Fueling safety for boaters

Experts provide tips on boat safety after several boat explosions occur on Lake of the Ozarks

Joyce L. Miller
Man refueling a boat.

After responding to a rash of boat fires already this season, lake area fire officials are reminding boaters to make sure they know what they are doing when they pull up to a gas dock.

An afternoon of summer fun can quickly turn into a dangerous situation when proper fueling procedures aren’t followed. Learning how to properly fuel a boat is one of the first and most important lessons boat operators need to know.

Mid-County Fire Chief Scott Frandsen said boat fires are not only dangerous for boaters onboard but also those on the docks and nearby boats. A boat fire/explosion that gets out-of-control can spread quickly.

The Lake of the Ozarks Captain’s Association’s recommends boaters run blowers for at least 5 minutes to get rid of any fuel fumes trapped in the bilge/engine compartment. Keep the engine hatch open while running the blower. Do a sniff test for any fuel odor.

“Something to consider … it is not a bad practice to run your blower each time before you start your engine,” said Capt. Doug Beck, of LOCA and the Lake of the Ozarks Water Safety Council. “On a hot summer day, the fuel fumes/vapors can build in the bilge/engine compartment. So before leaving the dock, take a few extra minutes that could save you a lifetime of regret.”

LOCA Capt. Bob May said personal watercraft operators also need to take precautions by ventilating the engine compartment and doing a sniff test.

May said boaters may want to look at upgrades that can improve safety.

“New gas fume sensors are making their way into the manufacturers’ newer boats but there are aftermarket units that can be installed,” he said. “If they sense fumes, a light and buzzer on the dashboard signals to the operator there is a problem.

Another device takes that electronic fume detector one step further. If gas fumes are detected, this unit disables the starter motor(s) and prevents the operator from starting the boat.”

Even with those types of devices, May said boaters still need to follow fueling safety guidelines.

Here’s what the experts recommend:

1. Make sure the engines are off when fueling.

2. Do not smoke anywhere around fueling.

3. Do not use your cell phone while refueling.

4. If you have a metal boat or a boat with metal, touch the boat well away from the fuel fill to discharge any static electricity. Also, keep the nozzle in contact with the fuel fill to avoid a static electric discharge

5. Close all windows, hatches and vents to prevent fuel fumes from entering the boat.

6. If the motors are inboard, be sure you run your blowers for five minutes after fueling (or whatever is recommended by your boat’s manufacturer).

7. Prior to taking the boat out from your dock run the blowers. Also check the bilge area to make sure that there is no fuel present. If you smell gasoline or see gasoline in your bilge do not start the boat and call a service technician. The best gas leak detector is your nose! If you smell gasoline do not start the boat.

8. On larger boats make certain that you are putting the fuel in the fuel tank. We have had instances where the operator put fuel in the wastewater or freshwater tanks. Again if this happens do not start the boat and call a service technician. On most boats the fuel, wastewater and fresh water fill ports look very similar

9. While fueling, during startup and during operation always wear a PFD. In an emergency such as a boat explosion you will not have time to locate one and you will have to abandon the boat.

10. Make sure that no one is on the boat when fueling.

11. If you are using any form of portable fuel can, always fill them on shore way from the boat.

12. Always stay at the nozzle when fueling. Do not rely on the auto shutoff feature.


Engine Electrical

Wiring harnesses and starters cause a disproportionate number of fires on boats more than 25 years old. If you have a vintage boat and those parts are original, consider replacing them. Most of these older boats had relatively simple wiring harnesses, so if the manufacturer is no longer in business, or the part is no longer available, a good electrical technician can put one together for you.

Other DC Electrical

While loose battery connections, chafed battery cables, and aged battery switches can all cause fires aboard, the most common cause of battery-related fires is operator error: reversing the battery cables or connecting them in series when they should have been in parallel, or vice versa. If you're disconnecting your batteries for any reason, photograph the configuration with your phone first, label the battery cables, and mark the positive lug with red fingernail polish to make sure you avoid a shocking experience when you reconnect them.

AC Electrical

Bringing air conditioning, microwaves, electric heaters, and other AC appliances aboard makes life on the dock more comfortable and convenient but also greatly increases the risk of fire. Most AC electrical fires start somewhere between the marina pedestal and the shorepower inlet on the boat.

Other Engine

Any interruption of cooling water can lead to overheating and then to a fire. In this case, a blockage of the raw-water intake caused the overheating. Other exhaust fires are caused by impeller failures due to age or to sediment in the water. If your engine overheats, check the engine compartment before getting underway again. Change your impeller every other year, and after a grounding, or operating in particularly dirty waters.


On older outboards, the voltage regulator is by far the most common cause of fires. The failure rate increases with age after 10 years, so if your outboard is 15 years old or more, replacing the regulator may well keep you from having a bad day on the water.