By Ed Kammerer, OPW

According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), the number of fires and explosions—which the NFPA classifies in three ways: structure, vehicle and outside/other (garbage/rubbish/vegetation)—at retail service stations in the United States have been on a significantly steady decline since 1980, to the point that there are now less than 5,000 reported incidents in any given year, a decline of more than 70% since 1980.

Depending on the reporting agency, there are anywhere from 122,000 (U.S. Census Bureau) to 154,000 (National Association of Convenience Stores) retail service stations in operation in the U.S. today. That means that fires of some type occur annually at between 3.2% and 4.1% of the nation’s retail service stations.

The downward trend in service-station fires is obviously a positive one, but the cold statistics leave out a significant part of the story, mainly that every fire or explosion at a service station is its own little tragedy that adversely affects the lives of the station owner/operator and the customers, while also potentially harming the surrounding environment. In fact, the NFPA reports that service-station fires and explosions annually result, on average, in two civilian deaths, 48 civilian injuries and $20 million in direct property damage.

So while the overall statistics may be rosy, ensuring the safety of service-station owners, customers and the environment is still an ongoing challenge that will not be overcome until the number of incidents reaches zero.


The Challenge

The biggest challenge facing service-station operators and their customers is the most obvious one: every day thousands of gallons of a highly flammable, volatile, explosive and toxic liquid are unloaded, handled, stored and dispensed. Looking at it that way, it’s actually amazing that there are not more fire or explosion incidents at the nation’s service stations.

Self-service gasoline stations have been a fact of life in the United States and Canada (with a few exceptions) for nearly 70 years. Historical records show that the first self-service station in the U.S. began operation in Los Angeles, CA, in 1947, with Canada’s first self-serve facility coming online in Winnipeg, Manitoba, two years later in 1949.

That means for almost seven decades a lot of motor fuels have been pumped by a lot of people who have never really been trained for the task, many of whom, in the old days, would actually hold the nozzle in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other as they filled the vehicle tank. Besides the obvious safety concerns, there are many potential distractions when filling up, from the rambunctious kids who are acting up in the backseat to the cell phone that will not stop ringing to the commercials that are playing on the TV on top of the dispenser.

All of these distractions can lead to a mistake, whether it be leaving the nozzle in the fill pipe while driving away, or spilling fuel on the pavement. Human error, unfortunately, is one thing that will never be totally eradicated.

There is potential for human error on the operator end of the fueling equation, as well. Service-station fueling systems are a complex mix of pipes, hoses, fittings, monitors, sensors and tanks, all of which must be installed, observed and maintained properly. Even the smallest, seemingly inconsequential leak in a fitting or from an underground storage tank (UST) can eventually result in a catastrophic incident, whether it be a fire or explosion or toxic product release to the environment, which can harm the soil and groundwater of surrounding communities.

Keeping all of this in mind, owners and operators of service stations should know that when they get into the business, their first priority should be keeping the gasoline or diesel fuel out of the ground and out of the air where it can lead to a fire incident or environmental contamination. Helping to achieve this end-result are any number of federal, state or local regulations that must be followed. If they are not, the owner/operator can be subject to fines, remediation costs and, in the worst-case scenario, closure.


The Solution

Riding shotgun with service-station owner/operators in their quest to make the fueling experience as safe as possible for the consumer and environment (and themselves) are the manufacturers of aboveground and underground equipment, components and systems for use at service stations. The manufacturers of service-station equipment have readily risen to the occasion and the technologies used to ensure the safe transfer, storage and dispensing of motor fuels have evolved more since the dawn of the new millennium than in the previous 50 years.

These advances have come in two distinct equipment realms: underground and aboveground. Let’s look at each segment individually:



The work below grade takes place before the service station is in operation. It consists of all of the equipment and components that will enable the fuel to be dropped at the site and stored in the USTs before eventually finding its way into the vehicle’s fuel tank. The goal that manufacturers of this type of equipment have is to make it smarter than the least, ahem, “accomplished” person who will be installing it. In other words, the manufacturer can create a “bulletproof” system that meets all Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requirements, but that system is only as good as the “worst” contractor installing it.

In recent years, a number of technological advancements have helped make that goal easier to achieve, with many of these now considered to be industry-standard technologies, including:

    • Loop Systems. Completely integrated, environmentally secure underground fuel-delivery systems that, by design, employ pre-fabricated, factory-assembled components that result in dramatically less field labor and lower associated installation costs and the potential for installation errors. They eliminate the need for time-consuming and costly field fabrications, such as installing entry fittings or welding or gluing joints that will be buried in the ground, The less field fabrication needed, the less potential for contractor error.
    • Vapor-Tight & Testable Overfill Prevention Valves. Vapor-tight two-stage valves designed to prevent the overfill of USTs by providing a positive shutoff of product delivery when the liquid level reaches 95% to 98% of the UST’s storage capacity. In addition to being vapor-tight, these new valves are testable from the surface so maintenance personnel do not have to remove the valve from the UST. The EPA is also now recognizing the fact that this equipment needs to be tested more often than just at initial installation.

(Cont. On Next Page – Click Below)