How refineries make fuels right for winter driving

Nov 05, 2015   | Categories: Canadian Fuels Association, Economy, Energy, Fuels
As Canadians head to the pumps this winter, they can rest assured that the fuels they put in their vehicles will stand up well to cold-weather driving.


Do most people realize that their winter fuels are very different from summer fuels? Probably not, says Dave Schick, manager of policy, government and public affairs at Chevron’s Burnaby refinery.

“Most drivers would not be aware that their fuel changes throughout the year,” he said. “Refiners meet these changing specifications, including managing regulated renewable content, so fuel works seamlessly throughout the year.”

“There is an ongoing, complex manufacturing and distribution process going on in the background that ensures petroleum products meet the consumer needs.”

Fuels must be adjusted well ahead of time, before the wide temperature changes that most Canadians can expect every year. This is because, for example, diesel fuel can gel in the cold; gasoline must be adjusted in the summer months to prevent too much evaporation.

For these reasons, Canadian refiners make seasonal adjustments several times a year – including a major change in the fall.

“Fuel specifications change with the seasonal temperatures in order to manage engine performance while keeping emissions as low as possible,” explained Schick.

“In winter, diesel changes to improve its flow capability. Heavier fuel components are removed to lower the ‘cloud point’,” he said, referring to the low temperature point where waxes in diesel “cloud” the fuel.

“We do this so the colder weather does not partially solidify the fuel, which would mean fuel would not flow smoothly in your engine.”

“It is important for diesel customers to recognize that if they take trips that move from warm climates to colder ones that they are using a fuel that meets the requirements of their destination. Diesel designed for colder climates will function in warmer climes.”

The performance issue with gasoline is volatility, which must be continuously adjusted along with temperature changes to minimize vapour lock, engine stalling and poor operability.

“For gasoline, the butane level is increased in winter,” said Schick. “Butane is high octane; it enhances volatility which produces vapours that help with ignition on cold days.”

Fuel specifications change throughout the year based on climate charts set by the Canadian General Standards Board, added Schick.

“We gradually change product specifications up to 10 times per year to meet the temperature needs for specific geographies as defined in those charts,” he said.

Getting fuels from the refinery to the pumps: no easy feat

From the refinery, fuels are loaded onto trucks, trains and ships or moved by pipeline to bulk plants and terminals. From there, the fuels are distributed to retail outlets, commercial consumers and farms across Canada.

“Typically, products will arrive at fuelling stations one to two weeks prior to the new requirements being put in place,” said Schick.

Making this already complex distribution network even more complicated is that not all fuels work in all regions: that’s why Canada is divided into eight geographic zones, to make sure fuels remain fit for purpose based largely on climate.

Different provincial regulatory requirements for fuels can add a further layer of complexity.

And no matter what kind of fuel people are using – gas, diesel, aviation fuel or marine fuel – “it’s important that we have the products ready to meet the changing specifications,” said Schick.

That’s what Canada’s refineries are always working toward.

Read more about refinery turnarounds and how refineries are reducing GHG emissions in these recent blogs. And learn more about fuel quality and how fuels get to your vehicle.

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