‘Who You Gonna Call’ to Fix Your Fuel?
Written on: November 3, 2020 by Ron Kotrba
Although Halloween has come and gone, you may still be dealing with monsters in fuel storage tanks. The famous words of Dr. Frankenstein after lightning sparked his abominable creation to life—It’s alive!—may fittingly describe what’s going on in your or your customers’ tanks right now.
Biogenic heating fuel from once-living matter, such as Bioheat®, is growing in popularity, but active living matter in fuel is a frightful proposition. If you or your customers have water in their tanks, however, this could very well be the case. So “who you gonna call” when you see the telltale signs of unwanted creatures thriving in fuel tanks, and what should be expected from “paranormal” fuel investigators?
As a fuel terminal operator, distributor, dealer, marketer or jobber, ensuring fuel quality for your customers and your business reputation is a year-round commitment—however, Fall and Spring are two critical periods when this really must be top of mind. These transitional periods between Summer’s heat and humidity and Winter’s wet, cold temperatures are prime times to check fuel systems and treat for moisture, microbial growth, oxidation and more.
Water is essential for life—it is to microbes what electricity is to Frankenstein’s monster. This is why ridding fuel tanks of moisture is paramount. Otherwise, microbes will multiply at exponential rates, eating hydrocarbons, excreting acetic acid, dying and repeating the cycle innumerable times until what’s left is the aftermath of their destruction: compromised fuel and storage tanks from sludge, fuel instability, corrosion and more.
“Water is the No. 1 contaminant in fuel—it’s that simple,” said Barry Aruda, Northeast Regional Manager for Advanced Fuel Solutions, a consultant and additive provider since 1994.
While ultra-low sulfur heating oil (ULSHO) is certainly a cleaner-burning, more efficient fuel—especially when blended with biodiesel—it is not a fix-all for every common fuel problem, nor does it come without its own set of operational concerns. The process used to remove sulfur also removes oxygen, nitrogen and other functional elements. This yields a fuel that is more paraffinic, or waxy (to the detriment of its cold flow operability), and less stable in storage. Because higher-sulfur fuel possesses natural lubricant qualities, ultra-low sulfur fuel can put more wear on equipment, meaning lubricity agents should be used in ULSHO to keep fuel pumps functioning optimally.
Like biodiesel, ULSHO can be prone to increased levels of entrained water, and it is more susceptible to water and microbial contamination. Also similar to biodiesel, ULSHO is more soluble than high-sulfur fuel, making it more liable to loosen filter-plugging deposits in tanks.
Bulk fuel tanks, particularly ULSD and ULSHO, should be checked for water in the Spring and Fall, at minimum.
Aruda noted that the initial call he might get from a prospective client is often “reactive.”
“Something happened in their world they didn’t plan for, and they’re looking to fix it as fast as possible,” he said. “Some want a miracle cure, but fuel quality doesn’t come out of a bottle.” Concentrated, contemporary additive chemistries are vital, but they’re only one important part of a much more holistic approach to fuel quality.
“Some clients need a consultant to guide them down the path until they better understand it,” Aruda said. “Then, if they just want us to send them a drum every six months, great. Once they know what’s going on, it’s a matter of routine maintenance and dosing.”
Reactive situations like these firsttime cold calls require investigations, but not the caliber of a Sherlock Holmes’ variety.
“We need to figure out what they’re dealing with and how to get them back to square one, and from there be proactive to protect them from this happening again,” Aruda noted.
On that initial call to the experts, realistic expectations should be set. If storage tanks and housekeeping protocols have been neglected for years, then an overnight fix will not be realistic.
“We have to take a look at the specific situation, backtrack and fix the problem through a couple of different ways,” Aruda explained.
In addition to high-quality additives, other proactive measures—such as sticking tanks at least twice a year with water-detecting paste, grabbing bottom samples with a fuel thief, visual inspection and laboratory analysis, and making sure storage tanks and vehicle fleets are being treated at the right times with proper dosing of effective additives—are critical components to the overall health of tanks, fuel and business reputation.
Calls from existing clients may be similarly reactive. It could be one o’clock in the afternoon or one o’clock in the morning for an oilheat dealer or a diesel jobber whose homeowner or fleet customer is experiencing no heat or engine trouble. There are questions that can go a long way in identifying the root problem, such as How many deliveries did you make that day?
Or Did any of the other fuel recipients that day have issues?
Left unchecked, home heating oil tanks may be contaminated with water, bacterial growth and sludge for quite some time, potentially causing operational issues.
As mystery writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote: Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. If no other fuel delivery customers had problems that day, then the possibility of bad fuel can be eliminated.
“The issue then is most likely the customer’s tank has been contaminated for a long time, and this was the day things decided to go sideways,” Aruda said. “You have to play detective and pull apart the layers.”
The amount of water and evidence of destruction may, at times, be too great to just treat with additives, no matter how good they are. In these cases, the water must be removed and the tank dried. Although this is more expensive, it beats going out of business. In situations where the water, bacteria and corrosion have irreparably damaged the tank or components, they may need replacing. Once corrective action is taken, however, maintaining fuel quality is a simple matter of discipline and, of course, the right additives, “otherwise, you’re operating without a net,” Aruda said.
So fear not what lies beneath your fuel. Fuel quality experts want your oilheat business— not the monsters in your tanks—to be alive and well. ICM