Costa Rica Fuels: Gasoline, Diesel, LPG, and more

Turbo Diesel Intercooler Engine - The best of both worlds?

If you are going to own a vehicle in Costa Rica, a big part of your life (and budget) is going to be spent filling her up.  Here is some information about fuel varieties, the national refinery and distribution system, and the choices you may make in buying a car. RECOPE – Distributors

In Costa Rica the national refinery (RECOPE) is in charge of all fuel importation.  At this time Costa Rica doesn’t produce petroleum, although there are a number of bio-fuel operations and China has expressed an interest in exploration.

But for the time being, all fuel is imported.  RECOPE refines about 30% of the national consumption, importing the rest already refined.

This means that buying gas isn’t very challenging.  The government refinery imports or refines all fuel sold in Costa Rica and also regulates the pricing of the different varieties.  There are a number of distributors throughout the country, with some being multinationals: Shell, Total, Castrol, and ELF come to mind.  Most are operated as local subsidiaries though and the difference in quality or service between brands is debatable.

A few years ago there was an explosion at a Shell station in Escazu, a mother and her 2 kids were killed.  Shell corporate washed their hands of the whole deal and blamed the local subsidiary, who subsequently went bankrupt I believe.

However, many locals believe that the corporations are less likely to alter the gas pumps to deliver less fuel, and also that they care for the fuel better during transport and storage.  There is a local organization of independent distributors, ENERSOL, and I have found the stations in this network to be clean and reliable.

Full Service Stations – Prices
All gas stations in Costa Rica are full service.  Since there is no price competition and the cost for wages is factored into the government regulated price, stations have never made the switch.  There may even be a goverment policy in place, in order to preserve the pump jockey jobs this industry generates. This means that you will always pay the same at the pump no matter where you fill up.  You want to check the meter when you ask for fuel, make sure that it resets when the operator lifts the nozzle.  An old trick is to put 3000 or 5000 colones into one vehicle and not hang up the nozzle properly. Which means that the next car in would start at whatever number.  Seeing the pump go back to zero eliminates that possibility.

The price of fuel here is often double that of fuel in the US, but about half of what you pay is tax. In theory this would go to fix the roads and also to plant trees to offset carbon emissions.  In practice it does not go to road repairs, but does go into the reforestation fund.   The price of fuel is a big reason most SUVs have small engines, with 3000cc being relatively large for a gasoline engine, and 2.5 liters being about standard for a diesel motor.

Gasoline vs. Diesel Engine
The big issue in terms of buying a vehicle here is the decision of gasoline vs. diesel motor.  Most sedans are gasoline engines, so it is more of a decision with SUVs or pickups.

  • Advantages of Diesel: more fuel efficiency and less costly per liter.  Diesel engines have a longer useful life (500,000 kilometers vs. 300,000) Great power for towing or 4 x 4 situations.
  • Advantages of Gasoline: More responsive on the road, passing trucks for example.  Better with automatic transmission, diesel tends to be sluggish except for CRDI versions.
  • Non-issues: Cold weather start up. Diesel is available at all gas stations nationwide.

Note regarding Sulfur content.  (2007 and newer diesel vehicles from the US) Diesel is not popular for passenger vehicles in the US, so these are imported to Costa Rica as new cars from the manufacturer, or brought from Korea and Panama as used vehicles. If you did find a car in the US that you wanted to import, then you had to get a pre-2007 version. This is because new emissions controls were implemented for vehicles manufactured in that model year.  The equipment on the vehicle would be damaged by the high sulfur diesel sold in Costa Rica.  However, this changed in January of 2011, when RECOPE switched to a low sulpher diesel.  This fuel now has 50 particles per million, as opposed to the previous 500 parts per million.  See the article at Fijatevos.com : RECOPE Introduces Low Sulfur Diesel

Alternative Fuels
– LPG – Some SUVs have been converted from gasoline to LPG gas, which is cheaper per liter. One mechanic I talked to said that there is a concern regarding this, when the engine is a newer model.  The old steel blocks are good for LPG conversions, whereas newer alloy engine blocks may not hold up over time to a corrosive effect that the gas has.  We have not helped any client purchase an LPG vehicle, but this would be an important issue to research. LPG is available at a number of gas stations around the country.

– Bio Diesel – Bio-diesel is not readily available for sale around the country, but it could be possible to make your own and use it without any special permits required.  A waste oil or vegetable oil adapter could be a great option, most are installed with a secondary tank, so that you can still use regular diesel or bio diesel, often this is necessary for starting the vehicle when cold.

– Electric – Electric or hybrid cars fit very well with Costa Rica’s green image.  One drawback that proponents of electric cars in many countries face is that a lot of electricity in the grid is from coal-fired plants, so the “greenity” of the electric vehicle is questionable — it wouldn’t appear to reduce emissions any more than an efficient gas powered vehicle.  However, in Costa Rica this isn’t an issue, up to 95% of our power is generated through renewable means.  This percentage drops a bit in dry season, when the capacity of hydro plants is reduced due to less rainfall.

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