The decision to own and operate a bulk plant is not one that is taken lightly. There is a reasonable amount of capital investment involved, operational and maintenance issues to address and another layer of regulatory burden added to an already well-regulated business environment. And yet, as TV entrepreneur and pitchman Ron Popeil would say, it’s all too common to “Set it, and forget it…”
“I give classes and seminars on bulk plants (operations) and I start off with something like, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, raise your hand if you own a home,” said Brian Savage, president of Savage Associates. Headquartered in Berkeley Heights, N.J., Savage Associates provides a global range of liquid/vapor petrochemical storage system solutions. “I then ask, ‘Do you have any appliances in your home that are five years old?’ And the hands stay up. ‘Ten years old?’ The hands start to drop. ‘Any appliances 30 years old?’ And the rest of the hands drop. Then I ask, ‘Do any of you have a pump or meter at your bulk plant that's over 50 years of age?’ And you get remarks like, ‘Yeah, I probably do.’ And then I ask, ‘Do you maintain it like you do your house? Do you spend any money on your bulk plant assets like you do your house?’ If you spend money on your bulk plant, it will appreciate in value.”
The need for proactive maintenance can carry with it some serious potential dollars in savings. “If a marketer has a gasoline trailer or gasoline truck or fuel oil truck, they take that into Weights and Measures to get (the meter) calibrated,” Savage said. “But if you ask them, ‘When was the last time you calibrated one of your loading rack meters?’ you don't get a response. Why even have a meter there? Why not just take it out and throw it away because what purpose does it serve?”
While issues like regular meter calibration can have a significant impact on the bottom line, even the simple things count in real dollars. “Where pumps are concerned, how often do you check your filters?” Savage said. “We had one terminal lose a pump that was not even a year old. Check the alignment of your pumps. Check your strainers. If you don’t check something, it will break through and get to your pump or your meter, and instead of a new strainer at $150, you’re going to be spending $4,000 for a new metering device.”
Proper maintenance can provide other benefits. Even if a plant meets the technical letter of the law where regulation is concerned, appearances count. “Take a look at your sweating,” said Savage. “You know why that loading arm is sweating? Because it hasn’t been made since 1968 when Emco Wheaton made removable seal swing joints. If you budget yourself $5,000 per year to take care of your leaks, when that EPA person comes in he’s going to take a look around, not spend a lot of time if it’s clean, go inside, pull out his forms and ask you some questions and leave.”
Beyond maintenance issues, it can pay to look at upgrading existing plant equipment to take advantage of what’s new in the market. The broad conversion to bottom loading during the 1980s launched a notable upgrade cycle for the industry, but much of that equipment is starting to become dated. And in some cases upgrading is not an option.
“Some of the plants are in pretty bad shape,” said Woody Garrow, owner of Appleton, Wis.-based Great Lakes Tank Systems, which provides a broad range of bulk plant services. “The venting can be all wrong with older plants and the valving, and then you have the tank integrity testing. You can even bring old riveted tanks into compliance, but by the time you change everything on the tanks you might as well buy new.”
Similar considerations also come into play with new construction. It can pay today, without becoming inefficient, to plan ahead for the future with the right equipment and technology.
“You can be working on bulk plants in an area like Florida and you ask, ‘Guys, why are you top loading gasoline?’” Savage said. “The response is, ‘Well, we’re not regulated to bottom load.’ What I don't understand is that by the time you spend the money on top loading you could have safely spent it on bottom loading and kept your vapors down. And while you're at it, what about conservation vents on your tanks? If they ask why, I offer the following: ‘I'll spend $800 and give you a vent. And I'll check your inventory reconciliation from last summer and compare it to this summer and you can give me 40 percent of the growth you experience.’ And at one company I got a check for $3,100.”
In most cases, even with what might be considered a simple upgrade, it pays to work with consultants or contractors that fully understand both the technical requirements and regulatory requirements of bulk plant operations. “It’s important to work with a consultant or contractor that fully understands the specific state codes and other regulatory requirements,” Garrow said. “State codes can be very specific and issues as simple as substituting a brass valve for ductile iron on a tank can lead to a rejection during the inspection process. Some people go ahead and try to do it themselves then the state comes in during the inspection and tells them to pull it all apart and start over. It’s better and cheaper to do it once than twice.”
The impact of new technology is perhaps less with a bulk plant than some areas of product distributing and retailing, but notable enhancements have been made over the decades and a real ROI can be enjoyed. Offered below are just some of the newer equipment design and operational technologies available through an upgrade or new construction. Notably, many, particularly on the core equipment front, work to address the maintenance concerns.
“Being sliding vane, our pumps have the ability to self adjust and that's a big difference between our technology and rotary gear pumps,” said F. Scott Jackson, product manager for Grand Rapids, Mich.-based pump manufacturer Blackmer. “From the moment you turn on a rotary gear pump on, the gears are wearing against each other and you get more and more slip. You are going to get some wear with the vanes but over time those vanes are going to move further out of the slot and they will continue to maintain the same efficiency and the same flow rate. Eventually it will drop off to where you have a reduced flow and that's simply the pump telling you that it needs some maintenance and if you replace the vanes a lot of times it goes back to like new performance. So it's not a throwaway and with the proper maintenance it will last a long time.”
Similarly, Blackmer designed the mechanical seals in its pumps with a telltale hole so that if the mechanical seal does fail, it will start to weep a little bit of fluid to alert the operator. “This could be something as simple as an O-ring that failed so you can have a pretty simple repair that doesn't really take the pump off-line, and it also provides a good opportunity to do general maintenance such as replacing the vanes if required,” Jackson said.
The move to high concentration biofuels can also require some upgrading. “The primary issue with pumping biofuels is making sure you have the proper elastomers in the pump,” Jackson said. “For biodiesels and ethanol we use a high-grade FKM, which is the generic term for Vicon and is fully compatible with both products.”
Meters, registers and pulse transmitters
Total Control Systems based in Fort Wayne, Ind. Produces flow meters from 1.5 to 4 inches and up to about 600 gallons per minute in aluminum, ductile iron and stainless. The company also offers air eliminators control valves, electronic registration and controllers and facilitates automation solutions.
On the meter front, TCS has gone to a glandless meter to get away from calibration adjuster issues and leaky seals reducing the maintenance load. TCS has also put some development effort into its electronic pulse transmitter to make it more flexible with the various equipment in the market. “Most people are limited to what Veeder-Root produces, so we had to come up with their own pulse transmitter and encoder that is flexible enough to work with an FMC Micro Load as it is a Veeder-Root EMR3 as it is to an industrial batch preset,” said Dan Murray, TCS vice president. “We didn't see anything out there capable of doing that, so we ended up doing it ourselves.”
On the registration front, Murray noted that a lot of operators underestimate the value of having electronic registration. “Guys have said for decades that they don't use electronic because it will only confuse my drivers; it's too complicated,” he said.
That oversight can limit the ability to automate a plant and otherwise capture extra data useful for management. For example, beyond just storing transactions a new generation electronic meter-register, such as the EMR3 through its I.B. networking hub and three communications ports, can communicate with a wide variety of data-capture devices.
Plant automation is easier than ever with the advent of so many enhanced electronic and digital options in place of traditional mechanical equipment. Plant automation allows even minimal on-site staffing to be eliminated at a cost equal to half a year’s salary for a single employee, in many cases. And through automation, existing unmanned sites can provide the operator with a significant increase in security, reconciliation and control over what can too often be an “honor system” approach.
Total Meter Services, Vaughn Ontario, Canada provides an automation division with its TMS 6000 for bulk plants and small terminals in addition to a range of other plant services and solutions. “The goal with automation is to take instrumentation that's becoming outdated or wearing out where you have to migrate to newer pumps, meters and registration,” said Jason R. LeVine, TMS’ business development manager. “A lot of things that you've done mechanically, you're starting to do electronically—the control valves, metering, especially with electronic registration—and you need to ask what advantage you can take out of these electronic components that are newer pieces of equipment. By itself, without any software components, an electronic register has a limited amount of functionality. Granted it has some internal reporting and printing capabilities but if you look at it, it's just a nice display. What you want to do is take the data from there and tie it into a system where you also take data from other electronic digital type of equipment.”
A typical automated solution from TMS involves the following. When a driver pulls up to plant access, control consults a database of authenticated users and requires the right key card, pin number, or, in some cases, biometric authentication. When access is approved, a snapshot is taken of the drivers face and/or license place beginning the “transaction.” In the next phase of loading, the driver either goes onto a scale (with the data recorded) or straight to loading rack where the driver requests access to product.
At this point a check is made to make sure the driver's credentialed information (license, etc.) is still in date to determine if the driver can or cannot get product. Another layer of security asks the driver a few identifying questions that identify the trucking company and the end customer and the truck and/or trailer ID number. That provides proof positive of who came in and what they did while they were there. Further control can set how much stock a driver can access during any given period of time or even by dollar amount.
The driver then requests the appropriate amount of fuel or a preloaded order is activated for the driver. Pumping begins, the product is loaded and the transaction is completed, and an electronic bill of lading is generated and stored in a database for easy management access.
Loading Arms and Racks
Loading arms and racks are critical pieces of equipment, but are not necessarily considered to be all that “sexy.” However, even here there has been considerable focus on areas like making the loading process safer with reduced maintenance for the equipment.
“Our products are very mature and the focus on us is how we make it easier to service and maintain the equipment,” said Dave Morrow, product manager for OPW Engineered Systems
Based in Lebanon, Ohio. The company provides customize solutions for loading any kind of bulk liquid into a tank truck, rail car, seatainer or drum—to name a few applications. “For example, we have new bottom loading couplers where no special tools are required, and you can rebuild a fraction of the time compared to traditional couplers. Normally coupling and uncoupling is done by the driver, and they have a reputation as perhaps being pretty aggressive with how they handled the equipment. So couplers tend to be maintenance intensive, and we've worked to make the maintenance process as simple and fast as possible. Now a job that took two hours can be done in 10 minutes with a socket wrench. You don't have to find pins that are going to fit or a special tool.”
Sumter, S.C.-based Saferack develops engineered systems that provide a full range of loading and unloading capabilities customized to the specific needs of the plant operator. A particular niche for the company is providing a safe loading and unloading environment for the driver.
“According to OSHA, 80 percent of your falls come from climbing and descending and not usually once you're actually up on top of something,” said Thomas Semiklose, Saferack vice president of sales. “If you look at those ladders on the side of a railcar, there's not that much room to get your foot on there, and if you're carrying a 40 pound wrench and a cheater bar, it's pretty easy to fall off especially in a slick environment, and that makes it pretty easy to sell our stuff. We can build a rack where you walk up the stairs and all of the tools you need are stored in a toolbox on top of the rack, so all you need to do then is deploy our gangway. This lets you get from the platform over to the top of the vehicle and many are in a safety cage while you're out on the vehicle. You'd almost have to try to fall off the vehicle intentionally.”
Environmental concerns, as with retail, is one area where regulation is on the march and where upgrades may be forced. Fortunately, there can be some ROI advantages in this area to go along with the regulator push.
ARID Technologies Inc., Wheaton, Ill., provides a scalable carbon retrofitting unit solution that uses the company’s PERMEATOR membrane technology installed upstream of an existing carbon bed system. It is also particularly effective with some of the products that carbon can have trouble with like ethanol.
“You might want to consider a solution like ours if you find the regeneration time creeping up on your carbon beds and if it is taking longer and longer to get deep vacuum,” said ARID president Ted Tiberi. “Or if it’s starting to get close between your regenerating bed and your active bed when it comes time to switch over and if your switch over/breakthrough times are getting quicker and quicker, or if you have to back down your rates and you have trucks backing up.
In addition to helping a plant maintain environmental compliance, the technology keeps throughput up and returns product to the tank that would otherwise be lost. The ARID CRU routes the enriched vapors directly to the existing absorber (or “scrubber”), where the vapors are converted to liquid phase product and returned back to the bulk storage tank to be resold.”