Static Electricity at the Pump

Along with colder temperatures at this time of year, comes dryer air and a higher probability of your body producing static electricity. Getting a shock from a door knob or another metal surface isn’t so bad, but when gas fumes enter into the mix, the outcome may be dangerous.

There are a couple common things that may cause static electricity fires at the pump, the first being when a person returns to their vehicle during refuelling and fails to discharge before touching the nozzle again – if the latch on the pump is held open by an object jammed in. When they return to the fill area and touch the nozzle to complete the fill-up, a static spark ignites the fumes, which causes a flash fire. The second being when a person touches a metal area around the gas cap without having discharged an electric shock first, and gas fumes are present around the cap.

There are several theories about why static fires at the pumps seem to be occurring. One of the theories is the almost universal switch to self-serve pumps, which require millions of people who are unfamiliar with the volatility of gasoline to handle it once or twice a week. Also, vehicles today have more electronics – CD players, GPS systems, satellite radios, cruise control, ABS, and on-board diagnostic. Those elements, plus fabric seat covers, could create more static and a greater potential for static buildup.

Safety Guidelines when Refuelling

  • Always turn off your vehicle engine before refuelling.
  • Discharge static electricity by touching the metal parts of the car away from the nozzle area each time you exit the vehicle or approach the fuel dispensing pump. Sliding across a vehicle seat surface while entering and exiting a vehicle can create enough static electricity to generate a spark.
  • Never use the auto-latch/hold-open feature of a nozzle if available. Also, do not jam or force the latch open by using some other object, such as the gas cap. Always stay there with your hand on the nozzle while refuelling.
  • Never smoke, light matches or use lighters while refuelling.
  • The use of cellular phones at gas stations will not ignite a fire or cause an explosion as was once thought. The main problem with cell phones is that they cause the person refuelling their vehicle or container to be less attentive to their surroundings. Cellular phones can be distracting when filling a vehicle with highly flammable gasoline. That is why some gas stations still have signs asking customers not to use these devices when refuelling. To be cautious, do not use a cell phone at the pump.
  • To avoid gasoline spills, do not overfill or top off your tank. The fuel dispenser will shut off automatically when the tank is full.
  • When dispensing gasoline into a portable gasoline can, use only an approved container. Always place the container on the ground and keep the pump nozzle in contact with the container when refuelling to avoid a static electricity ignition of fuel vapors.
  • If a flash fire occurs during refuelling, do not pull the nozzle out. Robert Renkes of the Petroleum Equipment Institute (PEI) advises you to leave the nozzle in the vehicle fill pipe and back away from the vehicle. Notify the station attendant immediately so that all dispensing devices and pumps can be shut off with emergency controls. 
    Many of those killed or hurt during refuelling fires think that by pulling the nozzle out they will save themselves, their vehicle or those around them. Nothing is further from the truth. The inferno comes from the nozzle being pulled out of the vehicle or container and the gasoline being sprayed around the area.