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Water Fight: Keeping Tanks Moisture Free

By Stephen Bennett

future of ultra-low-sulfur fuel and increasing emphasis on biofuel set the stage for a “fuels summit” hosted by Mirabito Energy Products, Binghamton, N.Y. The event was held November 19 before an audience of 70 to 80 people at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Binghamton, and reprised in front of about 40 attendees on Nov. 20 at the Marriott in Albany, N.Y., according to estimates by some who were at the sessions.

“Our focus wasn’t really on the tank or the dispenser or the suction line or the submersible,” said one of the speakers, Charles A. Frey Jr., vice president of Highland Tank & Manufacturing Co. in Manheim, Pa. “Our focus was on taking the water out of the entire system.” That said, Frey and the other presenters each spoke on their special areas of expertise before sitting together for a roundtable discussion on how to wage war against water.

Jason Mirabito, vice president of sales and marketing, made opening remarks, and Russell Wark, Mirabito’s facilities, environmental and compliance manager, was one of the speakers, along with Frey; Mark Stellmach, owner and president of Fuel Management Services, Toms River, N.J.; and Eddie Ware, vice president of operations for Francis Smith & Sons, Chinchilla, Pa.

“The new fuels are different,” Stellmach said in an interview with Fuel Oil News after the summit. “They need a little bit of extra TLC.”

Ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuels are rapidly becoming ultra-low-sulfur heating oil, with New York State leading the way, and other states right behind them, Stellmach said.

“It’s a good fuel from a combustion standpoint, and from a standpoint of a major reduction in deposits on heat exchangers,” Stellmach said. “However, since the introduction of ultra-low-sulfur fuel in the on-road market, there have been a lot of issues. Ultra-low has different properties, different characteristics than high-sulfur fuels.”

One of the characteristics that has been an issue is that ultra-low-sulfur fuel has a greater affinity for moisture, and it has [potentially] caused corrosion on fuel dispensing equipment nationally, Stellmach said. [Studies are currently underway to nail down this assumption.]

Water also provides a good environment for bacteria and fungus, which accelerate and exacerbate corrosion, Stellmach noted.

Similarly, Stellmach said, biofuels are “good fuels, and a great marketing tool for the heating oil industry.” They too have different properties and characteristics, he said.

“At no time have two new fuels come into the distribution pool at the same time,” he added. “That’s what we’re going through over the past couple of years here.”

With their different properties and characteristics, these fuels operate and perform differently. “The same old routines and procedures of preventive maintenance, housekeeping, etc. need to be changed a bit,” Stellmach said. “The days of lax housekeeping of storage tanks are gone. There’s no easy way to put that. Water needs to be routinely monitored in tanks and removed on a routine basis. Tanks and dispensing equipment need to be protected from corrosion. That’s the heart of the matter.

“Those two main housekeeping procedures can make a big difference moving forward to make sure that the promises of these new fuels are realized by our industry,” Stellmach said.

Stellmach pointed out that Eric Slifka, president and CEO of Global Partners, Waltham, Mass., keynote speaker at the Southern New England Energy Conference held in September in Newport, R.I., supported use of additives.

In his speech, Slifka said it was important to promote the use of additives to treat the deposits that have been collecting for years in the bottoms of customers’ tanks, adding, “The cost of these additives is measured in tenths of points per gallon, not cents per gallon.”

Slifka also noted that there is a national additive requirement for gasoline to address issues in gas engines and tanks. “We believe that the heating oil industry would benefit from having this same requirement,” he said.

Stellmach said, “It’s not that the fuels are bad or they’re dirty. It’s just the nature of the beast. These fuels are reactive chemically, they’re dynamic, they change quickly, they like to generate solids and particulate.”

Gasoline additives have detergents, anti-oxidants, and corrosion inhibitors, to protect an engine, Stellmach noted. “Heating oil additives should have detergents, anti-oxidants, corrosion inhibitors, to protect heating oil equipment,” he said.

Frey of Highland Tank, echoing Stellmach, said, “What we’re seeing today with these new fuels is just different.”

Before changes in composition of fuel oil and gasoline, Frey said, if a marketer was “ignoring the system itself, not taking any water out ever,” he would have problems. If the marketer was doing an “average” job at water management, Frey said, his tanks and systems might be “okay.” But an average job isn’t good enough now, Frey said.

An operator’s experience and expertise can help him evaluate a problem. “If you’ve been doing this your whole life,” Frey said, “possibly you take the filter off, you look in it and you see that there’s black gunk in there. You say, ‘I know what that is. That’s sludge. I had that problem before.’ Or maybe you look in there and see stuff that’s reddish and you say, ‘Oh, that’s microbial action. I must have gotten a batch of microbes in there.’”

But most people who are operating a fuel system aren’t expert in fuel systems, Frey pointed out. “They operate a bus company. They operate a trucking company. And they happen to have tanks and dispensers. It’s not their life.” Therefore, once a problem is discovered, Frey advised, “Talk to some sort of tank cleaning expert or some sort of liquid expert who can test the fuel and see what’s going on.”

A supplier such as Mirabito, Frey said, “is going to have two or three different ideas for who you can get to help you fix it.”

The changes in both gasoline and fuel oil require marketers to adjust their management of tanks and equipment, Frey summarized.

Taking lead out of gasoline was “a perfectly good idea,” Frey said, but “when we had lead in the gasoline we didn’t have the microbial problem.” Even though gasoline has been lead-free for decades, residual leaded gasoline persisted in the infrastructure, Frey noted. “The whole infrastructure still had that lead in it,” Frey said: tanks, pipelines, transport trucks. For the infrastructure to cleanse itself “took 10 to 15 years,” Frey said, “and so [now] we see some things associated with that.”

The same goes for systems that handled fuel oil or diesel for years before switching to ULS fuel, Frey said. The liquid changed, “and we really haven’t changed the system,” he noted.

See how tank and fuel temperatures also affect bacteria growth in a storage tank

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