Whether it is used to power a vehicle, run a generator, or fuel a lantern, few people escape the need to buy and store liquid fuels like gasoline, kerosene or diesel. In normal times, we have easy access to fuel at the gas station, and safety is taken for granted. But are you aware of the potential dangers of liquid fuels, and how to mitigate the hazards? If not, please read on!
Liquid Fuel vs. Pressurized Gas Fuel
The two most common fuels important to people preparing for emergencies are gasoline, which is liquid at room temperature, and propane, which is used as a gas at room temperature. Other liquid fuels include diesel fuel, a denser, oily fuel popular in trucks and generators, and “white gas,” a petroleum fuel related to gasoline but used in the popular Coleman and other brand camping stoves and lanterns. Unlike pressurized gas fuels, petroleum liquid fuels have a limited shelf life; they separate into their component chemicals over time and become unusable.
While natural gas has more widespread use in home heating and cooking, it is used less in rural areas because of the extensive piping needed to distribute it. Where it is available, it is cheaper and easier to use than propane. Natural gas is lighter than air, and thus disperses more easily than propane which is heavier than air.
Propane, also known as LPG (Liquefied Propane Gas) is used for heating and cooking in mostly rural areas where natural gas is not available and is stored in large tanks at the user’s home or business. Periodically, the propane tank is refilled by a mobile propane truck.
Propane has the advantage of portability, available in consumer-sized portable containers including the popular 20 lb. tank used for barbecue grills and a small 16 ounce tank used for lanterns and small barbecues.
Why are Liquid Fuels Special?
Gaseous fuels like natural gas and propane are kept under pressure, and require a closed system (tank-to-hose-to-tank) that prevents loss of fuel during transfer from one tank to another. Usually a trained technician is needed to refill a propane tank. In normal times, there’s no problem, but during a disaster, this characteristic can be problematic.
On the other hand, all of us have filled up our car’s tank at the gas station. No thought required, you pay for the fuel and put the nozzle in your tank. You don’t see the safety measures engineered into the dispensing system; accidents are few. If you follow a few basic safety principles, you can safely store significant amounts of gasoline as part of your preparedness strategy.
Convenience Can Have a Cost
Gasoline’s value as a fuel is its volatility, or its characteristic of rapidly changing from a liquid to a gas. Even in freezing temperatures, an open container of gasoline quickly produces vapor that is extremely flammable. In hot temperatures, gasoline vapor can create outward pressure on a container, and if the cap isn’t tight vapor can escape; in extreme cases, the pressure can rupture the container. In the worst case, a burst gasoline container can ignite, resulting in an explosion. I have seen estimates of the explosive power of a gallon of gasoline equivalent to 20-60 sticks of dynamite.
Gasoline vapor is heavier than air, and so like water settles to the lowest possible point. Accidental ignition of the vapor will flash back to the container and ignite the remaining gas. As a result, one should NEVER store gasoline in any amount in a dwelling or garage with a potential ignition source like a water heater pilot light. Static electricity is another hazard; containers should be on the ground when pouring to safely avoid static sparks.
Less volatile fuels like diesel are easier to store than gasoline. While gallon for gallon diesel has more energy than gasoline, it has a higher ignition temperature and isn’t as volatile.
Not surprisingly, the best container to store gasoline is called a “Safety Can.” These 5-gallon cans are built to prevent rupture, and have a spring-loaded seal instead of a screw-on cap. The seal keeps the gasoline vapors securely inside, and a spark arrestor screen prevents the contents from igniting from a flash back. In the event of a fire outside of the Safety Can, the seal will vent gasoline vapor that builds up inside, preventing a catastrophic explosion.
A Type I Safety Can (pictured) is just for storage, you’ll need a funnel to pour out the gasoline. It’s also the least expensive of the Safety Cans, available on ebay for about $40.00 each. Type II Safety Cans add a flexible spout to make refueling easier, and are about $60.00 each. Reputable brands include Justrite and Eagle.
While it seems like a lot of money to invest, the Safety Cans have a 10-year warranty and are well-constructed. In addition to their use in your plans, 5 gallons of gasoline or diesel would be a terrific barter item in an emergency for something else you need.
Liquid Fuels Have an Expiration Date
If you decide to store gasoline or diesel, you have to plan a rotation schedule, as they both will start to decompose within several months. Using old fuel in an engine will cause major problems in short order. You can extend their life with a fuel stabilizer like STA-BIL, but ultimately if you don’t use it you’ll lose it.
Let’s say you store 8 five-gallon cans of gasoline, for a total of 40 gallons. Number the cans 1 through 8, and each week empty one of the cans into your car or other gasoline-powered equipment and refill the can. Mark this on a calendar and it becomes automatic; in two months, you’ve rotated your gasoline stock without too much trouble.
To sum up, you’d be crazy not to include some fuel storage in your preparedness plans. Just be sure you do it safely, and that you can rely on it when you need it.