Cecil: Gas Station Fires - Fact or Fiction?

Cecil and SDopers -

Along the line of questions regarding the validity of at-home injuries caused by lightning strikes, I must wonder about claims to gas station safety and fires due to carelessness. A few years back, there was an article run in the Washington Post regarding gas station fires - esp. in the colder months when people will not shut off their engines while fueling*. (*The article presumed the fire was from fumes ignited by an idling engine without mention of the chance of static discharge caused by a person re-entering their vehicle…which became a bigger issue more recently than at the time of this article.)

If this is a real concern, what about the guy waiting in line directly in line behind you? Your vapors are going straight into his/her air intake. Shouldn’t they shut down their engine, as well?

What’s the very straightest dope on this issue, Uncle Cecil and the wiser masses?

  • Jinx

Mythbusters did a show on this. Cellphones do not create enough of a spark to blow anything up but static electricity can, and has, been shown to cause a big enough spark to ignite the vapors.

Not one of the Wiser Masses but to interject: Static electricity can indeed travel through a persons body or clothing to the fumes from the gas tank, if the person filling the tank does not ground themselves on the vehicle first. For some reason Women are more subject to this because they tend to put the nozzel in the tank and return to the driver’s seat to wait. I don’t know why.

There was film on the local news here (Georgia) about half a year ago or so that showed a fire starting at a station, near the pumps. I think static electricty was the culprit. The film showed a dark color pick up truck and the shot was from above. (As a point of reference so that others can supply the bits of information I am missing.)

The Mythbusters team could not replicate a static electricity explosion for any amount of trying. They tinkered with the static electricity source, different ratios of air to fuel, etc. and never got a fire to start with a static electricity discharge. The smaller and younger one (Jamie?) declared the myth “busted.”

Of course, earlier in the program they showed actual video footage of fires at gas stations being started by static electricity sparks, yet since the Mythbusters team couldn’t replicate it then it must have been a myth. :rolleyes:

The Petroleum Equipment Institute says that cell phones Do not cause fires, but static does.
Furthermore, there is a problem with filling both plastic and metal gas cans when the can is in the back of a pickup truck or in the trunk of a car. (I saw one of these occur. :eek: )
Here is the summary page Showing 161 fires since 1992. Not common, but not unkown.

No not really, any vapors that make it back will just be burnt as part of the normal part of combustion. As far as the vapors igniting, don’t forget that gas will only combust in a fairly narrow range of air/fuel ratios. Too rich or too lean and combustion will not occur. It is highly unlikely that enough vapors could reach an ignition source 10 feet away. To get this concentration of vapors would require a large spill. Normal refueling would not do it.

I’m a little dubious about this. I’ve driven all over the U.S. and Canada and it’s extremely rare for me to come across a self-selve gas station that had that little doo-hick in the nozzle that would allow me to walk away while the tank was filling. Actually I think I only came across it twice ever and one was at a really old station. Usually they’re disabled.

Are there some states where this is more prevalent? (I haven’t driven around the southeast much).

In any case, I’m just a a bit dubious about that because I find it so unusual to have the opportunity to go back to the car and wait. I could see that as an older stat (especially given the charge you could build up in the 1970s with nylon stockings and a lot of polyester clothing – remember the Static Guard commercials?)

Is there a cite about that statistic somewhere?

Strange, I’ve done my share of driving, (none in Canada) filling my own tank, and find itextremely rare when a nozzle doesn’t have the latch on option.

There has been three gas station pump fires in this area in the last couple years… all caused from static electricity.

Yes, there is no doubt that discharge of static electricity can cause a fire. BUT! My the heart of my OP asked about turning off your engine at the pump while the car behind you sucks in the fumes. Just how hazardous is running your engine? And, what about the guy behind you idling away?

As for mythbusters, I saw one of their first shows trying to show if a magnet can wipe out info on a credit card. The boobs spent a good portion of the show placing the card on magnets and electromagnets of all strengths. BUT! If they had any sense at all, they’d know it is NOT the magnetic field itself, but rather magenetic flux that causes this! Magnetic flux means the field is changing by some relative motion of the magnetic field in relation to the credit card, in this case. Maybe to make a mountain out of a molehill, they purposely avoided mentioning this. At the very end, they hinted at it. It was more sensationalism than science.

  • Jinx

As previously posted, a fairly large spill would need to occur before the amount of vapor released would have an effect on a nearby vehicle. In addition, vapor recovery nozzles have been mandated by law for a number of years.

Here is a link to Maryland Department of the Environment on the subject.

I can’t imagine that. They’re everywhere in So Cal, for instance. I don’t think I’ve noticed NOT having one in many years.

All you have to do is wedge your gas cap into the trigger-guard thing. Don’t matter if the lock has been disabled.

Yeeeeeaaaaaah, that’s what we like to call a “Bad Idea” there, Peter. We at Initech really can’t condone doing that, as employees tend to forget that the cap is under there. You knowwwww, they’ll wash their windows and then there will be a puddle of gasoline under the car. That’s what we like to call a “safety hazard.” I can get the TPS and Haz Mat reports for you on that. I’ll send someone by with those.

That’s not what magnetic flux means. And a strong enough static magnetic field can, indeed, erase credit cards, but I’m not sure just how strong is strong enough. Further, there would be a change in the magnetic flux in any possible experiment, if only because you would have to put the card on the magnet or turn on the magnet, producing a change in field.