On Sunday, a group of hackers compromised a major east coast fuel artery called the Colonial Pipeline which carries gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from New Jersey to east Texas. This presents a major challenge to our infrastructure, and yes, it has resulted in some gas stations running out of fuel. But rocking up to pump yourself a bushel of jerry cans full and then hiding them in your basement is dumb and bad.
Panic-buying and hoarding, in general, do more harm than good. Were you one of the goofballs carrying pallets of toilet paper out of Wal-Mart at the beginning of the pandemic? Did you find yourself pooping a lot more than usual over the last year? No?
We know, we get it, some folks just can’t help themselves and can’t be told this. But unlike toilet paper which is generally harmless to squirrel away, transporting and storing large quantities of gasoline is actually, scientifically, a bad idea. We’ll shed some light on why, and hopefully some of you can send this article to your friends and relatives when they ask if you’re “stockin’ up on juice before the eastern seaboard goes full Mad Max.”
Gasoline can’t be transported like jugs of milk or water. It should be in a real gas can, that’s marked and labeled FOR GASOLINE. Once it’s in said container, it really shouldn’t be transported in an enclosed space like the trunk or cabin of your car. That’s why overlanders always bolt their auxiliary fuel to their vehicles’ exteriors – the fumes and vapors can make your car interior a very unhealthy place to occupy.
Even a used-but-empty fuel can is not really a great thing to have kicking around inside an enclosed car. The vapors that will continue to occupy the can are very present and not good for you.
Gasoline has a shelf life. Yep, just like the food in your fridge or that leftover burrito gasoline can only sit around for a certain amount of time before it loses its potency. It can be as short as one month or as long as one year, depending on the quality of the gas. It’ll be pretty easy to tell once it has gone bad because of something called “varnishing.” The gasoline smell will be replaced by a varnish smell, and it starts deteriorating and leaving residue behind.
Gasoline is made up of several compounds with lighter liquids evaporating quickly, leaving behind heavier buildup and changing the chemical balance of the gasoline. At first, the gasoline will simply lose potency and become more prone to detonation, causing your engine to run rougher and potentially cause some damage. When it gets really bad it can cause build up in fuel injectors and other sensitive fuel system parts. Woe betide you if you let bad gas sit in a carburetor for too long because it can really ruin the thing.
Chemical engineering sidebar: Besides being a part of the combustion process, gasoline is designed to resist detonation and buildup in your engine. You know the funny numbers you push when you get gas for regular, mid-grade, or premium? That’s actual evidence of that detonation resistance. In the United States, we use AKI or Anti Knock Index, which is the calculation (R+M)/2. Looks confusing, but it just means they average two octane ratings, R for RON (Research Octane Number) and M for MOR (Motor Octane Number), which are two different methods of measuring octane with specific tests.
With that nerd math, we get some numbers that are what we see on gas pumps. Generally, that’s going to be 87 for regular, 89 for mid-grade, and 91 or 93 for premium. The higher the number, the better the gas! Also, that number really matters. As gas degrades, that number drops, and every car has a minimum required octane to run correctly.
So stop hoarding gas! It doesn’t last that long and won’t really help you whenever the hell doomsday does come around. Fill up your tank, drive lightly, and move along now.