Canary in a Coalmine

  John Eichberger |  October 2018

In October, I spent six days in Las Vegas at the NACS Show. In the weeks that followed, I felt a little disoriented with, as always, a soundtrack playing over and over in my head:

First to fall over when the atmosphere is less than perfect
Your sensibilities are shaken by the slightest defect
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line

Sting’s rapid singing in this classic Police song accurately describes how I felt after the Show – spending nearly a week in the city of sin with around 25,000 of my closest friends and pushing the envelope from early morning til late at night can take its toll. But it was so worth it. (If you have not attended the NACS Show before, I encourage you to put it on your calendar for 2019. You will not regret it.)

But the Police lyrics reflect more than just my disorientation. There was a consistent theme resonating with the meetings I had during the Show – those who operate petroleum underground storage tanks (USTs) need to pay more attention to their systems in order to head off problems associated with water intrusion and corrosion. And consistently evaluating and monitoring the system (aka, sending a canary into the coalmine) can provide an early warning to potential problems before they get out of hand.

The Issue

We started hearing reports of excessive corrosion in ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) tanks in 2007, shortly after diesel sulfur content was reduced to 15 parts per million. Reports at the time were random and limited in number but gradually increased in frequency and urgency. Today, concerns about corrosion in ULSD tanks has reached serious levels and reported incidents have become nearly ubiquitous. (See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Underground Storage Tanks for more information.)

The issue has become so pronounced that NACS and PEI both featured education sessions on corrosion, with panelists speaking to standing room only audiences. And on the trade show floor, there seemed to be an endless number of exhibitors showcasing their services and products for detecting, controlling and remediating contaminated USTs. I met with most of these exhibitors and spoke with the presenters from the sessions – they all agreed that the number one enemy of the UST is water and the first thing a tank owner must do is be diligent about monitoring and maintaining the system.

A UST system that experiences degradation problems can result in poor product flow, excessive filter clogging, damage to vehicle engines, product releases into the environment and subsequent remediation of contamination and replacement of expensive equipment. It is enough to make you dizzy walking in a straight line when you think that some people won’t make modest investments of time and resources to avoid such consequences.

What Not to Do

The factors that contribute to UST issues are numerous and the industry continues to work collaboratively to uncover the primary causes and discover long-term solutions. In the meantime, the message at the NACS Show was that every tank owner has to take responsibility for their own tanks and take care of their systems – they must not assume someone else is going to protect them or that potential problems will just go away. And they should not be cutting corners.

While there are no silver bullets to preventing system degradation, there are simple things tank owners can do to reduce risk and things they must not do. For example, do not remove the drain plug from your overfill bucket. This will simply allow rainwater to freely drain into the fuel tank. And don’t just turn off the alarms associated with your monitoring systems when they go off. (These are true stories…you cannot make this stuff up.)

Now if I tell you that you suffer from delusions
You pay your analyst to reach the same conclusions
You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line

What to Do

While there are a variety of recommended practices one can review to help perfect a housekeeping system (CRC Reports No. 667 and No. 672 are collaborative industry products that provide guidance for the storage and handling of diesel fuel.), as well as numerous professionals available for consultation, there are basic processes and procedures all tank owners should follow to minimize risk to their systems.

At the panel discussion about corrosion, the following were suggested to help prevent water intrusion at your site: 

  • Frequently monitor and check all exposed areas of the tank system to remove standing water.
  • Actively monitor and ensure all caps and seals are well-seated and water tight.
  • Visually inspect submersible turbine pump systems for water and proper operations.
  • After a period of precipitation, double check everything to ensure water is not intruding into the system.
  • If operating in an area subject to snowfall, snow plows often damage seals and these areas should be inspected immediately following snow removal.

Even the most diligent operators may not be able to prevent water accumulation in their systems. Water could enter the tank with the fuel or could be generated through condensation within the system. It is incumbent upon the tank owner to monitor and take action to prevent water from creating a problem. Some things tank owners should do include:

  • Physically test tank for water in addition to relying on digital water sensing equipment.
  • Use filters that remove water as well as particulates and monitor them frequently for water absorption.
  • Perform flow rate tests and test fuel samples at the point of sale to ensure your product meets your standards for quality and is void of free water. 

In other words, get some canaries and send them in – regularly.

Get Help

If your canaries keep dying, it might be time to get some assistance. There are many tools being developed and offered to tank owners to help reduce the incidence of corrosion. Several companies offer tank cleaning services and consulting support to help tank owners develop effective housekeeping procedures. In addition, during the NACS Show I saw systems demonstrated that work with the submersible turbine sump system to actively remove water from the storage tank on a regular basis. I saw a host of water coalescing filtration solutions that work both actively and passively to absorb and remove water from the tank system. And I saw products purported to work within vapor spaces of a tank system to help prevent condensation from forming.

The bottom line is that support exists and is not difficult to find. Tank owners who are struggling to manage their systems, are constantly dealing with water conditions in their tanks or are experiencing corrosion within their systems should seek assistance. It is better to invest in prevention than deal with the extraordinary expenses associated with corrective action.

The Fuels Institute Fuel Quality Council continues to work with stakeholders to identify best practices for ensuring product quality at all stages of the distribution system and to ensure the diesel fuel being introduced into modern engines performs as designed and desired. A summary of this work will be available in early 2019 and will be showcased at a Diesel Fuel Quality Workshop in Washington, DC, February 19-20. For more information about the work of the Council or for details about the workshop, visit our website.

So, in the true spirit of the Police, let me be repetitive:

You live your life like a canary in a coalmine
You get so dizzy even walking in a straight line
Canary in a coalmine
Canary in a coalmine
Canary in a coalmine