According to the US Coast Guard, most fires and explosions on boat occur during or immediately after fueling. I’ve witnessed several fires close to or at fuel docks, all of which cause at least minor injuries, and in a couple of cases, pretty serious injuries, not to mention the property damage. I’ve also witnessed a few near-misses, one where a boater pumped about 10 gallons of fuel into his waste tank, which was not fuel resistant. The fuel ended up in the bilge of the boat, a dicey situation with all of the potential ignition sources in the cabin area.
Fueling a boat is different than fueling your car in a number of ways. As with anything, a little common sense goes a long way, however, not everything in the list of fueling tips below may be obvious to everyone, so it’s worth a read. I’ve always preferred to learn from the mistakes of others, rather than my own! How about you?
If you are filling portable fuel tanks, particularly plastic tanks, take them out of the boat and refuel them on shore or on the dock. This prevents dangerous fumes from building up on your deck and around your boat. Fuel tanks on the dock are also “grounded”, which will prevent static discharge from igniting fumes. You should keep the fuel pump nozzle in contact with the tank at all times, so there is no gap for a static spark to “jump” across.
Before fueling inboard tanks, close all hatches, doors, and other openings to prevent fumes from getting into the cabin interior spaces of the boat. While components in the engine compartment are for the most part ignition protected (though it is fairly common for owners to add non-protected devices), the boats cabin space is full of potential ignition sources. Switches, lights, heaters and appliances are all potential sources for sparks that can ignite fumes. What many people do not realize is that it is quite normal for unprotected interior switches or circuit breakers to produce a spark when making or breaking internal contact. A dangerous proposition in an area of concentrated gasoline fumes.
To avoid air locks and sudden spills, be sure your boat is level when refueling. Put passengers ashore or level your trailer if refueling at a service station. Once, while delivering fuel to a stranded boater, I found it quite difficult to get fuel into the boat. After pouring about a half gallon into the filler, the tank would “burp” a large amount back through the fuel fill. This was due to the way the boat sat in the water, and the weight distribution, which caused the fuel to fill the hose, compressing air into the tank on the way down. This air, then vented with enough force the fuel back up the hose.
It may sound like overkill, but any potential source of a spark should be considered. While putting out cigarettes or that big Cuban cigar, may seem obvious, don’t forget the romantic candle on the aft-deck table. Turn off engines, all electrical equipment, including radios, stoves and other appliances…anything that can cause a spark.
Don’t count on the automatic shut-off feature of the gas pump. I’m not sure why, but these just aren’t as reliable when filling boats as they are when filling your car. Attend the nozzle at all times.
Don’t fill your fuel tank completely to the top. Fuel will expand as it warms up, so leave a little room for this natural expansion. If you don’t, you will likely end up watching fuel escape out of the vents, into the water, on a warm afternoon.
As mentioned above in regard to portable tanks, maintain nozzle contact with the fill pipe of your inboard fuel tank to prevent static spark and spills. It also helps to hold an absorbent sheet under the nozzle, or wrapped around it, to catch any overflow or drips
After fueling, be sure to secure the filler cap to prevent fuel from leaking or water from entering the tank. Check the gasket or o-ring seal periodically to make sure it is in good shape, and water/fuel tight.
And the final tip today, one you have heard before:
Before starting the engine, run the blower for at least four minutes and check the bilge for any fuel vapors. Open all ports, hatches and doors to ventilate. Do the “sniff” test to make sure there is no gasoline odor anywhere on the boat and DO NOT start the engine if you detect any odor – continue ventilating and checking for possible leaks.
The above tips may not be intuitive if you are a casual boater, but they are not rocket science either. It doesn’t take much to prevent fueling related fires and explosions, yet they are much more common than they should be. Take a extra minute or two to do it the safe way and if you see someone at the fuel dock doing something improperly, let them know in a helpful way. The life you save might well be your own.
Be safe out there on the water!