Two boat explosions at Lake of the Ozarks docks this summer sparked important discussions about safe refueling and, in particular, the correct use of a boat's blower. Scott “Sky” Smith, author of “Ultimate Boat Maintenance Projects” and a specialty insurance agent insuring boats, custom vehicles, drones and aircraft nationwide submitted the below column about safe refueling for LakeExpo.com...

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Safe boat refueling isn’t a no-brainer: boaters have to consider what’s unseen and take preventative action.

Some boaters don’t give much thought to refueling, but that can lead to basic mistakes with serious consequences for their personal safety and the boat. Watch the news: it happens every summer. Often the trick is in knowing what’s unseen: fuel vapors.

Years ago I did a stint as a shop teacher. When I taught theory of the automobile to high schoolers, I would take a small, clear jar with less than a cup of gasoline and slowly pour out only the vapors into a small bowl.  The students would always make comments about not seeing anything in the bowl, and I was just a crazy teacher. But after I did the pour, I would light a wooden match and put it in the bowl and, in a bright flash, ignite the “nothingness” they thought wasn’t there.  They were always surprised, but it reinforced that the liquid gasoline isn’t the biggest risk: it’s the vapors from the gasoline being moved, poured or jostled.

At the end of this article, I’ve included a Boat Refueling Checklist, but before you skip to that, it’s important to understand your boat and fuel system. Any inboard gasoline engine will require a blower system to help vent those volatile fumes, and a spark arrestor to reduce flames in the event of a back-fire. Fuel injection and electronic ignitions have helped reduce the risk, but it is still present. Diesel engines do not have the same risk, but they have their own issues. 

Shorty Pants Gas Dock

photo by LakeExpo.com/Lake Shots

That blower system is key… but it won’t work if the opening is clogged! Make sure the open end of the blower hose in the bilge is clear. It’s amazing how many boats I have seen where the hose was blocked by leaves, ropes, life jackets, rags…you get the idea. If the blower can’t carry out the fumes, it really doesn’t matter if you use it. 

Oh and just because you have outboard engines doesn’t mean you don’t have fuel risks. Any fuel system can leak, release vapors and cause fires. I think it’s in the owner’s best interest (and safety) to still take appropriate precautions when fueling. 

You need to also turn the blowers on (or leave them on) between starts when you are using the boat for water sports. Each time you shut down you risk fuel build up and you’ll have people climbing in and out of the boat don’t restart if you haven’t run the blower.  

So what can you do?  Follow just a few simple guidelines. The same ones you probably learned when you started boating.  

So here you go a simple fueling checklist to help you safely refuel your boat. Some would seem like “common sense” but we still forget. Oh, and if you have any ideas let me know, my checklists are always flexible and I change them depending on the boat or situation I am in. 

Gas Dock Crew At Bikini Pier

photo by Al Griffin

Refueling check list 

1. Secure boat to the dock.

2. Shut off the engine(s). 

3. Remove all passengers from the boat.

4. Locate your fire extinguisher and make sure it’s operable and accessible

5. Put out any open flames (no smoking and make sure the BBQ grill on the rail are cold).

6. Don’t use electrical switches while fueling. Some people feel you should shut off the stereo and other electrical devices.

7. Determine and use the proper type of fuel.

8. Be certain you are putting fuel in fuel tank (not the holding or fresh water or even the rod holder)

9. Always fuel slowly and don’t overfill.

10. If you have a blower, turn it on at least for four minutes (some people think that’s too long but that’s the recommended time). Some people like to open the engine compartment to release any fumes.

11. Do the sniff test and see if you smell fumes.

12. DO NOT start engine(s) until all fumes are gone.

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