by Jim Kerr

Gasoline. Used as a fuel for the first internal combustion engines, it will likely remain as the fuel of choice for many years to come. As common as gasoline is, we often take it for granted but handled improperly, gasoline can be extremely dangerous. With the arrival of spring, lawn mowers, roto-tillers, collector cars, and other motorized vehicles and equipment will need refuelling. Here are a few tips to keep both you and your equipment safe.

Most safety procedures are common sense. For example, when filling a vehicle at the gas pumps don’t have the engine running. This is law in Canada and for good reason. Hot exhaust system parts, sparks from faulty sparkplug wires, or static electricity from engine drive belts could ignite gasoline vapours. Liquid gasoline isn’t explosive but the vapours are, and rich fuel vapours exit the tank as it is being filled. Vehicles built in the last couple of years use a specially designed filler system to prevent fuel vapours from exiting the tank. The fuel vapours flow into a charcoal canister instead so they can be burned in the engine later. This feature was designed to reduce emissions but improves safety too.

Smoking or having an open flame while refuelling is obviously a no-no, but a cell phone can be dangerous too. A cell phone has electrical contacts that can create a spark. Answer that phone while filling the tank and if conditions are right it could be the last call you make.

With the price of gas at such high levels, some drivers might want to take advantage of an occasional deal by stockpiling a little extra fuel in jerry cans. Bad idea. Bylaws in many communities limit the amount of fuel that can be stored and often it is not more than five gallons maximum. Nobody needs to take chances by storing fuel unnecessarily and fuel doesn’t keep well anyway.

When fuel is stored, it must be in a CSA or ULC approved fuel can. Red metal fuel cans are fine but the red plastic ones are much more common. Other types of plastic containers can be damaged by gasoline, causing a fuel spill. Never fill a fuel can to the top. Fuel tanks in vehicles allow room for the gasoline to expand as it warms up and we need to allow room for expansion in fuel cans as well.

Fuel containers should be stored in unheated, well-ventilated areas. Empty fuel cans are as dangerous as full ones because there are still fuel vapours present. Never keep fuel containers in a basement. Gasoline vapours are heavier than air, so if there is a fuel leak it will settle to the lowest spot. Furnace pilot lights and water heaters can ignite the vapours.

If there is a fuel leak, don’t turn on any lights or electrical appliances such as a fan. Ventilate the area, remembering that fuel vapours can remain in low areas for many hours. If the fuel leak is more than a damp spot, don’t take any chances; call the fire department and have it checked by someone trained to deal with explosive chemicals.

Sliding across a car seat can generate very high static voltages and touching a metal part could create a spark. This can ignite fuel vapours, so avoid climbing in or out of a vehicle while refuelling. Plastic box liners in trucks protect the boxes but are also great insulators. Never fill a fuel can or a fuel tank of equipment sitting in the box because there is no ground for static to dissipate. Always place the container or equipment on the ground before filling it.

If gasoline is spilled on clothing, wet the area with water and slowly remove the clothing to prevent static sparks. Use warm (not hot) soapy water to wash contaminated skin. Let fuel contaminated clothing air out outside for several hours before laundering them.

Never siphon gasoline by mouth. Even a few drops of gasoline into the lungs can be fatal. If you need to transfer fuel from one vehicle or tank to another, use a pump to start the fuel flowing.

Finally, if gasoline were invented tomorrow, we probably wouldn’t be filling our own fuel tanks. Safety concerns would probably mean refuelling would be similar to getting propane tanks refilled. Fuel tanks would be sealed and only trained personnel could fill tanks.

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