profits. It isn’t illegal; they disclose that at least 10% of the fuel is ethanol.
Most newer vehicles can handle larger ethanol blend rates. The engines might not run a smoothly, but it still works. Older vehicles may suffer damage from too much ethanol blending. Small engines, too.
The true cost might seem small. It isn’t.
Yes, you get fewer miles to the gallon which means you are not comparing apples to apples when comparing the price on the signs outside gas stations. Kwik Trip is significantly more expensive due to the lower energy content in their gas if ethanol is the culprit.
Even if not illegal (well, maybe a little bit), it is irritating. Losing 30¢ per gallon in this manner feels deceitful. But the worst part follows.
I used Kwik Trip gas almost exclusively for years, except when traveling. I also own some farmland. I have several small engines to get work done around the homestead: tillers for the garden, weedwackers, small tractor and lawn mower.
These small engines can suffer damage from ethanol. Small engines often require 100% gasoline or no more than 10% ethanol. And if you have a boat motor you are in real trouble if you use too much ethanol.
Every year or so the carburetor would freeze on my tiller. I empty the tank before winter and storage. Still, the gas would just do terrible things to the carburetor. I kept buying new carburetors to get the tiller back up and running. We moved from pennies to dollars.
So far my garden tractor is working okay. But these beasts can run from $3,000 to over $10,000; I paid $6,000 and change years ago for mine. Damaging these kinds of engines or a boat motor is going to be a lot more expensive than the nickel and diming bad gas costs at the pump.
Understand that the Mobile (and virtually every gas station in the country) gas has the same disclosure that their fuel has 10% or more ethanol blended in. But based on my experiment, it seems Kwik Trip is “watering” down there gas with something other than ethanol; something very hard to detect. They take all the money and I get stuck with the bill. And no, the credit card doesn’t reimburse you (or me) for the loss.
Testing the Gas
Now I turn to my testing and methodology. I used two methods to test Kwik Trip gas against gas from the local Mobile station.
The simplest way to test gasoline is to take a mileage log.
In my testing I ran the tank down to about an ⅛ before filling up and setting the trip meter to zero.
Then I drove as I normally do until the tank dropped to around ⅛ again. I noted the mileage on the trip meter and the gallons on the fillup.
Here is the Kwik Trip gas results:
412.6 miles/14.375 gallons = 28.7026 miles per gallon
It should be noted that the prior tank was also Kwik Trip gas.
Here is the Mobile gas results:
467.9 miles/14.457 gallons = 32.3649 miles per gallon
The prior tank was Kwik Trip gas so some Kwik Trip fuel was still in the tank.
The Kwik Trip gasoline got 3.6623 fewer miles per gallon than the Mobile gasoline. This is 11.31565% less value for the Kwik Trip fuel.
If gas sells for $3/gallon, you are overpaying about 34¢ per gallon compared to the Mobile fuel based on this test. That is a serious over-pricing of their product and you would never know unless you were told about the issue or did the test yourself.
When I started the testing process I jumped to the conclusion Kwik Trip gas got worse mileage (later proved with testing Method 1) because they were adding more ethanol to their fuel. Research offered a clue as to why that might not be true. (Wisconsin has laws on ethanol in gasoline.)
Since it would not make sense for Kwik Trip to spike their gasoline with a mega dose of ethanol, more research was needed.
Ethanol has about 33% less energy per volume than gasoline. That would mean if ethanol was the true issue with Kwik Trip fuel their gas must have about 35% ethanol. Again, a tall claim and one I wasn’t buying. (Remember, most gas stations disclose their gas already contains at least 10% ethanol.)
The second testing method was to determine the amount of ethanol in the Kwik Trip and Mobile gasoline.
I used a 50ml graduated cylinder (well under $10 for the DIY crowd) to test each fuel, the only testing equipment needed for this test. You can follow the instructions here to see if the gas you are using has the expected amount of ethanol in it.
My test results had several surprises.
First, both the Kwik Trip and Mobile gasoline had 10% ethanol when tested.
Second, when I tested, a thick, cloudy layer developed in the Kwik Trip gasoline that never dissipated. The Mobile gasoline had a much narrower band of the cloudy material and it was not as thick. After a few minutes it was almost impossible to see the band as it dissolved into the testing fluid.
If ethanol isn’t the issue with the poor mileage, what is?
There are only two possibilities I can think of: additives or refining.
The number of additives in gasoline will be eye opening for many. The quality and quantity of these additives can have a serious effect on the fuel performance. Testing for various other additives and their quality is beyond the scope of the article.
Refining is another difficult to assess issue. The refining of crude oil to gasoline and other products is a complex process. There are certainly different quality levels between refiners.
We can’t point at excess ethanol in Kwik Trip gasoline as the reason for underperformance compared to Mobile gasoline. Kwik Trip either uses a lower quality refined fuel base and/or uses additives of a lower quality than Mobile it would seem. Regardless, the mileage achieved with Kwik Trip gasoline is significantly less than the Mobile gasoline as tested above under Method 1.
Lessons Learned About Kwik Trip
Oil majors have a brand to uphold. Their fuel is their product.
Kwik Trip is a brand that is much more than fuel.
Kwik Trip has won awards for being the best. There are good reasons for this. Kwik Trip hot foods are better than other fast foods offered in my area. Yes, I visit the gas station for lunch if it is a Kwik Trip. They have an awesome coffee bar and a wide variety of snacks and even some healthy selections. Most of all, I have never seen is disordered or dirty restroom at a Kwik Trip.
Clean and variety coupled with marketing (a massive mailing list from their rewards program) gives them an advantage when it comes to selecting the best gas station in the nation. Gasoline can be subpar because few notice or will test the product. Customers remember the clean bathrooms, hot food and delicious coffee and snacks.
Still, poorly refined fuel products and/or low quality additives can lower mileage achieved per gallon and cause damage to small engines, as I saw with my garden tiller (the possible cause of the carburetor damage was gasoline).
As with any business, Kwik Trip is doing what is in their best interest. If customers demand quality for their gasoline purchases Kwik Trip will either lose business or change the way they do business. If customers blindly accept the costs of lower quality gasoline nothing is likely to change.
I, for one, hope they step up their game. Those hot sandwiches are a good meal when on the go.
I invite Kwik Trip to comment on the issues raised in this blog post.
If you have knowledge or experience with Kwik Trip gasoline that would add to the discussion, please share in the comments below.
Mostly, use the information on this page to protect yourself. You now know how to test for ethanol content in gasoline and most of you were familiar with tracking your mileage. If a gasoline supplier tends to have an underperforming product it may cost you more than a few dollars per fill up. Only use quality gasoline to protect your wallet and small engines.