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How Gas Pumps Work

The Blend Valve

One of the first things that a customer will notice at the pump is the variety of choices offered. In most cases, a dispenser will offer several grades of gas -- sometimes as many as five -- each with a different octane rating. The desired octane rating is usually chosen simply by pushing a button. Does this mean that there are five different underground tanks feeding into that dispenser, each offering a different grade of gas? That's not usually the case. In fact, the dispenser can produce as many grades as it wants from as few as two underground tanks, as long as one tank contains the highest grade of octane available at that station and the other contains the lowest. The grades are blended together at the pump -- not unlike the way you'd blend gin and vermouth to make a martini -- producing a kind of octane cocktail. The precise proportion in which the grades are blended determines the octane of the gas that enters the customer's tank.

This feat of gas pump bartending is performed by something called a blend valve. This valve has inputs consisting of two grades of gasoline, each from different tanks. A single, moveable barrier called a shoe is connected to both in such a way that it can be moved across the inputs with a single motor-driven ratchet. As the ratchet opens one valve, it closes the other valve in precise but opposite proportion. This means that when one valve is, for example, 90 percent open, the other valve is 10 percent open, creating a mixture that consists of 90 percent of one octane and 10 percent of the other. By shifting the ratchet back and forth, the blend valve can produce any octane of gas, ranging from the highest to the lowest grades stored in the tanks -- and all octanes in between.

Keep reading to find out how the dispenser makes sure that you don't overflow the gasoline capacity of your tank.