The world runs on petroleum. Imagine a post-apocalyptic period when the local gas station is closed, and has been for two years. How will you carry out your daily activities? Generate electricity? Pump water? Plow your garden, or fields? All of these can be done by hand, and have been for thousands of years. Modern life has given us tools to help with these chores, and we can store the tools, and the food for them, for quite awhile. Gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, kerosene, Coleman® fuel, and other petroleum products – all can be stored.
For long term survival purposes, only one vehicle fuel is worth talking about: Diesel.
Why pick diesel fuel? Simply, because it stores so much better than gasoline. It offers better mileage in similar vehicles than gasoline would (so you get more bang for the storage volume).
Diesel engines are inherently more reliable and getting 200K miles or more from a diesel engine isn’t at all unusual. For example: our daily driver car is a 1982 Mercedes 300D Turbo, that has almost 400K miles on it. The only maintenance the engine has gotten (besides fuel and oil filters) is cleaning the fuel injectors (a simple, DIY job) and the injector pump has been rebuilt and timed. The transmission did have to be rebuilt at around 300K miles, I’m not sure why.
Diesel fuel is also far safer to store than gasoline is. It rarely forms explosive vapors like gasoline will, and it has a knack of finding any pinhole or loose fitting to leak out of, so you can find the leaks and stop them before they get bad.
It’s also possible to make your own diesel fuel from waste cooking oil (like from a restaurant), or oil from crops like soybeans, that you might be able to grow yourself. The process of making biodiesel isn’t hard, you just need some equipment and inexpensive chemicals on hand.
For those who live in areas where homes are still heated with heating oil, you can use that (or farm [untaxed off-road] diesel) in your vehicles in an emergency. Don’t use it in a road vehicle until it is an emergency, or you can get into tax troubles. If you’re planning on scavenging for heating oil, a 12 VDC electric pump, with a good filter (like another diesel engine fuel filter) on the discharge side into your storage containers. Water and fungus will grow in poorly maintained (heating oil) tanks and gum up your engine. Filters are relatively cheap now, get them and store them.
Unfortunately, diesel engines have to be heavy, so they don’t lend themselves to smaller engines like for chainsaws, or similar appliances. About the smallest sized diesel generator is 2Kva, too and it’s not easily portable. So, in addition to diesel, it may be necessary to store gasoline (and maybe kerosene) as well.
Whatever kind of fuel you want to store, it’s best to check and find out the local (town, county, state) laws on storing fuel. Environmental concerns these days make it hard to store legally, so it’s best to find out what you can legally do before the state moves in and does an ‘environmental cleanup’ that you will have to pay for. These cleanups routinely exceed 5 figures in cost, and unless you specifically have insurance for it, your insurance probably won’t cover it. For these reasons, storing fuel above ground is usually easier than in below ground tanks. When I decided to get a large tank for diesel, I purchased a surplus airport refueling vehicle with a 5,000 gallon tank, rather than try and get a permit for a 5,000 gallon tank. Also, you should check with your insurance carrier to see if there are any limitations on the quantity of fuel you can store.
Storing fuel in any quantity can be dangerous, and should be done safely. If you don’t have a detached structure to store fuel in, I’d recommend not storing any in the house – get a garden shed or something. We have a fenced-in area (about the size of a dog run) with a simple roof of corrugated metal, to keep the worst of the sun and weather off the cans. Paint your above ground tanks white to help keep them cool in the summer, and reduce evaporative loss. The tanks should also have seals that are in good condition, to avoid water from rainstorms getting in.
And since fuel is flammable, keep a couple of big fire extinguishers nearby (but not in) where you keep the fuel. I’d suggest at least two, 20 lb dry chemical extinguishers, with a rating of at least 60B:C. These are not the usual type of home fire extinguishers, which are too small for the quantities of fuel that might be involved.
Whatever you store, you need to make sure that it’s stabilized for long term use. There are at least two products to stabilize fuel, one called “Sta-bil” and another called “Pri-“, with different versions for gasoline and diesel fuel. Most people consider the Pri- products to be superior, [but] the Sta-bil is easier to find. I’d recommend getting a supply of Pri on hand. In addition to stabilizing diesel fuel for long term use, it works pretty well at restoring old, non-stabilized diesel fuel. See the PRI Products and Sta-Bil web sites.
All fuel (gas, diesel, jet, whatever) will collect water in the tanks, from condensation. The water will allow bacteria and fungus to grow, if not kept in check. Pri (and others) make a bactericide that you can use to keep the bacteria from growing. Stock up on it, too.
Whatever fuel you store, you should have different sizes of containers of them – I keep 2-1/2, and 5 gallon fuel cans, 55 gallon steel drums (filled only to 50 gallons), and larger tanks. The assortment of sizes lets me move fuel in the quantities I need, or to share. The steel containers need to be grounded while they’re in storage, to prevent a stray static electrical spark from causing an explosion. I also keep the smaller containers up off the ground by using wooden pallets, to help cut down on rust. I wind up cleaning and painting a few every year, to keep them from rusting too badly.
All of our vehicles are diesel powered. The only gasoline requirements we have are for things like chainsaws, and for ATVs and snowmobiles. We store liquid fuels in a variety of containers, including 55-gallon drums (filled to only 50 gallons for gas, 52 for diesel, because fuel will expand when it warms up, in a couple of farm tanks (medium sized tanks on stands), 5 gallon military fuel cans, plastic fuel cans, 5-gallon metal square cans (which store better than the round ones), almost any kind of container that’s intended for fuel will do. It’s easier to refill the chain saws and similar tools from smaller containers than the large ones, and it’s not too hard to refill the 2-1/2 gallon containers from the 5 gallon cans, or the large farm tank, or at the gas station. The stored fuel gets stabilized when we refill the big tank, and once a year, with Pri.
To move all that fuel around, I have two AC electrical pumps, two DC electrical pumps, and two hand pumps. The AC electrical pumps are explosion proof, and are connected to the farm tanks with a water separator/filter on the discharge hose. The hose has a nozzle just like at the gas station, and we have some drip pans (made out of the cut-off ends of steel drums) to catch anything that drips. We don’t have a meter, we keep track of about how much we pump on a log sheet. The DC pumps connect to the vehicle batteries, and can be used to move fuel from any source to any tank, and have strainers and filters on them. One is for gas, and one for diesel, of course.
For the fuel drums, you should get a legitimate bung wrench to safely remove and replace the bungs (hole caps). These aren’t too expensive, and handle both sizes (large and small). [They are available from Northern Tool & Equipment.] You can get by with regular hand tools but it’s harder, and you can damage the drum. You should either keep the drums stored on their sides (with the bungs horizontal), or at the very least keep a cover on top of the end of the drum (there are made from plastic specifically for this purpose) to keep water from pooling on the top from rain, which will get sucked into even a sealed drum (through the bung).
Once you have drums, or large tanks, how do you fill them? There are a couple of ways, you can buy fuel at the gas station in 5 gallon containers and transfer them, or you can put a drum in the back of your pickup truck and fill it at the gas station. I have found that if you can find a commercial fuel distributor they will deliver, if you order more than a few hundred gallons. They send out a smaller fuel truck (not a semi) and charge you about the going price for fuel. Once you have a very large tank (for the farm/ranch, you know) you can get a good discount. I paid about 20% less than the going price to fill my large diesel tank. In order to do this, however, you have to have a good enough driveway and access for the truck to get to the tanks.
Finally, there’s one more way to get fuel: If you have a large tank in your truck, you can fill it up at the gas station, and pump it out at home. Repeat as necessary. The advantage with this is that nobody will know that you have fuel storage at home, the downside is the cost, because you will be paying top dollar for the fuel. And, you have to switch around to different gas stations, going into the same station every day for a week and buying 75 or 100 gallons of fuel might make someone suspicious.
The farm tanks, explosion proof pumps, hoses, nozzles, fuel filters, bung wrenches, and all the rest of the specialty equipment I mention is commonly available from farm supply places, home centers, or industrial supply companies. One good company to deal with is Northern Tool & Equipment
How to ground large tanks:
First of all, you need a good ground point. The easiest way to ground is to buy a copper-clad steel grounding rod at the home center, they’re usually 8’ long. You pick a location (near your fuel storage area, which of course should be away from anything that might burn) and drive it into the ground, all the way (start on a ladder, obviously). All it takes is time and a big hammer.
The grounding cables can be made out of old welding cables, large gauge wire (at least 4 AWG, anything else will break pretty quickly, and won’t withstand a lightning strike), or what the military uses for grounding drums, 3/16” diameter, nylon or plastic coated stainless steel cable, available at the home center or farm supply.
Attach the grounding cable to the grounding rod with a permanent clamp, and then with alligator or battery clips, get clipped onto each metal container, on bare metal. It’s okay to have more than one clamp on a cable, just make sure (with an ohm meter, available for under $10 at Radio Shack) that you have less than a couple (3-4 ohms) resistance from the furthest end of the cable to the grounding rod. If your resistance is more than that, clean off the connections of all the wire pieces and try again.
NOTE: It’s not a good idea to use your home grounding point for the fuel ground, first of all it’s probably too close to the house, and secondly you can get into issues with ground loop currents and other violations of the National Electrical Code – not a law, just a good idea (usually) to follow.
If you have a fireplace, or wood burning stoves (either for cooking, or warmth), you’ll need wood. You can cut your own, or buy it, or both. By the way, I don’t recommend reliance on a pellet or corn stove. They require power, and pellets (or corn), and unless you can grow enough corn to feed them, they’re just unreliable. Even if you can grow enough corn, they still require power.
Buying wood (rather than cutting it yourself) has some advantages. You don’t have to do the work, for one. Cutting and splitting wood, then stacking it to dry, then stacking it again when dry, and moving it, all are a workout. When you buy it you can usually get it stacked where you want (perhaps for a small extra fee).
At any rate, you should store the wood under cover, to help keep it dry. A pile of wood with a blue plastic tarp over it isn’t going to stay dry long. The tarp will rip in the first breeze, and they don’t last long exposed to sunlight. If possible, build a wood shed or lean-to that’s near where you will need the wood so you don’t have to haul it too far. It doesn’t have to be completely weather-tight, but if possible it should have a concrete or rock foundation, and enough on the sides and top to keep the wood mostly dry. Your wood storage shouldn’t be attached to the house, insects will be in the stored wood, and you don’t want them attacking your house.
How much wood to store depends on how much you use a winter, how much room you have, and how much you want to store. The type of wood matters too, each type of wood has different energy values. Use what you can get. We have a very energy efficient house, and only use about two cords a year. A cord is a pile of split wood that’s 4 feet high and wide, and 8 feet long. The wood in the pile is supposed to be stacked “loose enough for a rat to run through, but not so loose that the cat chasing it can.”
Oftentimes vendors will try and sell you a pile that’s 4×8’, but only of 16” (or smaller) pieces, this is not a real cord; sometimes it’s called a ‘face’ cord. Adjust the price accordingly, and shop around. I like to keep at least two years supply of wood on hand (to allow for an especially bad winter, and since we have a wood cook stove that we could use in the kitchen, to feed it). In reality, I have about 10 cords of wood on hand right now, in three sheds. Since the price doesn’t seem to go down much, it’s not a bad investment.
I actually cut some of the wood myself (check with your local forests to see if you can get a permit), it’s good exercise. It’s nice to know how to cut a tree with hand tools, then limb it (cut the limbs off), buck it (cut it into smaller sections), and finally cut and split it to length (usually less than 16” for the stoves, somewhat larger for fireplaces) but it’s a lot of work. I know how, and have the tools to do it put away, but once I learned, I decided to use power tools. Even so, cutting and splitting with power tools is still a pretty good workout.
Using powered or hand tools to cut wood are dangerous. You should get trained by a pro, and be careful. Be sure to get all the protective equipment, including Kevlar chaps, a hard hat with face and eye guards, and hearing protection, and gloves. Follow all the other safety recommendations as well. If you’re going to use powered cutting tools, stock up on spares like chainsaw chains, 2-stroke oil, bar grease, a sharpening guide (and files), etc. If you really want to get serious with crosscut timber saws, get a kerf setter, too (kerf is the degree that the saw teeth bend out from the saw, to prevent binding. It has to be reset from time to time).
If you live in an area where propane is used for cooking or heat, you will have (most likely) a white “sausage” tank outside. These come in different sizes, but 500 to maybe 1,000 gallons are common for homes. Larger tanks are available, you can buy them from individuals but the propane companies will want the tanks pressure tested and certified before they fill them, or they will sell you (or lease you) a tank. Shop around. Usually at least two companies that serve an area. Play them against each other to get the biggest tank you can, filled for as little as possible). By the way, the propane company will probably want the propane tanks grounded, or they may consider the pipe going to the house sufficient. Personally, I’d put in another grounding rod.
I have two tanks, one for each company in the area, both plumbed to the house with shutoff valves. This allows me to fill up the tank from the company that’s charging the least each year, and worked a deal where I lease the tank for $1 per year from them. My tanks are far enough away from everything that should they explode it’s not that risky, but I still have them surrounded by a chain link fence, and have a berm around them (to hide them, when they ask…the berm has grass and flowers on it). This provides a little protection should one ever blow, they’re also on opposite sides of my property so if one goes, the other won’t.
We also have a couple of travel trailers, which have their own propane bottles; and a number of smaller (20#) tanks. Propane will last forever, so storing it isn’t hard – just keep the bottles out of the way, and closed.
Other fuels and petroleum products
Since we have some kerosene lamps and a kerosene space heater, we store about 50 gallons of kerosene in 5-gallon cans. Our Coleman camping stoves are all white gas models (with propane conversions, a great thing to do, cheap, you can use bulk tanks or disposable canisters, and the conversion is cheap and lets you switch back and forth) so we also have around 25 gallons of Coleman-type fuel (naphtha).
It’s not strictly fuel, but of course I store engine oil and lubricants for the vehicles, paint thinner, solvents, gun lubes and cleaners, etc. They are kept in original containers until I move them to the garage, gun room, etc. The 3 trucks each use more than 3 gallons of oil (each) at each change so I try and buy larger (1-, or 5-gallon) containers of oil, rather than 1 qt containers. They get stored in the covered shed.
Finally, since I do some engine maintenance around the house, I sometimes have waste oil and fuel to dispose of. I have a 50-gallon drum that is dedicated to this waste fuel role, and some 5 gallon cans (the ones that have previously held kerosene or engine oil are great for this). I can fill up the 50 gallon waste drum and then pump out smaller quantities of waste oil to burn in a waste oil heater in the winter time, or to take to town to get rid of in an approved dump.