BOOM – Gasoline / Static Spark


In most cases, the majority of family automobiles today still run on gasoline. Gasoline is a highly flammable substance when it vaporizes. I’m sure you have observed from time to time, particularly in hot weather, visible vapours rising from the area where the filler hose fits into the gas tank spout. Gasoline is a relatively safe product as long as it is kept away from heat or a spark.

Fire requires three things. Fuel, air and a source of ignition, either heat or heat via a spark. As it relates to your local gas station, the most common source of spark comes from static electricity.
Those of you old enough to remember will recall chains hanging down touching the ground from the back of fuel trucks. You would hear the jingle and see them spark all the way down the street. The purpose of the chain? To remove the static charge built up in the truck body from movement and the sloshing of the fuel inside the tank. Around airports, you’ll still see static lines connected between tank trucks and aircraft while fuelling. Today, tires are constructed differently than in yesteryear and these, alone, have enough conductivity to remove the static charge.

I have witnessed two fires at gas stations in my lifetime. Once, when Nick-2015I was a child of ten or so, I spent an overnight at a friend’s house which happened to be located on the side of a very steep hill. Fifty or sixty feet below us was another street with multiple businesses. Among those businesses was a gas station. Awakened from a deep sleep by a loud explosion, we jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see the gas station on fire directly below us. Huge flames would shoot into the air as each successive underground tank caught fire. I remember the local volunteer fire department ignoring the gas station in efforts to save the surrounding buildings. I’m not sure …… there might have been an ulterior motive…… the building next door was the town’s only liquor store. Anyway, the booze was saved but, the gas station was a goner!

The other occasion was a little later in life when I was pumping gas for a living. People my age used to do that, you know, check your oil and clean your windshield too. A customer slid in off the street in fresh snow while applying his brakes. With the front wheels locked up and going too fast for conditions, he ploughed into the first gas dispenser and snapped it off its mounting. A fire erupted and the guy scrambled to get out of his car and run. We had that fire out long before the firefighters arrived. So, neither one of those fires within my own experience originated by static. There have, however, been some bad ones.

Gas stations have come a long way over the years. Today, they build in as many safeguards as is practical. For instance, all gas dispensers are manufactured with non-sparking “break-away” fittings coming from the tanks below. An automatic closing device seals off the exit pipe just below the break-away point. This prevents any fire from entering the underground tank.

In both of these cases, relatively small amounts of gasoline are contained inside either the dispenser piping or the hose. A properly maintained, fully charged and correctly used fire extinguisher should snuff out any resulting fire.

The same applies to dispenser hoses. They have “break-away” fittings, designed to snap off at the base of the pump when somebody drives away with the nozzle still stuck in the tank. It happens quite frequently. Nozzles are made of non-sparking metal and most have automatic shut-off devices built right in. You’ll note that, for years, you haven’t seen one of those little metal clips that once kept your nozzle pumping automatically. These devices are built in, or in this case, removed for your safety.

Getting back to the static charge, friction is usually the source and it can give you anguish. If you get out of your vehicle, be sure to close the metal door with your bare hand while standing on the ground. Once at the dispenser, pump the gas completely replacing the hose and gas cap without getting or reaching back into the car. Those moves, in that order, discharge the static from you or your clothing as you step out and keep the spark away from the vapours.
People can get into trouble when they reach back into the car for something, pick up more static and then return to the nozzle positioned in the tank with the fuel door open. You’ll not likely see them but, fumes are present right at that fuel door. Your first touch transfers the spark. BOOM !!!

Referring to that car door, actually grasp the door snugly with your fingers each time as you step onto the ground so you don’t feel the spark. It is highly unlikely that you will ever be involved in a gas station fire however, it’s smart to remain alert and aware of the hazards while at the gasoline pumps. Life has no guarantees.
Keep your people safe.

The beauty of life is in your hands.

About the Author

Your Old Uncle Nicky’s Opinions

Nick Nicholson, is a retired safety practitioner who spent many years researching the human behaviour factors of driver and pedestrian actions. Specifically, he spent 25 of those years devoted to highway crash investigations, regulatory compliance, the design, implementation and presentation of safety programs. Nick enjoyed many hours presenting professional driver enhancement training to adult participants.

As a long time Fleet Safety Council Member (1988) and the Founding Chair (1992-1995) of Council’s Hamilton-Niagara Chapter, he presents his opinions in hopes of improving the safety knowledge of readers. Nick is a firm believer in human advancement through positive attitudes, solution thinking and the understanding that the beauty of life is always in your hands.

Old Uncle Nicky’s Opinions are his own and in no way reflect the opinions of Fleet Safety Council.

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