Building the Ultimate Off-Road Fuel Cell

fuelcell

We take for granted being able to drive our vehicle down to the gas station and fill up. We know that with installing a fuel cell the fuel will be contained and keep us safe while we are driving around. Most of the time, until a build gets serious, the factory fuel tank stays in its home under the vehicle. With the help of Holley and Fuel Safe, we will take a look at how to build the ultimate off-road fuel cell. Sooner or later, the time for a fuel system upgrade will happen, and we want to explain not only how to do it, but why you need to follow certain guidelines.

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Building the fuel cell is more than just finding a tank and throwing fuel inside. Time needs to be taken to consider everything that can happen on the trail or in the middle of the desert so you do not get stranded. We were able to talk to Keith Jessee of Holley, Mike Torvik of Fuel Safe, and Cory Sappington of Best in the Desert to get the inside scoop on fuel cells, the components in them, and the safety surrounding them.

We will be installing the cell in Project Storm Trooper, our 2005 GMC Canyon prerunner project vehicle. The truck has recently had a front long travel kit installed, Currie F9 housing, Bilstein M9200 bypass shocks, and the start of the rear cage. The fuel cell is one of the last parts getting installed into the truck.

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Why Run A Fuel Cell

If you have never messed with fuel, it can be a scary task, but have a rewarding outcome. One benefit a fuel cell has over any other safety device is the ability to improve performance and protect your engine.

Factory fuel systems are not meant for the abuse of off-roading. “When OEM tanks are driven aggressively, fuel starvation is very common, and this can result in burning up a pump or causing damage to your motor,” Torvik said. “With a fuel cell, you can incorporate fuel scavenge systems, reserve tanks, baffle walls, redundant pump setups, and the list goes on.”

Fuel cells can be seen in all shapes and forms in all types of race vehicles.

Depending on local smog regulations, a fuel cell may not be legal, thus leaving it to vehicles that will be racing. If the vehicle will be driven on local streets, local laws should be taken into consideration.

For racers, be sure when purchasing a fuel cell that it meets your certification requirements noted in the rulebook put out by the race sanctioning body. “It is a good idea to get a certified cell, even when not required by the rule book. Torvik said, “This ensures that you are getting the best in safety. Also, make sure the manufacturer can customize your fuel cell to both fit your application, and deliver a cell with the accessories needed to optimize your fuel system.”

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Fuel Cell Parts 101

Ordering parts can be the fun part, but making sure that everything is going to work together when it all comes in takes planning. We experienced this firsthand when it came time to get parts together for the install. From fittings to pumps, everything needed to work together.

Fuel System Parts List

“As with any fuel system, you will need to determine how much horsepower the system will need to support and what type of fuel the system will be delivering,” Jessee explained. “With off-road specific systems, it is very common to encounter fuel starvation problems at extreme angles or just traveling over very rough terrain at high speed. It is important to remember that we want to keep a steady supply of fuel going to the pump at all times.”

The fuel is what cools and lubricates the pump. If a fuel pump is running dry or even worse, cavitating, the chances of a mechanical failure increase exponentially. One way that we helped prevent this in our setup is the Hydramat.

The Hydramat is a fuel reservoir system designed to reduce fuel starvation issues present in hard cornering, acceleration, stopping, inclines, and low fuel conditions. Even after the tank has been sucked dry, the Hydramat will still hold a small amount of fuel. “The Hydramat acts as a 15-micron pre-filter,” Jessee explained. “This means the fuel going into your pump will be significantly cleaner than if you were using a typical 100-micron pre-filter.”

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When building any type of fuel cell, a Hydramat is a great addition to make sure that no matter the situation, you will not starve the motor of fuel.

Holley's 12-1200 pump allows you to run two pumps in one housing. If one pump fails the other is just a flip of a switch away.

Holley’s 12-1200 pump allows you to run two pumps in one housing. If one pump fails, the other is just a flip of a switch away.

Diving into the interior of the tank, we used Holley’s 12-1200 pumps mounting along with the Hydramat. “The 12-1200 is essentially two pumps in a single case,” Jessee said. “This allows you to have all the benefits of a dual pump system without the extra hassle of plumbing two individual pumps. You also have the option of running both pumps at the same time to support more horsepower.”

Having all these components is great, but something is needed to connect everything together. Holley’s Earls Plumbing line of products had what we needed to connect in the tank and replace the factory fuel lines to the motor.

With the help of the new regulator and gauge, we would be able to fine-tune our fuel pressure.

“When selecting fuel hoses, you need to consider what type of fuel you will be running, which will decide what type of inner liner you need,” Jessee said. “The size of the hose will be determined by how much fuel needs to be allowed to flow. Most applications under 500 horsepower will only require a -6 hose. Engines in the 500 to 750 horsepower range will require a -8 hose, and I would recommend -10 or larger for anything making more power than 750 horses.”

Our prerunner build currently has around 200 horsepower with the plan to eventually motor swap the truck to get closer to 500 horsepower. We went with an -8 send line and an -6 return line, which would suit both applications.

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We went with Earl’s Pro-Lite Ultra hose as it matched up to our project being able to withstand abuse. Pro-Lite Ultra consists of an inner tube of oil resistant “PKR” synthetic rubber, a partial coverage wire inner braid and an oil, weather, and is abrasion resistant. The hose is covered in black, entangled filament nylon fiber. This added stainless braid under the cover and over the liner adds additional hoop strength for higher pressure ratings and added strength for tight radius applications.

We opted to not go with a traditional stainless steel hose, as it could wear down anything it’s rubbing against off-roading. This hose is also capable of running automatic transmission fluid, coolant, diesel, E85, methanol, pump gas, and race gas.

Not only will the lines withstand the abuse off-road, but they will not wear down anything they may rub against like a traditional stainless steel hose.

Not only will the lines withstand the abuse off-road, but they will not wear down anything they may rub against like a traditional stainless steel hose would.

The last piece of the puzzle are the fittings. The fittings are placed on the hose as each hose is made to length. “We use 2024 aluminum for adapters and straight hose ends,” Jessee said. “This is a very strong material that is great for high-stress applications and we are one of the very few companies that use this higher quality material when it is applicable. On our tube-style bent hose ends, we use 6061 aluminum, which allows us to braze the bent tubes to the assembly.”

Now that we knew what we were going to use in our install, it was time to turn to the safety side of things and understand why we needed to run these parts.

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Fuel Cell Safety

We all know how important helmets, safety harnesses, and roll cages are in off-road, but fuel cells are just as important when it comes to safety. “During an impact, OEM fuel tanks can split and spill fuel, cause fires, and even create explosions,” Mike Torvik explained. “Fuel cells have a bladder inside of a container which absorbs the energy of a crash and prevents fuel spills, fires, and explosions.”

A fuel cell is more than just a tank. “Fuel cells have four major components,” Torvik said. “The container is your first line of defense with a fuel cell. It provides puncture resistance to the bladder and gives flexible bladders a constraint to conform to. Containers are most often made from steel or aluminum.”

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A fuel cell has many components, all of which help keep the driver safe. The outer aluminum shell is just the first layer of defense.

“The heart of the fuel cell is the bladder, he continued, “This is the certified part of the fuel cell that absorbs the energy of a crash to retain fuel without spilling. Next is the foam baffling inside the cell, which offers many advantages. It prevents fuel slosh, de-aerates fuel, and most importantly, it prevents fuel from atomizing and acts as a spark arrestor for explosion mitigation.”

All of the components are important, but one stands out the most when it comes to safety. “The most important safety device on a fuel cell is the bladder,” Torvik said. “Make sure you get an FIA-FT3 or SFI 28.1 certified bladder to ensure you have the top level of safety. Meeting these specifications means that the material used by that manufacturer has been tested to meet or exceed the highest safety standards in the industry. Every Fuel Safe fuel cell meets or exceeds the highest of industry safety standards.”

The lid of the fuel cell is attached to the bladder, which makes it easy to service the pump and the interior of the cell.

Depending on the end use of the vehicle, the way the cell is set up can get you through technical inspection the first time. “All buggies, trucks, and UTVs are required to have a fuel cell in BITD,” said Cory Sappington, tech official with BITD. “All vehicles have the same fuel cell requirements.”

Sappington has been around the sport for some time. “Fuel cells have been required in desert racing for as long as I can remember, which goes back to the 70s,” Sappington said. In 2005, he was the first person to ever race a UTV in the desert. Sappington created the UTV class for BITD and has been managing the class for over 12 years.

Another safety feature on a fuel cell is a discriminator valve. It is a valve that is attached to the vent hose. It will cut off the release of the air when the tank is full.

Planning for the worst is important when building a fuel cell. No one ever thinks they will roll their prized possession, but it can happen to anyone. “Make sure the fuel cell has complete rollover protection,” Torvik said. “Be sure the fill valve has rollover protection, as well as your vent valve. This will prevent fuel spill in the event of a rollover.”

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Time To Get Flowing

Now it was time to get to work and get our fuel cell into Project Storm Trooper. We had started the rear cage knowing where we wanted the fuel cell, but before the cell went into the truck, we needed to make a tray for it to sit in once the factory tank was dropped.

With the interior of the fuel cell plumbed, we were able to move to the exterior.

The tray allows the cell to have a place to sit, as well as be strapped down for safety. With the tray fitted correctly outside the truck, we were able to weld it to a factory crossmember to make sure the cell had more structure.

Once the factory tank and lines were removed, we moved forward with plumbing the new lines.

We removed all the factory fuel lines since we were going to be replacing them with the Pro-Lite Ultra hose. The factory fuel system had the fuel pressure regulator pressed into the fuel rail. A trip to the local machine shop gave us a custom piece we used to adapt the new line to the rail.

Every fuel cell needs a tray to sit in and a way to be secured to the vehicle. We made our tray out of 1.5-inch angle iron and got the fuel cell into position.

Earl’s had an adapter that would attach to the factory send line. After measuring the distances between the cell and the motor we were able to run the line and attach the correct fittings. Everything was tightened down and the fuel filter was secured to the driver side frame rail.

The fuel pump has two separate wires for the two fuel pumps. We only connected them for the time being. The second one would be wired to a switch in the interior that could be flipped if one failed.

Once everything was plumbed, we were able to fire up the truck.

We did not get a chance to fill up our gas can before starting the install, which left us with only half a gallon of gas. That was all the gas we had to get the truck fired up and down to the gas station. We were skeptical, but it fired up. This was the first instance that demonstrated just how capable the Hydramat was.

Once everything was connected, it was time to add some fuel and fire up the truck.

A full tank of gas (and a few weird looks) later, we were on our way to hit the dirt to see how it handled the abuse. The pump in the tank was not loud. We could tell that it was on, but it was not something that was overbearing.

The truck sees more time in the dirt and we know that we will be safe no matter the terrain. We do not have to worry about the fuel sloshing around as we are going through the whoops. To put it simply, the durability of the fuel cell has been greatly improved; we don’t have to worry about a rock hitting the factory tank and piercing it.

All in all, we are extremely happy with the entire setup and the way it all came together. For more information on fuel system products, be sure to check out Holley’s and Fuel Safe’s website.

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About the author

Steven Olsewski

Steven Olsewski grew up with a true passion for anything with a motor. He loves his wife and kids, and during the year can be found enjoying quality time together. They are a huge part of his life and their passion for God.
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