Am I driving a bomb?
December 17, 2011 12:08 AM   Subscribe

My truck is leaking gas. Is this just Very Bad or is it Super Bad?

I have a 1989 Ford Ranger (regular cab), and as I was putting gas in it today, I noticed that gas was dripping off the front edge of the bed side body panel. (I am not a car person, I apologize if I get any of this terminology wrong.) I immediately stopped fueling and watched the drip; it slowed down immediately, and stopped entirely within fifteen seconds. I got down and followed the drip back, and it seems to be coming from the . . . fuel aperture? The place where you stick the gas pump, anyway. It seemed to be running down the inside of the panel, then running along the bottom edge of the panel and dripping off the front corner. In nearly an entire tank's worth of fueling, the drip made a wet spot about 4-6" on the concrete, at zero depth. I drove home with my heart thumping out of my chest, convinced the truck was going to explode at any minute. When I got home, I squatted down and stared at that area and under the truck for about five minutes, but I didn't see any more dripping.

Between Christmas and the fact that my husband is currently unemployed, this is a REALLY BAD TIME for us to have to spend money getting the truck fixed. But I also don't want to drive it if it's basically a bomb! Is this a leak in the fuel system, or just in the. . . gas-putting-in system? Can I still drive it? If I shouldn't drive it, can I wait until January to get it fixed, or is this an OMG YOU HAVE A BOMB IN YOUR DRIVEWAY situation? The truck did pass emissions inspection (though it needed a new gas cap) less than three months ago, but I don't know if this is something that would have been caught. I don't smell gas inside the cab while I'm driving -- I drove close to 70 miles today and didn't have any problems or unusual experiences.
posted by KathrynT to Technology (20 answers total)
Best answer: While I hesitate to tell someone over the internet to not worry about a small leak like that that only appears to be happening in a very small way when you fuel the truck, and while my 2001 Ranger has never had that issue, I say not to worry about it in the short run. If you notice actual gas below the truck after it has been parked, then have it addressed immediately, but in this case, if it were me and I am not a mechanic or your mechanic nor am I an expert in munitions, I would not worry about it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:15 AM on December 17, 2011

Best answer: It's not a bomb, but it is a fire hazard if there is gas leaking on a regular basis. If it's only a small amount during fill-up, I agree with JohnnyGunn that you could turn a blind eye to this for a few weeks, but it should be addressed soonish. Gas has a strong smell, so you should be able to determine if it's constantly leaking or not.
posted by knave at 12:29 AM on December 17, 2011

In case you haven't already discovered this, gasoline dissolves asphalt.
posted by XMLicious at 12:34 AM on December 17, 2011

Best answer: If money's tight, you could wait until January but keep a close eye on it. If it's not pouring out and building up somewhere (or building up fumes somewhere that could go boom), there's not a big risk of something happening.

However, there's always a very small risk of something very bad happening. For example, a slow leak might be a sign that something has worn/rusted/cracked/loosened almost completely and is just about to multiply the flow times a thousand. If it suddenly spill gallons of gasoline all over you just as you light a cigar to celebrate the birth of a child next door, don't haunt me.
posted by pracowity at 1:00 AM on December 17, 2011

If you are unsure about whether the leak is ongoing, or whether it is only during refueling, put a few sheets of newspaper down under your car, leave it overnight, and then check them the next morning for damp patches/suspicious gasoline smell.
posted by lollusc at 1:35 AM on December 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thing is, if the hose feeding the gas tank is becoming broken, it will likely soon become very broken. It isn't a real problem until one day all the gas will end up on the ground and none in the tank. It will make refueling difficult.

Keep an eye on it, get it fixed when you can.
posted by Meatbomb at 2:56 AM on December 17, 2011

There is a little overflow hose right there at the fuel cap, to drain off water or an overfill of gas -- it is possible that you were just seeing gas draining out of the overflow hose, perhaps because you overfilled the tank (sometimes the automatic shutoff kicks in a bit late) or because the hose wasn't all the way in the opening.

Definitely keep an eye on it, especially the next time you go to fill the tank, and if there is a persistent leak (you will probably be able to smell the leak even if you aren't seeing a big puddle underneath) please do go and get it fixed.
posted by Forktine at 5:16 AM on December 17, 2011

If it is the filler neck, they are not terribly expensive (scroll down at that link, they have them listed at $46.00). The labor may add on a bit more.

FWIW, I drove around a car that had a gas tank that leaked at the seam and had to be careful not to fill it up past halfway, but I don't recommend waiting around to see what happens.

Is there any place you can take it that will inspect it and give you an estimate for free?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:27 AM on December 17, 2011

My pickup tank had Marie Mon Dieu's problem. I just never filled over half-way for about a year. We can't be certain, but if you follow some of the advice above for leak checking and see no evidence, it is probably the overflow hose, as said, or the filler neck. Just don't fill quite all the way until you can have it looked at.
posted by Hobgoblin at 5:46 AM on December 17, 2011

Agreed that if this is the filler neck rather than the tank where the filler goes in (which is the most likely) then this really isn't a big deal. It may not even be that expensive. Price it up and wait until after Christmas.

To be safe, you should probably try to make sure you have no more than about 2/3 of the tank full in case it slops out while you are driving, but you could certainly put this off for a while. Petrol is nowhere near as volatile as Hollywood would lead you to believe.
posted by Brockles at 8:06 AM on December 17, 2011

Following up on other folks' advice--do you remember roughly how full the tank was when you started to notice the dripping?
posted by box at 8:34 AM on December 17, 2011

Response by poster: box, it was almost, almost full. (I'd put 16 gallons into a supposed 15 gallon tank.) The other thing is that I had it on fumes when I pulled over to put gas in it, but there was no "hiss" when I opened the gas cap. In thinking about it, I'm sure that not more than a couple of tablespoons of gas dripped out, if even that.

I park the truck outside, and it's very wet this time of year, but I'll shove a towel under it and leave it all day today. Is it really possible it's safe to drive?
posted by KathrynT at 9:00 AM on December 17, 2011

Best answer: It's totally safe to drive. If you can't smell fuel when you're driving it is extremely likely it is only leaking when you're filling, hence the leak is at the filler neck assembly.

For reference, I drove a car with a leak in the top of the tank that seeped out every time I went around a corner if it was more than 3/4 full. Drove that thing for weeks and it STANK of fuel. No problems at all. If you can't smell fuel, it isn't coming out. The smell is incredibly pervasive.
posted by Brockles at 9:10 AM on December 17, 2011

If it only happened when the tank was right at the limits of fullness, and you've never noticed it before, it seems likely that the dripping was just the normal overflow mechanism.

I'd keep an eye on it if I were you, but don't be surprised if you don't notice any more dripping at all.
posted by box at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2011

Best answer: Like the others have said a minor leak in the filler neck of a gas tank isn't much of a safety hazard at all; certainly nothing worth parking the truck until you can fix it. For example up until evaporation control systems were installed on vehicles most gas tanks had a simple inverted u bend coming out of the gas tank to vent pressure and in extreme cases overflows caused by temperature expansion. Gasoline fumes and the occasional drip coming out fo these vents was the norm.

Having said that it would be better to seal up the leak if only for peace of mind. Seal-All is impervious to gasoline and sets up quick and it'll even stick to material that has previously been soaked with solvents. If you can get access to the source of the leak $2-5 in seal-all may solve your problem in the medium term until you can afford to replace what ever part has sprung a leak.
posted by Mitheral at 10:25 AM on December 17, 2011

I had something like this happen to an old Subaru station wagon of mine when I was in college. I drove around with it for 6 months (not that I am advising that you do this) and I didn't die. Somehow a hole got punched in the filler neck by a rock kicked up from the road, and I would have dripping problems while filling, and the automatic shutoff feature on gas pumps didn't work quite right. I had a gearhead friend take off the filler neck, cut out the bad section with some sort of rotary saw, and welded it back together. He was most definitely not any sort of licensed/insured mechanic, so the total cost to me was a 6-pack of beer. Maybe you have a similar friend?
posted by wondercow at 11:52 AM on December 17, 2011

hi. i've driven a car around with a leak in the actual fuel line (not safe at all): you would know if this were happening both from the smell and the way the gas gauge went down.
posted by at 12:19 PM on December 17, 2011

This by no means constitutes "advice," but my car does this - leaks a bit from the top as I fill it up. And it has done for, I don't know, seriously at least two years now. Not to jinx it, but I ain't asploded yet.

What can I say? Money is tight, and it's an old car that's also very expensive car to fix (1986 Saab 9000).
posted by ErikaB at 1:51 PM on December 17, 2011

This happened to my car in a Much More Major way (like, smell gas as I'm filling up and look under the car and there are gallons of gas on the asphalt coming out of the pipe leading to the gas tank.) No idea how dangerous it is, but wanted to let you know that in my case it wasn't too expensive (I mean, relative to most car repairs).
posted by geegollygosh at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2011

Response by poster: You guys are great. There is no smell of fuel within the cab while I'm driving it, and no sign of any leaking at all under ordinary operation -- I had it parked for close to twelve hours in an underground garage on Saturday and the ground underneath it was absolutely dry and did not smell of gas in the slightest. It's still top priority for January, but I feel ok about driving it for now. Thank you for relieving my worries.
posted by KathrynT at 11:12 AM on December 20, 2011

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