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Literally Lorna column: Which pump should I choose?

When I recently pulled into Kwik Trip to fill my tank, I noticed the middle octane (88) was cheaper by 5 cents than the 87 octane I usually use. What the? I literally paused and didn't know what to do. I'm your average "I can do it" kind of gal, but I knew putting the wrong fuel into my vehicle would be bad.

My common sense kicked in and I thought, OK, the gas station wouldn't put this here if it was going to damage my vehicle. True, so I looked for small signs and started to read everything. I'm sure the attendant inside must've been thinking "Push the button already, lady!" I wasn't ready to lift the handle of any which one. I don't even know what octane means. I don't know what ethanol is and now I'm practically crying because I feel stupid and old in doing a simple task. I quickly decided and started with the pump, wishing for the best.

Come on, are you laughing? You've been there, right? I know I'm not alone in this.

When I finished pumping, I went in to pay, but I also asked for some literature that provided information on fuel choices at the pump. She handed me a brochure, an outline of the pump choices in larger print with information on which types of vehicles should use which octane level. It provided a definition of octane and ethanol. I thought, great, thank you, now I can write my column. Ha! That was over a month ago. I had no idea how complicated this subject would be.

I started by learning what is octane: A standard measure of the performance of fuel. The higher the octane level, the more compression the fuel can withstand before igniting. OK, what? Basically, it means the engine compresses to a certain level, allowing the engine to ignite. A high performance vehicle such as a Corvette or turbo-charging engine would call for 93-octane due to igniting at a higher compression level. A standard engine, which is what most of us drive, simply calls for 87-octane due to average engine compression.

Ethanol is a grain alcohol that can be blended with gasoline. It can be fermented from many sources of starch, including corn, wheat, grain, barley and potatoes. This is a renewable energy source that is less costly to produce, burns cleaner and has less emission than gasoline alone. Ethanol is produced from non-feed livestock corn. After reading, I started thinking about farmers and how important field corn has become.

Still feeling in over my head, I reached out to a South Dakota farmer who once was an ethanol expert. I had good questions prepared for him in hopes he could answer and enlighten me on the subject of gasoline. Oh, he enlightened me alright. My questions were good, but I was still having difficulty understanding this scientific subject.

My research continued online with videos explaining the difference in gas mileage and engine performance using 87-octane and 93-octane fuel, explanations of octane, ethanol, etc. Of those videos, there was zero difference in gas mileage using 87 versus 92. In addition, there was no difference in the engine spark plugs being dirty with 70,000 miles of 93-octane on a standard car engine which recommends 87. The only difference I discovered: By using a higher octane like 93 when the vehicle recommends 87, the check engine light may illuminate. In colder temperatures, that same vehicle may need starting three to four times to ignite.

Allow me to clarify. If your vehicle is recommended to use 87 octane or higher, it is OK to use a 93 octane, but you will pay more at the pump, not do the environment any favors and your engine won't perform any better. If your vehicle is a super-charging, high-performance type and calls for 93 octane, you want to stick with that. Putting a lower grade into a high-performance vehicle can cause engine damage.

It seemed like the more I looked into this subject the more I had to learn. For instance, what is 85 percent ethanol? What is methanol? What is flex-fuel? What ever happened to regular gas?

When I was a kid in the 70s, my dad would put regular gasoline in the family Oldsmobile. I used to enjoy pumping my own fuel in MY vehicle; it provided a sense of independence, a "women-can" type of attitude, but now, all bets are off. I don't like pumping gas anymore; it's too confusing! Why should I have to understand octane and ethanol just to pump gas? I am not a scientist nor do I care to be one, I just need gas in my vehicle. Argh!

There is no "regular" gas choice anymore. It's all unleaded. The EPA and each state's Clean Air Amendments needed oil/gas companies to develop something that could be used in vehicles and still be safe for the environment, therefore eliminating regular gasoline. This is where the ethanol, corn-based additive comes into play, which the EPA mandated to better the air quality. To make matters even more complicated, every state has its own Clean Air Amendments. Colorado has cleaned their air quality by mandating 10 percent ethanol in 2012 as one of their methods.

Here are few more highlights of my research:

• Follow your vehicle's manual as to what type of fuel is recommended.

• Octane is the quality of gasoline, then additives are added, such as ethanol, for better air quality and lowers costs at the pump. A formula used is (R+M) 2 Method. This means two methods of measuring octane ratings. R=Research Octane Number (RON) method then is calculated by running fuel in a variable compression test engine and comparing the results with pure octane/heptane. See, so simple to understand.

• Knocking is pistons and cylinder related, also known as pinging; not a sound you want to hear coming from your engine.

• The Environmental Protection Agency is a federal agency that regulates and enforces each state's Clean Air Amendments. It is better for air quality to use a higher ethanol in your vehicle.

As times continue and vehicles evolve, so does our learning. For me, I've learned enough about this subject for awhile. Well, at least until I pull into the gas station again.