Following a cyber attack on a pipeline that provides 45 percent of the gasoline sold on the eastern seaboard, people have begun panic buying fuel. This has lead to fights, car fires, and even an emergency bulletin from the Consumer Product Safety Commission urging people not to pour gasoline over an open flame.
This unprecedented spike in demand—reportedly two to four times higher than normal—is even leading some stations to run out of gas. At the time of writing, GasBuddy.com reports that 68 percent of gas stations in North Carolina are experiencing fuel shortages. In Georgia, that number is 49 percent, and in Virginia, it’s 54 percent.
Most worryingly, panicked buyers are using inappropriate containers to store and transport extra fuel, or attempting to transport those containers in an unsafe manner. There are even reports of people using buckets, and perhaps even plastic bags, and loading those containers into their cars while they’re full of a flammable, noxious liquid.
At a briefing, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm compared the situation to “hoarding toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic” and says there’s no need for drivers to worry. The Colonial Pipeline resumed operation on Wednesday evening, and gasoline supplies are expected to return to normal over the next week or so.
This is a teachable moment. There are circumstances in which carrying extra fuel or storing it at home is necessary. But you’ve got to make sure you’re doing it safely. Let’s start with some basic guidelines, then move onto products that will enable you to follow them.
How to Safely Use Portable Gas Cans
“It is really important that we use extreme caution when filling portable gasoline cans from a pump,” according to Tim Regan, a fire chief with the National Park Service. “Gasoline is an extremely volatile refined product. It can catch fire, explode, and burn rapidly.”
Only Use Approved Containers
A can or container designed for gasoline will feature a prominent stamp of approval from either the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) or American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Gasoline can melt some plastics and similar materials. Even if this doesn’t cause a leak, residue from these materials can destroy your vehicle’s fuel system or engine. And unapproved materials or caps can lead to dangerous vapor leaks.
Never Carry a Portable Gas Can Inside a Vehicle’s Passenger Compartment or Store It Inside Your Home
To maintain safe internal pressures, approved fuel containers are designed to vent fuel vapor in high ambient temperatures. This can lead to fire hazards—a garden shed exploded in England a few years ago due to leaking fuel can vapors—and a dangerous buildup of poisonous fumes inside enclosed spaces. Gasoline vapor contains carbon monoxide, which can cause light headedness and nausea even after very short periods of exposure, and can lead to brain damage or death over longer periods. Gas cans can leak vapor even while empty.
Only Fill Gas Cans to 95 Percent
Fuel expands as temperatures increase. Leaving an air gap will help avoid spillage.
Place Gas Cans on the Ground Before Filling
Yes, this prevents spilling fuel inside your truck bed or all over your vehicle’s exterior. But more importantly, it decreases the chances of static discharge creating a spark and igniting the gas you’re putting in the can. Many pickup beds are lined with plastic or a similar non-conductive spray-in material, which stops the can from achieving a ground connection, and can lead to a fire.
Wipe the Can Clean
When you’re done filling, wipe any spilled fuel off the can before loading it into or onto your vehicle. Again, even a small amount of gasoline vapor can be ignited, and any vapors you inhale are really bad for you.
Secure the Can
In a 35 mph crash, a full five-gallon fuel tank will become a projectile flying forwards with 1,872 pounds of force. That’s enough to easily kill someone. Whether you’re carrying a fuel can in the bed of a pickup or on your roof rack, it must be securely fastened.
Use the Gas
Gasoline has a shelf life of three to six months. After that time, it becomes less combustible, and components of it can separate, reducing its octane value. Your engine will struggle to run on stale gasoline; it could shut off at idle, will make less power, and may cut in and out as you accelerate. All that adds up to expensive engine damage.
Attempting to transport fuel in the kind of cheap plastic fuel containers all of us use to fill up our lawn mowers may be enough to get you home from the gas station. If you’re driving off-road, at high speeds, or for long distances, you need a more robust container, and one that can be safely secured to your vehicle.
Jerry Cans ($45)
“Jerry” was the nickname American troops gave to German soldiers in WWII, and this five-gallon design was developed by that country’s military before that war. The name stuck, and Jerrys are now the universal solution for transporting extra fuel. Stamped from steel, these things are robust and impermeable. They’re also incredibly common, meaning there’s a vast ecosystem of mounts and accessories available. I buy my Jerry cans from Harbor Freight. They’re of equivalent quality to anything else I’ve found, but are around half the price.
AT Overland Jerry Can Holder ($135)
A good Jerry can mount allows you to carry all that extra fuel on your roof, in your bed, or on your tailgate in a package that’s secure on the move and from theft, but which remains easily accessible. AT Overland’s solution is the best I’ve found. Just drill holes through it to match the mounting points of whatever rack or solution you’re using, then secure the top strap with a padlock. Jerry cans can be carried either standing up vertically, or on their back, so long as the angled fuel spout remains on top, and this holder allows for either orientation.
RotoPax (from $77)
I used one of those AT Overland holders to carry a Jerry can all the way from Montana, down to Baja Sur, and back on my Ford Ranger. And it rattled every minute of every mile—for 6,000 miles. I always wondered why RotoPax were so expensive, and found out the hard way. As soon as I got home from that trip, I pulled off that Jerry can, and bolted a couple two-gallon RotoPaxs in its place. Despite their name, each carries about 2.5 gallons, so together, both give me equivalent fuel capacity. The unique selling point of RotoPax isn’t the containers themselves, but rather the unique screw-action mount, which means you can bolt them onto virtually any vehicular surface with complete security. They’re available in a variety of sizes and shapes, allowing you to transport several on anything from a motorcycle to an airplane.
Long Range Fuel Tanks (From $1,900)
Want to talk about real preparedness? An auxiliary fuel tank can add 40 gallons or more of fuel capacity to your truck, tripling your range. And it will do that in a safe, convenient package that guarantees you won’t have to worry about spills, fires, or vapors. I fitted a 12.5-gallon unit from Long Range America to my wife’s Land Cruiser. That’s two-and-a-half Jerry cans worth of extra gas, all in a package that’s filled from the vehicle’s normal gas cap, and which operates invisibly to the vehicle’s systems. When the stock fuel tank gets low, all you do is push a button on the dash, and that 12.5 gallons pumps in, filling the truck back up as you drive.
Twelve-and-a-half gallons is enough to extend the range of our Land Cruiser from 300 to 450 miles; something we use to facilitate camping trips in remote areas. But keeping it full day-to-day means we’re prepared to respond to events like the East Coast fuel crisis any time they may happen. The tank mounts up high and between the frame rails, taking up otherwise unused space. Had we chosen to relocate the spare to a dedicated carrier on the rear of the truck, we could have fitted a 40-gallon auxiliary tank. That would take the vehicle’s range in excess of 800 miles.
I can only imagine that people equipped with such a setup are watching the long lines for fuel right now, from the comfort of their couch, content in the knowledge that the best way to avoid a crisis is to prepare for one ahead of time.