Misfuelling in Kenya: Why New Cars Are Breaking Down at Alarming Rate

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    Motorists stuck in traffic in Nairobi in October 2021
  • New model cars are breaking down at an alarming rate owing to mismanagement by motorists, mechanics, car wash and fuel attendants. 

    Angel Ndungi - a renowned mechanic and automotive expert at Nates Auto, Dagoretti Corner in Nairobi - stated that one of the major causes is misfuelling of cars. Carmakers have been leaning towards building advanced and sophisticated vehicles owing to technological advancement and the high demand for quality automobiles. 

    Misfuelled Electric Fuel Injection cars (EFIs) have been reported to cost motorists more in maintenance and servicing. These vehicles are different from the old models as the fuel is injected by computers rather than through a carburettor (mechanical). 

    When a car consumes bad fuel, sensors force the car to go into limp mode as the computers take time to comprehend the issue.

    Motorists are advised not to drive vehicles when they go into limp mode but rather call for a tow company to drag or move it to a less busy street or a local garage where it can be diagnosed and fixed.

    An undated image of the Nairobi Expressway passing above Waiyaki Way in Westlands, Nairobi

    “During such conditions, a car will not rev above a certain amount (usually 2,000 or 3,000 revolutions per minute - rpm). Diesel and petrol combust differently thus having different engine types,” Ndungi stated. 

    Putting petrol in a diesel car can cause a lot of damage. Why? Diesel acts as a lubricant, making the engine and its components run smoothly while petrol acts as a solvent, so it prevents the lubricating action of the diesel. The fuel pump thus runs without lubrication, so its components rub together, grinding off small fragments of metal called 'swarf'.

    “These fragments can travel towards the fuel injectors and clog up the holes in the injectors. This stops the fuel from reaching the engine and eventually the car judders to a halt. On the way to the fuel injectors, the petrol can also corrode the seals on the fuel lines that carry the fuel from the tank to the engine and can contaminate the fuel filter.

    “If the petrol reaches the fuel injectors and they need replacing, together with the fuel pump, fuel lines and fuel filter, it can become a very expensive repair job,” automotive blogs warn. 

    Cleaning the System  

    Once a car is misfuelled, the motorist ought to clean the fuel system and change some parts like filters, spark plugs, inject cleaning agents and then use the right fuel. 

    A motorist can then reset the limp mode by letting the car reset for some time. This can reset the sensors and central computer. However, some models cannot be reset through this technique and will require one to plug the vehicle into a diagnostic machine and have the fault codes read and cleared.

    This is at most carried out by mechanics experienced in the art. The mechanic explains that cleaning and resetting come at a cost for motorists, with charges based on the car size and make. 

    “Japanese cars cost less as compared to those from Europe. In terms of size, small cars like Toyota Fielders cost can range from Ksh12,000 upwards. To break it down, 4 spark plugs cost Ksh1,000 each, cleaning agent Ksh1,500 and labour Ksh6,000 as removing the engine is quite an enormous task,” Ndungi clarified. 

    He, however, warned that unscrupulous mechanics can cause long term damage to vehicles by using fake cleaners as witnessed with coolants where they use food colours. 

    Some use cheap foam and additives to scam motorists who have paid for the legit cleaners. Motorists are thus advised to purchase cleaning agents from registered and trusted shops. 

    Motorists stuck at traffic jam along Waiyaki Way on Thursday, October 17, 2019

    How to Avoid Misfuelling 

    To avoid misfuelling cars, Ndungi urges drivers to speak with petrol attendants and ensure that the vehicle is filled with the right fuel. They can also label the fuel type on the fuel cap to avoid confusion. 

    Others include reading the label on the pump, double-checking to make sure the labels on the fuel cap and the pump match and avoid distractions when pumping fuel. 

    “Most petrol stations are after cheap labour and do not train attendants. Ensure that you inform them. Do not rush to open your fuel tank. 

    “Trained attendants should inquire whether the car requires diesel or petrol. Do not also trust car wash attendants to fuel your car,” he cautioned. 

    Motorists are advised to turn off the engine, engage the neutral gear, disable the hand brake and have the car pushed to the service bay to drain all the fuel and clean up the system before refuelling if the misfuelling happens at the petrol station.