Can you stockpile gasoline when prices are cheap?

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Aug. 6 2008 12:14 PM

Can You Stockpile Gasoline?

How to save up fuel when prices are cheap.

Filling up. Click image to expand
Can you stockpile gasoline?

Gas prices dropped to an average $3.871 a gallon on Tuesday after a two-week stretch of declining prices. Is it possible to stockpile cheap gas before the prices go up again?

Yes, but you have to be very, very careful. If you don't do it right, your stash of gasoline might spoil or blow up. For safety reasons, the EPA discourages consumers from storing more than 1 to 5 gallons, and the National Fire Protection Association proposes a limit of 25 gallons. Local fire codes determine whether your stockpile is legal: In New York City, for example, you can't keep more than 2.5 gallons.

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If you're still game, first stake out a location for your fuel cans or storage tanks. Choose a spot downhill and downwind from your home—that way the heavy gasoline vapors will tend to flow away from where you live. Heat accelerates fuel evaporation, so make sure to pick a relatively cool spot. (As volatile elements in gasoline evaporate, your fuel's ability to combust degrades, diminishing engine performance.) Hang a dry chemical or CO2 fire extinguisher nearby and a huge "No Smoking" sign. 

Next, pick your storage container. Portable gas cans are most convenient for storing anything less than 5 gallons; the standard color code for portable cans is blue for kerosene, red for gasoline, and yellow for diesel fuel. Don't mix these up: Putting the wrong fuel in a tank can hurt your engine's performance (best-case scenario) or explode (worst-case). Invest in brand-new cans to reduce evaporation, fuel spills, and vapor leakage. For large-scale storage, 55-gallon fuel drums are cheap and convenient although they can eventually rust or leak. Consider a commercial-grade tank, ranging in size from 100 to 10,000 gallons in either above-ground or underground varieties.

It's best to fill your tanks at a well-trafficked gas station where you're more likely to get fuel that's fresh from the refinery. Gas that's been sitting around is prey to several chemical processes that degrade the fuel, including evaporation, oxidation, and water contamination. Oxidation occurs when hydrocarbons react with oxygen, producing new compounds that eventually change the fuel's chemical composition and gum up your engine. (Oxidized gas looks darker than fresh gas and may even smell sour; you can protect your stash by adding a stabilizer like Sta-Bil.) Gasoline's ethanol component tends to draw moisture out of the surrounding air, which makes your engine run rough until all the water is burned out of the system. You should also opt for higher-octane gasoline as it's more resilient to the effects of evaporation.

The consequences are ugly if you get gas storage wrong. Last spring, a Massachusetts couple started hoarding gas in plastic jugs in a utility closet and ignited eight apartments in their complex. They would have been better off joining a fuel bank: Members lock in a low price by buying gas online when prices dip; then they collect the gas at participating stations later when prices rise.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Matt Lewis of Ohio State University and Emory Warner of Backwoods Home Magazine.

Jude Stewart writes about design and culture for Slate, The Believer, Fast Company and Print among others. Her first book, ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, is available now.

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