Aircraft Fuel Systems (Part Two)

Fuel Contamination

Accidents attributed to powerplant failure from fuel contamination have often been traced to:

  • Inadequate preflight inspection by the pilot
  • Servicing aircraft with improperly filtered fuel from small tanks or drums
  • Storing aircraft with partially filled fuel tanks
  • Lack of proper maintenance

Fuel should be drained from the fuel strainer quick drain and from each fuel tank sump into a transparent container and then checked for dirt and water. When the fuel strainer is being drained, water in the tank may not appear until all the fuel has been drained from the lines leading to the tank. This indicates that water remains in the tank and is not forcing the fuel out of the fuel lines leading to the fuel strainer. Therefore, drain enough fuel from the fuel strainer to be certain that fuel is being drained from the tank. The amount depends on the length of fuel line from the tank to the drain. If water or other contaminants are found in the first sample, drain further samples until no trace appears.

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Water may also remain in the fuel tanks after the drainage from the fuel strainer has ceased to show any trace of water. This residual water can be removed only by draining the fuel tank sump drains.

Water is the principal fuel contaminant. Suspended water droplets in the fuel can be identified by a cloudy appearance of the fuel, or by the clear separation of water from the colored fuel, which occurs after the water has settled to the bottom of the tank. As a safety measure, the fuel sumps should be drained before every flight during the preflight inspection.

Fuel tanks should be filled after each flight or after the last flight of the day to prevent moisture condensation within the tank. To prevent fuel contamination, avoid refueling from cans and drums.

In remote areas or in emergency situations, there may be no alternative to refueling from sources with inadequate anti-contamination systems. While a chamois skin and funnel may be the only possible means of filtering fuel, using them is hazardous. Remember, the use of a chamois does not always ensure decontaminated fuel. Worn-out chamois do not filter water; neither will a new, clean chamois that is already water-wet or damp. Most imitation chamois skins do not filter water.

Fuel System Icing

Ice formation in the aircraft fuel system results from the presence of water in the fuel system. This water may be undissolved or dissolved. One condition of undissolved water is entrained water that consists of minute water particles suspended in the fuel. This may occur as a result of mechanical agitation of free water or conversion of dissolved water through temperature reduction. Entrained water settles out in time under static conditions and may or may not be drained during normal servicing, depending on the rate at which it is converted to free water. In general, it is not likely that all entrained water can ever be separated from fuel under field conditions. The settling rate depends on a series of factors including temperature, quiescence, and droplet size.

The droplet size varies depending upon the mechanics of formation. Usually, the particles are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye, but in extreme cases, can cause slight haziness in the fuel. Water in solution cannot be removed except by dehydration or by converting it through temperature reduction to entrained, then to free water.

Another condition of undissolved water is free water that may be introduced as a result of refueling or the settling of entrained water that collects at the bottom of a fuel tank. Free water is usually present in easily detected quantities at the bottom of the tank, separated by a continuous interface from the fuel above. Free water can be drained from a fuel tank through the sump drains, which are provided for that purpose. Free water, frozen on the bottom of reservoirs, such as the fuel tanks and fuel filter, may render water drains useless and can later melt releasing the water into the system thereby causing engine malfunction or stoppage. If such a condition is detected, the aircraft may be placed in a warm hangar to reestablish proper draining of these reservoirs, and all sumps and drains should be activated and checked prior to flight.


Entrained water (i.e., water in solution with petroleum fuels) constitutes a relatively small part of the total potential water in a particular system, the quantity dissolved being dependent on fuel temperature and the existing pressure and the water volubility characteristics of the fuel. Entrained water freezes in mid fuel and tends to stay in suspension longer since the specific gravity of ice is approximately the same as that of AVGAS.

Water in suspension may freeze and form ice crystals of sufficient size such that fuel screens, strainers, and filters may be blocked. Some of this water may be cooled further as the fuel enters carburetor air passages and causes carburetor metering component icing, when conditions are not otherwise conducive to this form of icing.

Prevention Procedures

The use of anti-icing additives for some aircraft has been approved as a means of preventing problems with water and ice in AVGAS. Some laboratory and flight testing indicates that the use of hexylene glycol, certain methanol derivatives, and ethylene glycol mononethyl ether (EGME) in small concentrations inhibit fuel system icing. These tests indicate that the use of EGME at a maximum 0.15 percent by volume concentration substantially inhibits fuel system icing under most operating conditions. The concentration of additives in the fuel is critical. Marked deterioration in additive effectiveness may result from too little or too much additive. Pilots should recognize that anti-icing additives are in no way a substitute or replacement for carburetor heat. Aircraft operating instructions involving the use of carburetor heat should be adhered to at all times when operating under atmospheric conditions conducive to icing.

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