Over-Engineering an Oil Tank Gauge

How I almost went too far down the line of over-engineering a simple broken oil tank gauge

I almost went down the path of investing a huge amount of time and effort into fixing a stuck oil fuel tank float-gauge in my house. Recently, the float mechanism became stuck and permanently displayed empty regardless of how much fuel was in the tank - not ideal. It’s a 20 year-old tank, so I wasn’t surprised that the float finally gave out.

Being the wannabe tinkerer that I am, a light bulb went off in my head and I started thinking on how to incorporate some ultrasonic system to display the accurate fuel reading digitally. Obviously my first thought was just to replace the float gauge with a new one and be done with it. That didn’t sound very fun though.

I briefly looked at other similar projects and started brainstorming the best way I would implement this for my own situation. The best option I came across seemed to be this: DIY Ultrasonic Fuel Gauge / Level Sensor

An ultrasonic system with a cool mini display sounded pretty rad - much cooler than just replacing the broken gauge with a new float arm. So it was settled.

My oil think-tank

I quickly thought through my options in my head before jumping too far into things (and even included a “poor-mans” temperature strip option):

Solution Cost Time
Ultrasonic Gauge $40-50 ~2-3 hours
New Float Gauge $25-30 ~45 minutes
Temperature Strips $10 ~2 minutes

My mind was still set on building and implementing the ultrasonic option. It would be a great learning experience at the very least!

So, before I ordered any parts or started designing a case that would house this new super-cool device, I went to investigate/remove the float gauge to get a better look at the damage. With the help of some penetrating oil (the original installer went crazy with the pipe dope) and my trusty wrench, I opened up the gauge cap, partly lifting the float from the tank. Right away I noticed that the float and shaft were slightly stuck together in one small area. I poked it with my finger.

The float set itself back into the correct position. It was fixed.

Mr Lahey

How could I have been so dumb. I was so excited about building something that I jumped into implementation before fully realizing the problem. Talk about a metaphor for web dev, am I right?

Overthinking simple problems

I can’t speak for all designers / developers out there, but I catch myself (far more often than I’d like to admit) over-engineering a solution because of some perceived notion that it is the “best” option. Most of the time it isn’t actually better, it just seems more fun.

Now don’t get me wrong, fun is a good thing most of the time. It’s just that some instances call for the quickest, cleanest, easiest solution in the name of efficiency - just be sure to have fully explored the problem first.

Final decision

So I ended up doing nothing. I simply re-threaded the cap and placed the float back inside the tank. I know I saved myself time and money, but I can’t help but feel like I failed…

Just like in the world of software, it’s best to avoid over-engineering simple problems.