seal  Purdue News

November 10, 2003

Purdue Extension curriculum shows why static, gas don't mix

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Everyone's felt it – a little shock from running in stocking feet or sliding across a car seat. And while static electricity is generally seen as a nuisance, it can be hazardous at gas stations, says Cathy Burkett, a retired Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service educator.

The dangers of static electricity – a common occurrence as the air turns cooler and drier – are something Burkett knows about from firsthand experience. In May 2000 she was filling her car with gas when she noticed flames around the nozzle. She quickly removed the nozzle from the tank and went to alert the attendant. It was only after walking into the building that she noticed her pants were on fire.

"Had I known what was going to happen, I would have left the nozzle in the vehicle – your gut reaction is to pull it out," she said. "But people who've left the nozzle in haven't been hurt or had equipment damage. It's the people who take the nozzle out who get into trouble."

Burkett's story and the steps she could have taken to prevent a static electricity fire are the focus of a Purdue Extension education curriculum, "Dos and Don'ts at the Gas Pump." The curriculum is available for free online.

Bill Field, an ag safety specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue, said Burkett's case illustrates a key piece of information included in the curriculum: Removing the nozzle during a static electricity fire causes more fumes to escape from the tank, thus giving the fire even more fuel. Field said it's the gas fumes that are flammable, not the liquid.

Field said static electricity fires at gas stations are more common than they used to be. One of the primary reasons is the switch to self-serve gas pumps. Other factors that add to the amount of static electricity are the increased number of electronic components in cars, tires made with more synthetic material, people wearing more synthetic fibers and use of nylon seat covers.

According to the Petroleum Equipment Institute, there are approximately 12 billion fill-ups annually, most of those at self-serve pumps. And while the numbers don't sound daunting – 15 to 20 fires reported each year – a static electricity fire can be very traumatic for those who experience it.

Burkett spent 18 days in the hospital, had numerous skin grafts, missed three and one-half months of work and has a badly scarred leg.

"There was physical therapy, we had to treat an infection which made the healing process longer, and when I finally went back to work it wasn't full time," she said. "It took a long time for my leg to heal and for me to get my strength back."

Field said the most important thing to remember is not to get back into the vehicle during refueling. Seventy-eight percent of reported static electricity fire victims are women who re-enter their vehicles to return a credit card to their purse, get money, check on the kids, get warm or do some other task.

"Contact between the car seat and clothing can cause a static charge to build up," he said. "That's why it's a good idea to touch the car door or some other metal before refueling because that will discharge the static buildup."

Even though most fires occur in November through February when fuels are mixed to be more volatile, they can happen any time. Field also said motorists should not top off the tank because gasoline expands during heating, leaving the fumes no place to go if the tank is full.

"Most people don't know those kinds of things," Burkett said. "That's why it's important to follow the safety tips."

Some of those tips are:

• Always turn off the vehicle when refueling.

• Stay near the vehicle fueling port.

• Never smoke, light matches or use a lighter during refueling.

• Don't prop open the nozzle handle with a foreign object.

• Keep portable gas containers on the ground during filling.

• Maintain contact between the nozzle and portable gas can during filling.

"Dos and Don'ts at the Gas Pump" includes additional tips, a lesson plan, PowerPoint presentation and handouts. A six-minute educational video that includes footage of gas pump fires is available for $15. Ordering details can be found at the Web site.

Victims of static electricity fires at gas pumps are encouraged to report the incident to the Petroleum Equipment Institute. A report form is available online.

Writer: Kay Hagen, (765) 494-6682,

Sources: Cathy Burkett, (765) 938-1818,

Bill Field, (765) 494-1191,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722; Beth Forbes,
Agriculture News Page

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