Running out of gas in the garage?

About a year ago, my wife came in the house and said her car, a 2002 Honda Accord wouldn’t start. I went out and tried it and the car would turn over, but not light. So I checked the spark plugs and they were sparking. I checked through the oil cap to see that the valves I could see were moving and they were. The serpentine belt is turning and there were no obvious problems under the hood. The gas gauge indicated about a 1/4 tank but I thought I should put some more gas in it just to be sure. Sure enough, it started.

So then I figured I had a bad sending unit. I pull the sending unit out of the fuel tank and ohmed it against the book values and it checked out perfectly. I even fitted a replacement sending unit to double check and it indicated the exact same thing.

I did think it was extremely odd that she ran out of gas in the garage without even knowing it but I figured it was a mysterious fluke and that maybe the instrument cluster had a problem.

Today, about a year later, the exact same thing happened. Now what are the odds of it running out of gas AGAIN in the garage? The fuel gauge read about a 1/4 tank again and, just like before, when I put fuel in it the car started right up.

Before I change the gauge cluster, I had a thought. What if there is water in the fuel tank? The gauge could be reading a 1/4 tank but maybe that 1/4 tank isn’t fuel but water. The other interesting fact is that when she went to the gas station to top off right after this, the car only took 9 gallons. I only put about a gallon in the tank from a red can I had in the garage and I know that tank holds more than 10 gallons.

What the heck do you think is happening? And why only in the garage?

Nope, not water. Wouldn’t start. From the 9 gallon fillup I bet the gauge was reading correctly, and you had 1/4 tank when it wouldn’t start. My guess is the fuel pump is now weak and needs a bigger ‘head’ of gas over it to operate correctly. A mechanic can put a pressure gauge on the fuel system to check out the pump.

Have you checked the fuel pump pressure at the injector manifold on this Accord? One of the signs of a failing fuel pump is the engine quiting when the fuel level gets low but not completely out.

I think you have to remove the pump unit when you accesss the tank level sender. When you had the pump unit out, did you check the filter sock? If that is clogged it would cut off fuel to the pump input.

Since the pump pulls from the bottom of the tank, it would be unlikely that the problem would be because of water. Gasoline will float on top of water. So if 1/4 of tank is filled with water, the pump would be pumping that all the time. The water probably would not make it through the fuel filter because of its high surface tension so fuel manifold pressure would be nonexistent or low…

Hope to help.

Thanks for the quick responses guys. I did have the fuel pump out when I worked on the sending unit and I didn’t notice anything that was particularly dirty but I didn’t look really close either.

I just talked to my wife and she said that she’s come home with less than a 1/4 tank before and had no problem starting but it may be an intermittent issue if it’s a pressure problem.

It sounds like the next step is to find a shop with a pressure gauge to test the pump. I found a replacement available from Autozone for $123 which I can do myself if our pump fails. Would you guys replace the fuel pump seal while you’re there too?

Also, in response to Researcher’s question, I have not checked the fuel system pressure but we have never had a problem with the engine quitting. Only two no-start conditions with significant time between.

Can you hear the pump ‘humming’ when you turn the key to run position? Have you checked to see if there is 12 volts at the tank when it should be?

You could have a failing fuel pump relay i.e. intermittant.

I think @Researcher is right, google ‘Honda fuel relay’ for lots of info on that. I seem to remember this being a common Honda problem.

I wish I could help, but all I can say is I had a similar problem. My "96 Plymouth Breeze would run down to the empty mark- but if you tried to start it, especially after a day or so, with less than a quarter tank I was reaching for the lawnmower gas. A new fuel pump did not stop the problem. Never tried the fuel pump relay- that does sound like an inexpensive first option.

When it won’t start, can you hear the fuel pump run when you turn on the key? It should run for a few seconds when you move the key to the “on” position…

My guess is that adding the gasoline and the engine starting is just a coincidence. An iffy, intermittent electrical fault can change due to a door being opened or closed, repeated movement of the key in the switch, or various other bumps that may occur while trying to figure out what happened.

A failing ignition switch is also a possibility. There have been some issues with the switches and some Hondas are under a Recall for failed switches suffering problems which are intermittent in nature.
Even cars not covered by a Recall may have the same faults because Recalls involve a lot of politics with the end game being to try and limit the number of cars covered.

There’s a lot of current (heat) pulled through the switch and over time that fuel pump current, along with a number of other electrical items, can burn the switch contacts, cause the main relay to fail, etc.