Most of us learn about fuel safety at an early age – perhaps from watching a parent fuel up a tractor, lawn mower, or watercraft when we were children, or certainly as a part of driver training in our teens. Many fleet drivers get “refresher” courses as part of regular safety training on the job. But it never hurts to go through the basics as equipment, laws, and guidelines do change over time.
In this article we cover the basic safety rules, as well as guidelines for handling emergencies, and tips for keeping your vehicle’s fuel system in tip-top shape.
Choose the Right Fuel
Begin with what you put in your tank and when you do it:
- Follow the manufacturer’s directions. There’s no need to upgrade from Regular to Premium unless a high-octane fuel is required for your vehicle. It does nothing to improve performance or mileage, and serves only to increase fuel expenses. If in doubt, check the owner’s manual.
- Know your supplier. Casey’s reminds us of the importance of not only choosing a station that carries the variety if fuels appropriate to your needs and preferences (for example, traditional gasoline and diesel, biodiesel blends, E15, E85, seasonal products, and the like), but also making sure your supplier practices diligent quality control so that the fuel they source is the same quality fuel that arrives at the store for you to purchase.1
- Make it a practice to refuel before your tank drops below a quarter full. First, and most important, doing this keeps you from running dry. It may sound simplistic, but we all get busy and distracted and forget to check the gauge. Unfortunately, we all also get stuck in traffic jams or lost at some point, so it’s best to be prepared. The other reason, though, is that your vehicle needs enough fuel in the tank at all times to keep the fuel system running properly. If the tank gets too close to empty, several things can happen:
- The fuel pump can get overheated and damaged.
- Impurities that have collected create sediment in the tank that can get pushed through the fuel filter and clog fuel injectors.
- High temperatures can create a vapor lock, especially in high altitudes or when the vehicle is idling for long periods, resulting in loss of power or damage to the injectors.
Pump Fuel Safely
A widely posted YouTube video2 outlines the basics of safe pumping, most of which are included in the following list:
- Turn off the vehicle – even if you are filling a container. For vehicles carrying generators and other types of electrical and/or heat-generating equipment, be sure to turn off pilot lights and power to heat sources, preferably before entering the station.
- It’s a good idea to make note of where the gas shutoff button is located at the station before you start pumping – just in case you need it.
- If you want to use the nozzle hands-free, use only the clip on the nozzle itself: don’t prop it open with other materials.
- Stay by the pump within reach of the nozzle until fueling is completed.
- Although cell phone use has not been proven to spark fires, many stations prohibit phone usage while pumping, so it’s better to leave your device in the vehicle.
- If you absolutely must re-enter the vehicle before finishing, be sure to discharge static electricity by touching something metal like the door before touching the nozzle again.
- Don’t let children pump gas.
- If the tank overflows or the nozzle won’t shut off, alert the attendant or press the shutoff button (remember: you noted its location before you started pumping).
A few other reminders:
If fuel splashes on clothing, remove the fuel at once. If it spills on the pavement, make sure it evaporates fully before leaving. Stations typically keep absorbent substances in a spill kit just for this purpose, so ask for help if you don’t have such a kit on board.
Never use fuel for other purposes – for example, as a cleaning agent. And never mix gasoline with kerosene or diesel4.
Store Fuel Properly
Storing gasoline and diesel anywhere other than at a regulated fuel dispensing location is inherently dangerous, and should only be done when absolutely necessary. In those rare instances, follow these tips for safe storage:
- Keep the fuel in its original container, or in an approved alternative, such as a fuel can. The container should not be filled too full.
- Make sure the container is tightly sealed and kept upright.
- Label all containers.
- Store them in an area designated just for fuel, away from heat and ignition sources and in a place that is cool and well-ventilated.
- Clean up any spills immediately. Fuel-contaminated rags, paper, or other material used to absorb spillages are a fire hazard, and should not be allowed to accumulate. Dispose of them safely immediately after use.
Respond to Fuel Emergencies the Right Way
It’s the stuff action movies are made of: a dramatic chase scene unfolds, and pretty soon there’s a confrontation at a fueling station. A vehicle crashes into a fuel tank or gunfire erupts and a tank explodes into a fireball with flames shooting skyward.
Fortunately, scenes like this in real life are rare. But fires do occasionally happen, and keeping your “mental muscle memory” fine-tuned with the guidelines on how to respond is always a good idea.
Fires at a pumping station are a rarity, but avoiding risky situations is key to making sure you’re not a victim:
- 50% of fires happen when people get back into the vehicle and leave the pump engaged, then return to the pump without discharging static electricity as described above.
- 29% of fires happen when the person pumping unscrews the gas cap.
- 21% happen for unknown reasons.
The biggest safety rule is this: If a fire occurs while the nozzle is actively pumping into your vehicle, DO NOT remove the nozzle. Back away and hit the emergency shutoff button or call for help from the attendant.5
Running Out of Fuel
The other fuel-related emergency you’re more likely to face is running out of fuel. And yes, it’s an emergency because your vehicle will stall and shut down. This means that your power steering and braking will immediately become much more difficult to handle with fuel to the power systems missing. For modern-day drivers, this can come as a sudden surprise. Vehicle maintenance experts offer tips like these on what to do6:
- Hang in there! Try to stay calm. You’ll need human power to maneuver the vehicle. It will be hard, but you can do it.
- Turn on your emergency flashers.
- Pull off the road as soon as it is safely possible. Try to do this on the right side of the road to minimize risk from faster-moving traffic and to avoid having to cross the road yourself on foot.
- Call for help.
Many fleet fuel card plans include a 24/7 roadside assistance benefit. If your does not have such a plan, some vehicle insurance plans have a similar service.
Once you are fueled up, you should prime the fuel pump before getting back on the road. To do this, turn the key to the “on” position without applying the gas pedal and then immediately turn it back off. Do this a few times before applying the gas. This will help clear any air that may have entered the fuel lines while the tank was empty. Then, once you are back on the road, take your vehicle in for an inspection as soon as possible to make sure nothing has been damaged. According to mechanics, a damaged fuel pump or fuel injector may function just fine at first following such an incident, only to malfunction later and cause problems with stalls or difficulty starting.
1 “Protection From Bad Fuel: Commitment to Quality,” Casey’s General Stores, Inc. https://www.caseys.com/about-us/quality-fuels, accessed August 5, 2020.
2 “Dos and Don’ts at the Gas Pump,” posted by a number of sources. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zyjt4qBh4JI, 2013-2019. Accessed July 29, 2020.
3”Practice Caution When Handing Fuel,” National Safety Council, 22 April 2018. https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/16907-practice-caution-when-handling-fuel. Accessed August 5, 2020.
4”Gasoline Safety & Storage,” Exxon Mobil, https://www.exxon.com/en/gasoline-safety-storage. Accessed August 3, 2020
5”Dos and Don’ts at the Gas Pump.”
6”When You Run Out of Gas,” Firestone Complete Auto Care blog, https://blog.firestonecompleteautocare.com/driving/what-happens-when-you-run-out-of-gas/.