Georgia drivers: What to do if your car is damaged by tainted gas

For the second time in a week, metro Atlanta drivers pumped contaminated fuel from separate Kroger gas stations into their vehicles.

There was water in the fuel of the gas station on Powder Springs Road in Cobb County, and a tanker driver mixed up the diesel and gasoline tanks at the station on Ga. 20 South in Covington, said Richard Lewis, director of Georgia's fuel and measures division of the Department of Agriculture.

Multiple vehicles were affected, some damaged.

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Felix B. Turner, a regional spokesman for Kroger, said that this isn’t a widespread problem and the grocery store giant will make it right with customers.

He declined to say how the mistake happened, and said the company was still investigating.

But this uncommon event has left many drivers with questions. We answer some below.

Wait, what happened again?

At one Kroger gas station in Cobb, people pumped gas that had water in it into their vehicles. Then a few days later in a separate incident, a tanker driver accidentally filled up a Covington Kroger station’s regular gas tank with diesel. Customers didn’t know they were pumping the wrong fuel into their vehicles.

What does Kroger say?

“This isn’t a widespread problem for Kroger. It was two isolated incidents. While we can’t answer for other fuel retailers, it is our policy to provide a great customer experience,” Turner, the company’s regional spokesman said, “... and as in this case, when there is an issue with a product or service, we do our best to make it right for our customers.”

Kroger said this week it will cover the cost of repairs to the damaged vehicles.

Why is water in fuel bad?

It mixes like, well, oil and water. A vehicle needs the fuel to ignite, but water has the opposite effect.

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What happens to a vehicle when this happens?

Ralph Jordan, manager for AAA’s six Georgia Car Care Centers, said water stays in your tank and blocks things from flowing properly inside a vehicle, creating pressure that can start bending parts inside a vehicle.

It can greatly accelerate the failure of spark plugs.

He said a mechanic will probably need to pull out the tank and flush it along with anywhere else the fuel traveled.

How much does it cost to repair a car with bad gas?

The range of $400 to $500 is a fair starting estimate, Jordan said. But that amount obviously increases if any components were damaged.

How does water get in a a gas station’s fuel?

There are a few general ways that this happens, Jordan said.

Condensation could form in the below-ground tanks at stations, there could be a problem with the tanker transporting the fuel or there could be a problem with the gasoline at the source before the tanker picks it up.

Lewis added that it could also be as simple as someone improperly screwing on the cap of the below-ground tanks before it rains.

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When will drivers begin to notice symptoms?

Jordan said that depends on how much water is taking up space in your tank, but it could be immediately or within 10 to 15 minutes.

Generally, you’ll notice it in a hurry.

“Because it won’t burn right off, it’ll start sputtering,” he said.

As for diesel in a gas-powered vehicle, online experts like CarTalk and Jalopnik said your car literally can't use diesel so it'll use up whatever gas is in the tank and then stop working. The car would then have to to be towed to an automotive shop and have the fuel system drained.

Who is responsible when this happens?

Lewis, whose division of the Georgia Agriculture Department investigates fuel mishaps like these, said the gas station is at fault.

Most stations have liability insurance that’ll usually cover these types incidents, he said.

What do I do if this happens to me?

PANIC. Just kidding, don’t. Whether there’s some water or accidental diesel in your tank, it would be hard to do some permanent damage. That’s because your vehicle doesn’t want to run without the right mix of gas.

You’ll feel your car run sluggishly, Jordan said, and so you should pull over.

Turner, the Kroger spokesman, also said for people to keep their receipts (for the gas, a tow service or a rental car) and have a mechanic document the damage. Then give all that to a manager of the store where you bought the fuel for possible reimbursement.

The phone number and email to report such incidents to the state is listed on a sticker that should be on every gas pump in the state, Lewis said.

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