10 things you (probably) didn't know about petrol stations

Maria McCarthy / 14 July 2016 ( 28 April 2017 )

Are you allowed to use your mobile phone on the forecourt? Why doesn't the pump always reset immediately? Read our guide to 10 things people don't always know about petrol stations.



As motorists, we're all regular visitors to fuel stations. But whilst we all understand the basics of how they operate, there might be some aspects that seem mystifying, or new developments you are not aware of. 

Here's a guide to getting up to speed on them.

1. Fuel stations don't make much money

We all complain about the price of fuel, but it's government taxes that make up a significant chunk of it. 

"Fuel duty for both petrol and diesel currently stands at 57.95p per litre, with VAT added on at 20%," says Brian Madderson chair of the Petrol Retailers' Association (PRA). 

"Then there's the cost of the fuel itself and delivery. Retailers try to make about 4-5p per litre, but out of that they have to pay staff, business rates and corporation tax. Fuel stations often depend heavily on sales from the shop – a retailer can make more on selling a Costa coffee than on 40 litres of fuel."

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2. Why fuel stations that are part of the same company sometimes show different prices on the same day

"Shell has over 1,000 fuel stations in the UK," explains Will Green, head of convenience retail at Shell. "About half are company owned, and half are independent retailers who run them under a franchise agreement. 

"Shell sets the fuel price at the sites owned by the company, whilst at the independent sites, owners are free to set their own price, which may vary."

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3. Fuel pumps are controlled by the attendant

Some motorists are confused when they unhook the hose but the pump doesn't reset. This is because they are authorised by the attendant in the shop and if they're busy there could be a slight delay. 

All the pumps have to be visible to them so they can check the person isn't under age, filling up canisters or likely to behave in an unsafe manner. 

The attendant is only meant to open up the pump once the hose is in the tank.

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4. The rule about not using mobile phones on the forecourt

When mobile phones first became widely available fuel stations often had prominent notices asking customers not to use them on the forecourt. 

"This was because there were concerns that using an electrical device in the vicinity of highly flammable fuels might lead to explosions by igniting petrol vapour," says Brian Madderson. 

"That has now been scientifically disproved. However, the forecourt is a busy, dangerous place and mobile phones can be a distraction, so it's best to avoid using them when outside your vehicle."

5. Now you can pay for fuel at the pump

An increasing number of fuel stations offer the option of 'paying at the pump' via a credit or debit card. 

At Shell stations you can also pay via their 'Fill up and Go' app which motorists can download onto their smartphones. It's advised to only operate the app when seated in your vehicle for safety reasons. This is a particularly useful option if you're in a hurry or have children in the car.

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6. If you're planning on doing a larger shop, it's best to move away from the pump

It's a conundrum many motorists have faced. If you're at a fuel station with a Waitrose or Tesco supermarket attached and you're planning on doing a shop that'll take longer than picking up a pint of milk and a loaf of bread, should you leave your car at the pump (meaning other motorists may have to queue) or move off to a nearby parking bay (and risk being seen as a 'drive off' or worry that there will be a mix up and you'll end up paying for someone else's fuel). 

Will Green from Shell advises the latter option. "It's more courteous to move, and as long as you can remember the pump number and how much you filled up, the attendant will be able to help you make the correct payment."

7. What happens if you can't pay or don't pay

If you've filled up then realise you don't have cash or a card on you to pay, explain the situation to the attendant. 

Mostly customers are encouraged to phone a friend or relative who can make payment via their debit card. If that's not possible you'll be asked to fill in a No Means to Pay (NMtP) form giving your details and return to settle up within 48 hours. 

If you've been completely forgetful and driven off, then that's known as Making off Without Payment (MoWP) and is a criminal offence. Security cameras at fuel stations make a record of customers' numbers so you could expect a visit from the boys in blue.

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8. Forecourt attendants aren't a thing of  the past

Having a uniformed attendant 'pump gas' for you isn't a throwback to the 1950s and a gentler, more civilised age of motoring – it's available now. 

In 2012, Shell reintroduced petrol pump attendants at selected stations. Currently they're available at 180 stations and you can find out their locations via the Shell website. 

The attendants can refuel your car and offer free assistance with basic car care, such as checks on tyre pressure and tread, and oil and screen wash levels.

9. It's not absolutely necessary to queue for a pump on the same side as your fuel cap

Some motorists don't realise that the hose will stretch around to the fuel cap on the other side. However, it's best to fill up between the pump and the vehicle, as it means you're less likely to get in the path of other cars. 

If you ever have a moment's forgetfulness about which side your fuel cap is, look at the fuel gauge on your dashboard. Next to the sign of a pump or at the base of the fuel gauge there will be an arrow pointing to the left or right, indicating where the cap is.

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10. If you have children with you is it best to take them into the shop to pay for your petrol or leave them in the car?

"This is a dilemma and there are no definitive rules," says Chris Cloke, head of Safeguarding in Communities at the NSPCC. "We understand it can be tempting to leave a child by themselves while you nip in to pay for petrol. But carers need to ensure that children are kept safe and not put at risk.

"The NSPCC recommends that babies should never be left in a car alone, regardless of whether they are asleep or awake, even for a few minutes. 

"Young children who are happy to stay in the car can be left if you will only be a few minutes and can see the car all the time you are in the shop. Of course, if you would prefer to take the children into the shop, then do so but always hold their hand on the busy forecourt."

You can be prosecuted if you leave a child unsupervised ‘in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health’.

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The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.