Tennis balls, squeegees, cigarette lighters, shoes: None of these things belong in the handle of a gas pump. But for decades, those are the kinds of crazy things John Coyle and his father have seen customers stuff inside the handle to keep the gas flowing, especially in cold weather, while they wait in their cars.
“I’ve seen an orange. An apple. I’ve seen people use their wallet, I’ve seen people use empty water bottles,” said Coyle, who owns and operates the J&S Mobil gas station in Newton with his father.
No more. Effective Jan. 1, Massachusetts became one of the last states to legalize hold-open clips on gas pumps, meaning the bizarre assortment of cupholder trash that has propped handles open for years is on its way out.
Although a handful of gas stations have illegally kept the clips on their nozzle handles, they have been banned in Massachusetts since the 1970s, state fire marshal Stephen D. Coan said. The rationale: static electricity — like the kind you could pick up when you duck back into your car, rubbing yourself against your wool coat and your cloth seat — can ignite gasoline fumes. Those fires have totaled dozens of cars and sent a handful of drivers to the hospital nationally over the past few decades, according to a report from the Petroleum Equipment Institute.
Such dangers did not deter other states from continued use of the consumer-friendly clips. Massachusetts, after researching the experience of other states and considering new technology that reduced spills and gasoline fumes, ultimately concluded that the regulations were no longer called for, Coan said.
“We did not find that we experienced a large number of fire and explosion incidents at fueling facilities,” he said.
But while it was in place, the no-clip rule resulted in all sorts of strange behavior. On a cold day last week, Alan Mar demonstrated his work-around while filling his Mercedes at a Quincy Hess station. Taking a little can from his pocket, he popped it into the nozzle handle as he started pumping.
The clip “is not that important, anyway,” he said, happy that his homemade solution allowed him to fill up from the warmth of his driver’s seat.
Other drivers, though, can’t wait for them. Take William Ji, a Quincy resident who was filling his car on the other side of the same Hess station. With no hat or gloves and his fuel tank almost empty, Ji switched his hands back and forth from the handle, alternately stuffing them into his pockets to keep them warm. The two minutes it took to gas up felt like 20.
Hold-open clips “would be great,” said Ji, his breath coming out in clouds.
Still, just because the clips are legal, don’t expect to see them at a station near you any time soon. Gas station owners and suppliers said it could be months, or even more than a year, before the clips become as common as the lottery signs in the window of nearly every gas station in the state. While the lack of clips is a minor annoyance, customers aren’t clamoring for the change. And in order to install the clips, many owners say they would have to spend hundreds of dollars to replace every handle, spout, and trigger. At most stations, the change will come pump by pump.
“It’s not like guys are going to go out and buy these other nozzles that have the clip,” said Ron Storlazzi, who owns the Rudy’s Express gas station in Dedham Square. He said he would take a piecemeal approach, replacing nozzle handles when they stop working or are destroyed by customers who pop something in the handle, forget they’re pumping gas, and drive off while still pumping, something Storlazzi said happens once or twice a month. Going forward, Storlazzi said, he simply won’t pry off the little stopper plates that the clip rests against to keep fuel flowing.
Michael J. Fox, the executive director of the Gasoline and Automotive Service Dealers of America, said many station owners looked at the decision the same way.
“I would say it could take a good year before you see it widespread,” he said.
Some industry figures say the clips could start appearing sooner rather than later, however. One station owner contacted by the Globe said he saved the clips after removing them from his station’s nozzle handles and had already reinstalled them. And Bruce Garrett, the president of Dependable Petroleum Service in Plymouth, said 25 to 30 percent of his customers wanted the clips added to their pumps as soon as possible. The clips themselves usually cost just $12 to $15 each, he said, although installing them would cost more.
Another factor affecting the roll-out is new regulations that will force gas stations to do away with aging, expensive systems that suck away gasoline fumes. Some stations may opt to install handles with hold-open clips when they overhaul their pumps, said Dave Moore, the director of service at Wildco PES, an equipment supplier for New England gas stations.
“Over the next six months to a year, you’re going to start seeing more and more of them,” Moore said. “It’s going to cycle through.”
Cycling through won’t be fast enough for some consumers, especially with more frigid weather on the way. Thomas Fitzpatrick, another Quincy resident filling his tank at the Hancock Street Hess on Thursday, called the old regulations “silly.” He’s been looking for stations with the clips but still hasn’t found one. No matter, he said; in a few months, he’d be moving to another state.