A generator without fuel is as useful as a gun without ammunition. No matter how we look at any survival situation, the reliance on gas-powered equipment — be it our bug-out vehicle or our generator when the lights go out — is immense. However, there is a host of calamities that might befall you and your family, the results of which mean gasoline and other fuel supplies will be cut off immediately. A tank of gas in a truck or Jeep will only go so far. What then? Have your fuel saved in containers in your garage? Believe it not, if improperly treated, fuel goes bad.
You can read a lot on the Internet about how to store fuel and the effects of various additives and conditions on fuel storage. You also hear a lot of talk about this or that product being a useless ripoff. In the case of additives, it’s not obvious what these products really are and whether they will improve the longevity of stored fuel.
GAS, DIESEL, AND KEROSENE
First, it’s useful to know what gasoline and other fuel oils are made of. We all know gasoline is made from refining crude oil, but exactly how oil is refined is a key concept not often well-understood. The basic method for refining is to boil the crude oil and then capture the various components of the crude by their boiling point. Heavier oil products can be used to create asphalt and tar. Somewhat lighter distillates produce gear oil, motor oil, and similar products. Moving up the scale, you get diesel/heating oil, kerosene, gasoline, and then various lightweight oils and naphtha all the way up to petroleum gas – the lightest of all.
To then make gasoline and diesel as you buy it at the pump, the refinery adds other products such as detergents and ethanol (which is just plain alcohol). These additives help gasoline and diesel and home heating oil adhere to composition standards so that automakers, engine manufacturers and other manufacturers can design their products to meet performance, economy, and emissions standards.
When it’s ready to sell, there are a bunch of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in gasoline. VOCs are somewhat lower in diesel or kerosene, but they’re still there. Have you ever noticed that you can see wavy fumes coming out of your gas filler when you tank up your car? Those are the VOCs that help make your gas burn properly in your engine. You can see the VOCs start escaping from the moment you expose gasoline to air, and if enough of them escape, your gasoline reverts back to a low octane hydrocarbon fluid.
ISSUES WITH STORING FUEL
The issue with storing fuels long-term is two-fold. First, the VOCs will evaporate away, and second, water can get into most fuels sold in America. The fuels are thirsty for it, and will pull water right out of the air. Almost all gasoline sold in America has ethanol in it. As mentioned before, it’s just corn alcohol, and it mixes with water quite readily – like a bourbon and soda. Diesel fuel will also attract water.
To apply this to your thinking about your bug-out location, or to keeping a stash of fuel at your home, you have to address both of those issues, and hopefully not create a fire or explosion hazard in the process.
STORING FUELS SAFELY
If you want to keep a stash of fuel at home or at your bug-out location, you need to follow some simple rules for effectiveness and safety.
First, get good containers. Most modern containers are made of plastic, and that’s good. Gasoline is supposed to go in red containers, while diesel goes in yellow containers and kerosene in blue containers. The color-coding will help keep things orderly, especially if you’re trying to remember which can had the diesel and which can had the kerosene. You can also label your cans, of course. A Sharpie works wonders.
If your needs run to more than a few gallons, you can buy barrels for all different fuels. Racing shops and farm supply stores are two great places to look for barrels. You can get the standard 55-gallon drums or smaller 30-gallon drums quite readily.
Drums are good, but not without their issues. You want to make sure they’re completely dry before filling them, and then leave them filled and sealed tight until you plan to use the fuel. If you have a partial drum, the air in the drum will introduce water through condensation. If you’re going to store fuel like that, you need to keep that fuel safe, which means away from your home, your garage, and any sources of heat, sparks, or flame. A metal garden shed at least 50 feet from other structures is a good choice.
You also need to consider heat from the sun and air as a threat. If you fill your drum or plastic jug in winter, the fuel will expand as ambient temperatures rise and may burst. You’ll want to open it up from time to time and let the fumes out. That will allow some moisture in, but that’s unavoidable.
USING FUEL AND OIL ADDITIVES
So, both gasoline and diesel are refined hydrocarbons with additives already included at the refinery. Why do you need to buy fuel additive on top of that?
The answer is both fuel and oil reflect standards imposed by the government or specified by fuel and automobile manufacturers working together. Those standards are not necessarily as good as they could be. For example, the government specifies minimum standards for gasoline, and some brands choose to exceed those standards. That’s why some fuels work well in your car and others do not.
To pick one well-known brand, Chevron adds Techron to its gasoline, as well as selling it as an additive. Techron is a trade name for polyetheramine (PEA), which breaks down carbon deposits so they travel through the engine and don’t build up.
Other additives may be as simple as a bottle of common alcohol or kerosene. Most of these are sold at absurdly high prices for what they are. While these products “work” in that alcohol will mix with any water in your tank and kerosene or other mineral oils soak into carbon deposits and loosen them, their effectiveness is highly variable.
One product that has been used and respected by boat owners for decades is Sea Foam. According to its material safety data sheet, Sea Foam’s basic motor treatment fluid is made up of a lightweight oil called pale oil, a light hydrocarbon fluid called naphtha, and a little bit of isopropanol (IPA). Remember the discussion of the refining process? Pale oil and naphtha are higher up the “lightness” ladder than gasoline, so they help prevent gasoline from turning into thick varnish.
Similarly, Sta-Bil and other gasoline and diesel stabilizers are made from “Petroleum Distillates” such as naphtha and aromatic hydrocarbons, while Marvel Mystery Oil is made with mineral spirits, naphtha, and chlorinated hydrocarbons.
WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR FUEL?
It’s generally accepted that stored fuel should be used within six months to a year. You can extend that a bit with additives, but it’s a good rule of thumb to cycle through your fuel at least every six months for maximum quality.
However, fuel that has been well-sealed in a proper container has been known to last far longer. You might think twice before putting two-year-old fuel into your brand new truck, but for the lawnmower it should be fine. Pour a bit into a mason jar and take a look and a sniff. If the gasoline smells like gasoline and nothing else, it is still fine to use. If it smells sour, it has become stale and shouldn’t be used. Stale gasoline has been allowed to get warm, thus catalyzing olefin decomposition reactions, and perhaps also losing volatile material in unsealed containers. Such fuel will tend to rapidly form gums and will usually have a significant reduction in octane rating. The fuel can be usually used by blending with twice the volume of new gasoline. Some stale fuels can drop several octane numbers, so be generous with the dilution. However, it is best to use it up within six months and replenish your supplies.
AB C D
- A. A basic red plastic can like this may be purchased at any home supply store for fuel storage. Although it is only five gallons, having several of these is easier to manage and handle than one large drum. It’s also handy to have some small cans even if you store fuel in greater quantities.
- B. Be careful how you store your different fuels, as different engines (diesel, two-stroke, etc.) require different kinds of fuels. Mixing the two would be disastrous to your equipment. Be wary of an old can of gas. Test it before use.
- C. Prolong is a well-respected manufacturer of petroleum and synthetic oil and fuel products, and they offer this diesel treatment to condition your diesel and keep water from polluting your fuel.
- D. The jar of gasoline on the left sat unsealed in the tank of a generator for about two years, while the jar of gasoline on the right was stored sealed with Sea Foam treatment added. You can see the difference.
HOW MUCH GAS SHOULD YOU STORE?
More is better, right? Not necessarily for fuel. Because of its volatility, having more than 50 or 60 gallons of fuel on your property might end up being more of a liability than an asset. First, it’s a beacon to anyone who might ever see it and, most importantly, it is difficult to keep that much fuel properly treated. However, it really all depends on what your plans are. If you need a vehicle to get to your bug-out shelter, add about 50 percent more fuel than it takes to get there. If you need to only run a generator, have enough fuel on hand to run it continually for at least a week.
What’s Wrong with Gas?
Gasoline has two problems when burned in car engines. The first problem has to do with smog and ozone in big cities. The second problem has to do with carbon and greenhouse gases. When cars burn gasoline, they would ideally burn it perfectly and create nothing but carbon dioxide and water in their exhaust. Unfortunately, the internal combustion engine is far from perfect. In the process of burning the gasoline, it also produces carbon monoxide, a poisonous gas; nitrogen oxides, the main source of urban smog as well as unburned hydrocarbons, which are the main source of urban ozone.
Carbon is also a problem. When it burns, it turns into lots of carbon dioxide gas. Gasoline is mostly carbon by weight, so a gallon of gas might release five to six pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. The U.S. is releasing roughly two billion pounds of carbon into the atmosphere each day. If it were solid, carbon would be extremely noticeable—it would be like throwing a five-pound bag of sugar out the window of your car for every gallon of gas burned. But because the five pounds of carbon comes out as an invisible gas (carbon dioxide), most of us are oblivious to it. The carbon dioxide coming out of every car’s tailpipe is a greenhouse gas.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.