I hope she's not gonna burn it down for the insurance money.
August 16, 2011 6:30 PM   Subscribe

Neighbor's car smell like it has a gasoline leak. What to do?

The other night I came home to find my wife had opened all the windows and turned on all the fans. She told me that our neighbor's car had a gas leak and that our entire backyard and parts of our house stunk like gasoline. We share a driveway with this neighbor, so it's easy for the fumes to waft right over. My wife talked to the neighbor who claimed that it wasn't dangerous and that we shouldn't worry. No explanation was given as to how she knew that it wasn't dangerous.

Tonight we came home and it's the same situation. Backyard stinks like gasoline. My initial thought was to call the fire inspector, but I figured I might as well talk to the neighbor about it one more time. I tried to keep it very non-accusatory- kept it to "I" statements- "I'm concerned about this gas leak" etc. She got really defensive, stated that it's not a gas leak and that it's just the way the car smells when it's out of gas. She also claims that she'll be "out of our hair" soon anyway (her house is for sale, though I think she may be foreclosed on).

My basic feeling is that if I can smell the gas, and the fumes are the most combustible part of gas, then this is a dangerous situation.

Am I correct about this being dangerous?
Is it possible that she's right and that this is just the way her car smells when it's out of gas?
Should I call the fire inspector?

Thanks in advance.
posted by brevator to Human Relations (19 answers total)
Oh, and question four:
Is there another way of dealing with this, other than the fire inspector, that I'm not thinking of?
posted by brevator at 6:31 PM on August 16, 2011

From Ms. Vegetable:
If this were my backyard, I'd be calling the gas company or 911. Why would you mess with this? Note: I have never heard of cars smelling THIS STRONGLY of gas, especially when they're out of it.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:42 PM on August 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

Is there any sign of liquid under rear of the car? Does a sample of it smell like gasoline? That would be pretty hard to explain as anything other than a leak.
posted by TruncatedTiller at 6:43 PM on August 16, 2011

Make and model of car in question? Most cars made in the last 20 years have a system specifically designed to recover and burn gasoline vapors from the fuel system, usually through an activated charcoal/carbon filled canister in the engine compartment, and a series of check valves, hoses, and tubing from the gas tank, the engine, and other parts of the fuel system subject to gasoline expansion and vaporization. Gasoline vapors contain all kinds of VOCs, which are bad for the environment, and contribute to acid rain, etc.

The good news might be, if her car is under 10 years old, that her problem might be covered under her emission systems warranty, and cost her nothing but a visit to a dealer for that make, to be rectified. Depends, of course, on particulars of make/model/mileage and warranty.
posted by paulsc at 6:48 PM on August 16, 2011

Car is definitely older than 10yrs. Possibly 20. I'll check make and model in the AM.
posted by brevator at 6:53 PM on August 16, 2011

Yes you should be worried. However it sounds like your neighbor has money problems and is in denial about the gas problem.
posted by radioamy at 6:54 PM on August 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, and if there really is gas spilling onto the ground it's not good for any plants. Call the fire department's non-emergency number and ask them.
posted by mareli at 7:01 PM on August 16, 2011

You're the one that's there, but I wouldn't necessarily panic. Gasoline won't burn in concentrations less that 1.4%. From a previous question:
4-Working Safely with Gasoline:

Does gasoline have an odour threshold (at what level can I smell it)?

0.12-0.15 ppm (recognition); 0.06-0.08 ppm (threshold)

Is the odour of gasoline reliable as a warning property?

GOOD - TLV is more than 10 times the odour threshold.
Also what paulsc said. According to this, if you try to get just a few more cents worth into the tank after the nozzle has clicked off when filling, you can fill the vapor canister with liquid gas and it will stink for months afterwards.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:05 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gasoline can contain some quantities of hydrogen sulfide, the characteristically "stinky" gas from rotten eggs, which is masked by the smells of other VOCs in higher concentration. However, hydrogen sulfide is a potent anesthetizing agent for the olfactory nerve, meaning that your initial sense of a strong smell of gasoline can be rapidly blunted by included hydrogen sulfide and other VOCs.

Accordingly, you can't really rely on the "smell" of gasoline, over time, to be a reliable indication of vapor concentration. And, many VOCs are heavier than air, meaning that they will concentrate, and remain for long periods, in below grade structures like basements, sewer pipes, and french drains.
posted by paulsc at 7:33 PM on August 16, 2011

The issue is not how long she will be there before she moves. Either this is a dangerous situation or it is not. I have no direct knowledge if it is, so what I would do is call the non emergency number of my local FD and ask them what to do. If it is not dangerous, they will tell you and no harm to you or neighbor. If it is dangerous they will also tell you and well it should be corrected no matter how sorry or neighborly you are feeling.

Or, ask her to park her car in the street away from your house and if it truly is because of an absence of petrol, then offer to buy her a few gallons and give her $20.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:00 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Please call the gas company and tell them you smell gas. How do you know for sure it is her car??

If you can smell it outdoors in an open backyard this is a problem you need evaluated ASAP.

(I've had to call the gas company a few times when I had residential properties to make sure the building/neighborhood was safe. They don't mind it's their job.)

Not to alarm you, but this happened last September.

posted by jbenben at 8:56 PM on August 16, 2011

Just call the police and report a suspected gasoline leak at your neighbor's address. You went over there twice and she would not respond. You shouldn't have to live with noxious fumes. If the smell is as bad as you describe, possibly the police will impound or tow her car. You might also want to check in with other neighbors nearby and see if they are also disturbed by the problem. If they are perhaps they would be willing to join with you in asking gassy-lady to do something more pro-active and/or complaining to the police about it.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:23 PM on August 16, 2011

Yeah. The cops will be very prompt when dealing with a suspected fuel leak.

Also, for all you know, there could be an underground fuel oil tank or pipeline that's leaking. Gasoline evaporates pretty quickly, and shouldn't be that noxious. Unless they're refilling it, the tank should practically be empty by now if the odor is as bad as you report it is (and even then, I'm having a tough time believing that ~10 gallons of gas left outdoors is enough to stink up your entire house. If the tank is as empty as your neighbor says it is, this scenario you describe is should be completely implausible).

I'd call 911. This doesn't seem right at all.

A suspected hazmat/gas leak is a situation where it's 100% OK to call 911, even if you're not sure that it's a real problem. (Ditto if you ever suspect a CO leak. Any respectable fire department will not penalize you in any way if you have any reason to suspect there's carbon monoxide in your house, and it turns out to be false.)
posted by schmod at 10:14 PM on August 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gasoline won't burn in concentrations less that 1.4%.

True, but this is not something you want to take lightly. If you can smell gasoline, you should pretty much ALWAYS assume a fire hazard and take precautions: no open flames, no sparks, no motors, no electronics, no metal tools, contain and control as soon as possible. It's really easy for gas vapours to get trapped in a low spot, in a semi-enclosed area and then you've got an explosive mix. You don't want to take a chance---the consequences are too severe.
posted by bonehead at 10:36 PM on August 16, 2011

jbenben: "OMG.

Please call the gas company and tell them you smell gas. How do you know for sure it is her car??

It was pretty clearly stated to be a gasoline odor. You know, that gasoline smell? The whole backyard smells like—victory.

If it was a natural gas smell, then yes evacuate immediately and call the authorities, in that order.
posted by ob1quixote at 10:43 PM on August 16, 2011

Gasoline vapors are harmful when breathed, so they are not good to have in your back yard or house. As paulsc mentioned, the vapors are heavier than air, so will sink to the ground and collect at the lowest point. There, they could reach a concentration that is flammable/explosive. For both reasons, this is not a good situation, and you need to get it taken care of right away.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:50 PM on August 16, 2011

It's entirely possible that there's a leak - probably a rusted metal tank or line, or a cracked hose. It's not likely to be especially dangerous in a fire/explosion sense unless you're waving lit matches around underneath the car. Asking her to park it away from the house is probably a good idea. I'm not so sure that the police will do much to help.
posted by jon1270 at 3:45 AM on August 17, 2011

Call the fire department non emergency line. "It smells like gasoline, I think it is my neighbor's car, and I don't know whether it is dangerous or not. I'd hate for there to be a fire."
posted by gjc at 5:11 AM on August 17, 2011

Fire dept was called and evaluated the situation. Thanks for all the responses.
posted by brevator at 5:53 AM on August 17, 2011

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