Precision and timeliness are benefits of today’s tank monitoring systems, vendors say
By Stephen Bennett
Technology is making tank monitoring increasingly accurate, and is helping fuel oil and propane marketers improve delivery efficiency, according to vendors of the systems.
Generally when a fuel company implements monitoring technology they use it first on high-revenue, profitable accounts because they want to protect those customers and at the same time reduce delivery costs, said Hank Smith, vice president of Independent Technologies-Wesroc, a company in Blair, Neb., that markets remote monitoring technology. “Accounts that are busy and hard to predict are the ones that you typically see the monitors go on first,” Smith said.
But, Smith also noted, “A lot of companies spend a lot of time going to homes where they put very little fuel in the tank”–because they don’t know what the level is until the deliveryman gets there. “With fuel monitors you can really manage how many miles you put on your delivery trucks,” Smith said.
Here are details on some of the systems that are available for monitoring fuel oil, propane and, in some cases, other fuels as well.
Beckett Rocket Wireless Gauge
The Beckett Wireless Rocket Gauge uses infrared technology. The gauge, installed on the top of the tank, bounces an infrared beam off of the liquid level of the fuel in the tank, and then that information is wirelessly communicated to a display module installed in a convenient place for the homeowner, such as the kitchen or a hallway, said Craig Butler, product manager, residential oil burners and tank accessories for R.W. Beckett Corp., North Ridgeville, Ohio. The module, which must be installed within 150 feet of the tank, displays how much fluid is in the tank on a continuous basis, Butler said. It gives a visual and audible indication– the module will begin to beep–if the fuel level drops below a pre-set point, typically an eighth of a tank.
Butler also pointed out, “A lot of dealers today can no longer keep their customers’ [tanks] filled” by relying solely on the degree-day system because of the prevalence of hybrid systems in some regions. These hybrids may include an oil-fired boiler and either a heat pump or a mini-split ductless heat pump. In residences where such hybrid setups are installed, “it becomes very difficult for the dealer to maintain a proper level [in the tank] with a degree-day system,” Butler said. “They end up putting a lot of customers on will-call.”
With the Rocket gauge installed, will-call customers can see and hear when they need to order more oil without having to go down to the basement or to an outdoor tank to read the gauge, Butler said.
For more information visit https://www.beckettcorp.com/product/rocket-wireless-gauge/
The EnerTracSE monitoring system, a product of Senet Inc. in Portsmouth, N.H., is built not on a proprietary technology, but on a global open standard for low-power wide-area networks called LoRa, said Ben Doyle, vice president of EnerTrac sales.
Because LoRa uses radio technology to transmit data, EnerTrac can use “very affordable” sensors for monitoring propane and distillates including home heating oil. That affordability can help dealers deploy sensors on a majority of their tanks, Doyle said, “and that’s what we recommend as opposed to deploying sensors on a small portion of your tanks. We use radio frequency to allow [dealers] to cover 80% to 100% of their tanks. The benefit of doing that is it allows a dealer to automate their entire fuel delivery process.”
Fuel delivery automation is the goal, as opposed to tank monitoring “on just a handful of key tanks or a handful of tanks, because the real return on investment from monitoring is when you can save one or two deliveries per tank per year across all of your tanks,” Doyle said.
Senet is building a LoRaWAN network in the U.S. to help enable what is being called the “Internet of Things” in which billions of devices, machines and items can be wirelessly linked to the internet, allowing them to be monitored and better managed. The EnerTracSE system is a piece of that developing Internet of Things or “IoT,” Doyle said.
In the EnerTracSE system the sensor for propane tanks plugs into a gauge on the tank to monitor the fuel level; the sensor for fuel oil tanks is designed to be installed in a bung on the tank; a wire descends to the bottom of the tank, and is held there with a weight on its end; an electrical current running through the wire “essentially measures the air space in the tank,” Doyle said.
“Our sensors talk to the LoRa network”–Senet equipment on cell towers–“and the data gets sent across the internet back to our cloud software,” Doyle said. Fuel dealers can access their tank data in one of two ways: via EnerTrac’s cloud-based web service or EnerTrac feeds the data to dealers’ back office software.
“Our sensors send a signal every hour, so twenty-four times a day,” Doyle said. For dealers who want to manage the monitoring through their back office software, EnerTrac typically sends tank level data one time per night. “Degree day will still run in the back office software, but we’re updating the tank level so degree day, the K-factor, is always running off a very accurate tank level,” Doyle said. “If for whatever reason a sensor doesn’t report, the degree day program will still be running and the dealer will still have a very reliable estimate of what’s in the tank. So we don’t suggest or recommend that people using degree day turn it off.”
For more information visit http://www.enertrac.com/heating-oil/
Independent Technologies-Wesroc in Blair, Neb., markets remote monitoring technology for use on propane and fuel oil tanks.
Most fuel marketers implement monitoring on commercial tanks first “because that’s the biggest payback,” said Hank Smith, vice president. “Then they do residential tanks.”
Based on the performance history of its installed systems, Smith estimated that a fuel marketer can save “somewhere around nine deliveries a year on average. That’s to all tanks–commercial and residential.”
The Wesroc system includes a transmitter that sends data, typically via cellular network, to Wesroc’s computer servers, which then relay the data to the fuel marketer, who notifies the customer that, for example, a delivery is needed. Notifications can be handled through a smart phone app, texting, email and on a website.
There are cases where cellular communications will not work, such as mountainous areas. In those cases the company relies on a phone line, satellite communication or an internet connection, Smith said.
Degree-day forecasting in various enterprise software systems does “a pretty good job on the majority of the residential accounts–knowing when to make a delivery,” Smith said. “When you get into fuel oil heat in the larger properties or commercial properties like a convention center where [demand] is kind of sporadic–they’re going to turn the heat on, then turn it off–tank monitoring is more prevalent.”
Smith added, “We’re starting to hear more about residential tank monitoring in condominiums, and in big cities that have fuel oil tanks that heat entire buildings with multiple apartment units.”
That said, monitoring is helpful when a single residence has both fuel oil for heating, and propane for cooking and possibly other uses such as heating a pool and for a fireplace–“where there is a mix of fuels on a property and a generator would be in that mix as well,” Smith said. In that case, propane consumption being sporadic and unpredictable, monitoring can enable better management of the account; and such setups may warrant monitoring on the fuel oil tank too, Smith said.
Wesroc has a product that can monitor not only multiple tanks but indoor temperatures as well, reporting the data to the fuel marketer and to the fuel marketer’s customer, Smith said. In addition Wesroc can monitor a fuel oil furnace for a burner lockout, sending an alert if a lockout is detected, he said. “If the furnace locks out it will not start without a maintenance person checking to see why it didn’t start.”
Further, “We frequently see people add a device that will monitor for a busted pipe” or a water heater failure, Smith said. “We put a water detector on the floor right by the furnace and that same device that’s monitoring the furnace for burner lockout can also detect if there’s a flood in the basement.”
Many fuel oil companies also sell off-road and on-road diesel and gasoline, and Wesroc systems can monitor those fuels as well, Smith said.
For more information visit http://www.wesrocproducts.net/
SkyBitz Tank Monitoring
The SkyBitz Tank Monitoring system collects fuel levels and other data that fuel oil marketers can use to make sure that they’re refilling tanks in the most cost-efficient manner, said Tom Keane, vice president of sales for Telular Corp. in Atlanta, Ga., and his colleague Carl Whitmire, marketing manager. Telular is the parent company of SkyBitz.
The tank monitoring system delivers low-fuel alerts, sending messages that a delivery is needed. Installation of the SkyBitz hardware takes “under five minutes,” Kean said. Data on the fuel level travels from inside tank through the SkyBitz hardware, and through a cellular network to the SkyBitz data center, then to users’ computers, websites, smart phones or tablets.
Data can be used to help improve routing, among other things. “If you’re delivering more product less often, that automatically makes you more efficient, particularly when you’re talking about trucks that get four or five miles a gallon,” Whitmire said.
In this era of “Big Data,” Keane added, “There are a lot of things that the system monitors” beyond the fuel level in tanks. For example, the SkyBitz system uses an algorithm to predict rate of consumption of fuel in a specific tank or group of tanks in a specific neighborhood, Keane said.
The system includes GPS to show tank locations, and it also can monitor and communicate temperature of the fuel. The system delivers information to users via an app, a web portal or by sending SMS text messages.
If the strength of the battery in the hardware device begins to wane, the system sends an alert. In most cases a battery lasts approximately three years, though it could last longer, Whitmire said. Users can play a role in managing battery life by programming the intervals at which the device sends data via cellular-based communications. “The fewer times the system calls out the longer the battery lasts,” Whitmire said.
SkyBitz Tank Monitoring is the new name of TankLink. The SkyBitz Tank Monitoring website, and the online portal where users access data, perform analyses and generate reports are also being rebranded.
For more information visit www.skybitz.com/tankmonitoring
Tank Utility, based in Boston, Mass., markets a tank monitoring system incorporating smart meters and cloud-based software designed to enable propane and fuel oil marketers to improve delivery efficiency and engage customers.
The monitoring device, installed on a propane tank, works with the float gauge to monitor the fuel level in percentage terms, said Amos Epstein, a co-founder and the CEO of Tank Utility. For monitoring fuel oil tanks, the company sells a kit that includes a “very accurate” float gauge that works with the monitoring device, Epstein said.
“Our sensor reads off of that float gauge that we install in an oil tank or that already comes in a propane tank, and it reads the gauge to within one percent accuracy,” Epstein said. The accuracy of the gauges enables fuel dealers to know how much fuel each customer’s tank can accept, making for improved delivery efficiency, Epstein said.
The monitoring device transmits the fuel level data over the homeowner’s Wi-Fi network; in cases where a homeowner doesn’t have Wi-Fi or if a propane tank is not close enough to a house, there is an option for a cellular monitor.
“We provide a hosted cloud service and all of our tank monitors report their tank levels to our service,” Epstein said. Fuel dealers and their customers can check tank levels online.
“For homeowners, we have a mobile app as well as a web service that they can log into so they can see their fuel level either at a computer or on the go from their phone,” Epstein said. “In surveys we’ve done of homeowners that have our app, 92% of them said they would recommend it to someone else.” He added, “Some homeowners are very interested in connecting their Nest to their Tank Utility data.” The Nest Learning Thermostat, with Wi-Fi connectivity, is manufactured by Nest Labs, Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. Creating such a connection can enable a user to lower the temperature setting if the fuel level is low, Epstein said.
Tank Utility provides fuel marketers with a robust platform to log into, “typically from their office computer,” Epstein said. The web-hosted platform allows them to manage thousands of tanks at once, Epstein said, and is also accessible from a tablet “if you’re in the cab of a truck or if you’re on the go.” Connecting a back office system to Tank Utility’s platform can be done “typically in less than a day,” Epstein said.
For more information visit www.tankutility.com
Paygo, based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is a company with a unique approach developed by Philip Baratz, the company’s CEO and CEO of Angus Energy. It aims to allow oil or propane dealer to bill a customer monthly for fuel usage as is the case with a utility.
“I’m excited about the possibilities that Paygo offers for adding and retaining customers, and enhancing our positioning in the market place,” noted Steve Goldman, CEO, Star Gas/Petro while promoting the program. “It’s the kind of innovative approach that could really resonate with today’s new breed of fuel customers.”
Paygo was designed to function within the framework of a dealer’s systems and pricing strategies. It keeps track of all the deliveries and how much is left from each batch of fuel, and feeds that back into the back office system. Monthly fuel estimates are made either using readings from a Paygo “Gremlin” tank monitor or degree-day estimates. True-ups occur with each delivery. Only automatic delivery customers are allowed on Paygo.
The dealer sends a statement at the end of each month that shows the estimated fuel the customer used that month, at the price it was originally delivered. True-ups happen with each delivery. Fuel is billed on a FIFO basis. Payment is due according to regular credit terms, from the statement date.
For more information visit www.paygofuel.com