Friday, July 08, 2005

Refueling Safely
One of the positions I held during my 20 years at Texaco involved extensive dealings with the company's Asian refining and marketing affiliates. Self-service gasoline stations were just coming into vogue in Japan, and my department arranged numerous tours for Japanese marketing executives eager to see how self-service worked here. Their biggest concern always ended up being safety: how can so many people refuel their own cars without setting them--and the stations--on fire? At the time, this argument seemed like a smokescreen for a general reluctance to change. Now here's a rare-but-real example, captured on video, of what these guys were worried about: a car in an Oregon service station bursting into flames during a routine fill-up.

The article from the Oregon newsite is undoubtedly correct in blaming static electricity for this mishap. Such incidents occur sporadically, averaging about 1 per month in the whole country, but with wide variability in the data. The data also show that most of these accidents happen in the winter months, though this is probably skewed by the heavy weighting of population in states with high summer humidity. A hot summer day in Oregon would be as good a candidate as a cold winter day in Michigan for the dry conditions needed to generate enough static charge to ignite gasoline vapors.

The good news is that such fires are exceedingly rare, literally about a one-in-a-billion chance event (once per month out of about 4 refuelings each for 236 million registered vehicles.) They are also easy to prevent. Touching the body of your car after you exit the vehicle and before you open the gas cap or handle the fuel nozzle should be sufficient to ground you and prevent any static discharge. This is a good habit to develop, year-round. And while the owner of the Ferrari in Oregon wasn't injured, I don't envy his efforts at convincing his insurance company to cover the repairs.

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