Ensuring the quality of your fuel

Petrol station operators should take a proactive and preventative approach rather than a reactive approach when it comes to tank maintenance, writes Dan Armes, Founder, ServoPro.

The core business of any petrol station is ‘petrol’ or ‘fuel’. Take petrol away from a petrol station and you take away the main reason for customers to visit the business. So, if fuel is the key product in this type of business, why do retailers forget to ensure that they are selling a top-quality product?

There have been many cases in Australia where contaminated fuel has led to a significant decline in business and even closure of the site.

Petroleum retailers should not only maintain the quality of their fuel because it protects their reputation but because they must comply with government legislation. The Fuel Quality Standards Act 2000 sets out the national standards for fuel quality in Australia. Petroleum retailers must ensure that the fuel they sell meets the national standards and specifications set out in the Act.

The Australian government uses inspectors from State Fair Trading Agencies to ensure that standards are being adhered to at a retail level. Inspectors have the right to inspect, examine, and take measurements with either consent from the retailer or a warrant to conduct a search. They also have the right to operate equipment to take a sample of fuel. In most cases, inspectors will take a sample of fuel from the site for lab testing.

Regular maintenance of fuel tanks is very important, it is easy to forget about fuel tanks and neglect regular maintenance as generally they are underground and become ‘out of sight out of mind’.

Maintaining the integrity of fuel tanks will not only ensure the highest quality of fuel being sold to customers but will protect and increase the lifespan of fuel tanks.

The most common fuel contaminant is water. There are a few ways water can enter a fuel tank, these include faulty seals in the lid, formation of condensation or from a delivery.

Moisture is drawn into tanks as fuel expands and contracts due to temperature changes and when fuel is being dispensed. The moisture then condenses inside the tank. One way to avoid the amount of moisture entering a tank is to keep the tank as full as possible.

Tanks should be checked for water using water finding paste on a regular basis. Extra checks should be carried out after storms and large rain events. Seals in the tank lid should be regularly checked to make sure they are in good order and are free from damage. 

If a large amount of water is found to be in a tank, retailers should immediately cease all use of the tank. They should then contact their fuel supplier and their preferred tank maintenance company to address the issue. 

In most cases, it is a fairly simple process to remove the water from the tank as it will settle on the bottom of the tank. Water, if not removed, can cause corrosion not only in tanks but also in pipework, pumps, and dispensers.

It is difficult to conduct a visual inspection of underground tanks for obvious reasons. If an above ground tank is used, visual checks of the tank should be part of a site’s regular maintenance schedule. Above ground tanks should be checked for perforations, cracks, and other structural damage.

Fuel is prone to microbial contamination and the formation of bacteria such as algae. Diesel is the most common type of fuel affected by this contamination. Products such as biocides can be applied to fuel to kill these contaminants. It is important though, that biocides are used only as a shock treatment and are not designed for continued use.

It is good practice to conduct a visual check of fuel quality when the volumes of tanks are measured. Check the dipstick for signs of slime, sludge, foam, discolouration, and anything else unusual. Another sign that a fuel tank has bacterial contamination is if there is a rotten egg smell evident.

Staff who will be checking tank volumes should be trained to look out for signs of microbial contamination.

If the fuel that contains microbial contamination is used in a vehicle, it can cause issues such as blocked fuel filters, reduced combustion efficiency and corrosion in the engine.

If it is found that a tank contains large amounts of debris, sediment, or sludge, it is recommended that retailers have a professional put together a plan of action to fix the issue.

In some cases of contamination, specialised equipment is needed to restore the integrity of fuel tanks.

In an underground tank, all the contaminants will sink to the bottom. Generally, a vacuum pump is used to suck up all the contaminants from the bottom of the tank into a settlement tank. Any fuel that is removed is treated by filtering the fuel ensuring any fuel that comes out goes back into the tank. This ensures that only waste and contaminants are removed from the site.

Petrol station operators should take a proactive and preventative approach rather than a reactive approach when it comes to tank maintenance. Poor fuel quality can have a huge impact on sales and brand reputation. Many customers choose a retail brand because they associate it with quality fuel. Customers will often return to the same nozzle because they know they are going to get quality fuel.

If you have a customer that comes into your store and comments on how long it took to fill up retailers should do something about it and engage a pump contractor to service the filters and investigate the root cause of why there is slow flow there.

Petrol station operators who take a preventative approach, are reducing their maintenance spend because if you have good fuel quality there will be less time spent on site servicing automatic tank gages, changing filters and less time managing customer complaints.

To avoid contamination, it is important that retailers use all tanks regularly and not let fuel stock sit in tanks for an extended period, as this can affect the quality of the fuel. 

If tanks are not regularly maintained and checked for contaminants, issues can be caused further down the line including blockages in pipework and filters as well as causing pumps and dispensers to malfunction. Retailers can avoid the need for costly repairs and downtime with regular maintenance.

If a customer identifies your service station as the cause of contamination, you have a legal obligation to initiate and pay for repairs. Usually, this is covered by insurance, however, if the retailer is found to be negligible and has not followed guidelines or standards, they could be personally liable.

In addition, statutory authorities such as EPA, WorkSafe and LGA can halt you from trading.  Word of contaminated fuels travels quickly thanks to social media.

It’s very important to implement a daily schedule of fuel inspection, implement SIRA (Statistical Inventory Reconciliation Analysis) and ensuring diligence of staff to make sure all equipment is undamaged and compliant, that all fill points are closed and tight and free of water or contaminants such as oil, sludge, and dirt.

It is every petrol station owner’s worst nightmare to have vehicles broken down outside their business because of contaminated fuel. Ensuring that tanks and fuel are properly maintained will significantly reduce the chances of contamination occurring.

This article was written by Dan Armes, Founder, ServroPro, for the October/November issue of C&I Retailing magazine.

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