Ditch the Stick

Anton Albrand, SkyBitz, a unit of AMETEK Inc., USA, explores how level gauging intelligence can improve tank accuracy

Remote tank monitoring (RTM) solutions are made up of many hardware components, all of which are continually evolving as technology improves. One of the simplest concepts behind how a tank monitoring solution works and often the backbone of measuring product level is the tank level gauge. These instruments provides the owner with real-time data on how much product is left in the tank, regardless of product type, in order to ascertain when the tank requires service. This article will address how this data can be used to provide better insight across the entire operation.

Tank level gauges vary based on a number of features, such as media type, which can range from fuel, oil, propane, water, lubricants, diesel, gas, and more. There are hundreds of gauges on the market today, including mechanical float gauges, sight gauges, electronic gauges (open-air radar, guided wave radar, magnetostrictive, capacitive), and hydrostatic gauges. The application type, compatibility with other required measuring components, and the shape of the tank also play a role in equipment requirements.

In the oil and gas industry, measurement requirements dictate the type of solution required, and compatibility with additional pieces of equipment such as controllers, fuel adapters, pressure gauges, and alarms are critical factors in determining what to install. There are products designed to meet specific, intrinsically safe or explosion-proof environments. Monitoring the temperature of certain products may be necessary to ensure the equipment can handle extreme conditions. Also, the speed of measurement is a factor in specific applications such as frac fluids and logging, with individual instruments such as transmitters capable of meeting faster response times.

While gauges may vary depending on the product measured, the key takeaway is the same – optimal efficiency, safety and cutting costs.

Benefits include:

  • Avoid run-outs and overfills.
  • Improve dispatch to client sites.
  • Visibility to tank level, pressure, temperature, etc.
  • Predictive analysis and scheduling.
  • Accountability to ensure safety protocols.
  • Improved communication between distributors and customers.
  • Consistency across all assets, regardless of above or underground tanks.
A piece of the RTM puzzle

It is important to understand how these tank level gauges fit into the overall monitoring solution and how the data from the tank can be used. The device is feeding information from inside the tank over a cellular network into a cloud-based platform. Tank level data is dispersed in a variety of ways through the application, which can be accessed by both distributors and their customers. Security is of the utmost importance when it comes to remote tank monitoring solutions, so there are multiple safeguards in place by most providers that allow hierarchal access to the platform, among a host of other security parameters.

Developers spend countless hours improving remote tank monitoring platforms as technology changes and new products are released. Most are built for the desktop user, while mobile products are designed to ease in-field operations and supplement the desktop version. Designed to provide users with the best possible experience when viewing tank data, the information offers users the ability to see basic features such as battery status, levels, and cellular signal strength to more complex features like time stamp fills and threshold reporting.

The hardware itself factors in many complex variables for measuring accuracy in the harshest environments and across a number of products. For instance, there are multivariable liquid level sensors that meet either regional or worldwide approvals for hazardous areas, yet they are easy to install and are extremely smart systems immune to faulty sensing elements or internal/external obstructions. These gauges are built using the highest caliber materials, but also provide digital capabilities proven to keep employees safe and the product moving.

It can be said that the data from tank level gauges are some of the most critical data sets when it comes to remote tank monitoring because it can affect almost every aspect of the organization. Safety aside, some users (dependent on the application) only require daily reporting but can check the status of their tank every minute for instant reporting, if necessary. This will affect the battery life, but most batteries offer a five-year life with warranty, so unless the tanks are high-fill tanks, once a day is typically the standard.

Some of the essential data points extracted into applications include:

  • Tank location.
  • Tank height and type.
  • Tank capacity.
  • Pressure.
  • Temperature readings.
  • Fill event history and draw rate.
  • Critical thresholds and alarms.

Most remote tank monitoring partners integrate with the industry’s common back office software packages and offer API integration for the hardware and software setup. This is helpful in meeting the desired reporting goals, primarily if the customer engages in more traditional business practices, works in silos, or they have not yet invested in addressing their digital strategy.

Installation made easy

Installation of tank level gauges has come a long way with the use of mobile applications and cloud-based platforms. It is typically straightforward and can take less than 30 min. per tank, which is helpful when customers want to install multiple gauges at once but cannot afford the downtime. The mobile application includes some useful features during installation, such as taking a photo of the container and verifying that the set-up happened correctly, which will help eliminate the need to go back after the installation.

There are a couple of things that need to happen before the hardware installation to ensure the accuracy of the data from the start. Customers need to record specific details about each tank on which they plan on installing a device during the set-up phase. This includes tank location, the height, the type of product it contains, capacity of the tank, and an estimated current level. For some tanks, it is usually as simple as opening the tank monitor device with a screwdriver at the lid, connecting the battery that provides the cellular signal, looking for an LED light that confirms the unit is working and then closing the lid. Now, the installer can slowly lower the sensor, which usually looks like a cable that drops directly into the tank. The cable is affixed to the monitoring unit which screws right onto the opening of the tank. Most remote tank monitoring partners provide ‘how-to’ videos on their website, so technicians can view it on their mobile device during installation.

However, applications used for the production of natural gas or oil refining may require a little more than a screwdriver so it is best to consult with an experienced remote tank monitoring partner that can offer options for multi-facility installation or large-scale roll-outs.

All about the data

One of the main reasons companies invest in remote tank monitoring is because of the insight they obtain from these small, yet extremely robust pieces of equipment. Tank level gauges can be set to report on a number of features including fill level, draw rates, critical thresholds, and more. The reporting features are set up through a cloud-based platform, so anyone in the company with a mobile phone or desktop device has access to this data based on permissions, set goals, and reporting requirements. This level of insight is beneficial when distributors are establishing dispatch efficiencies across the supply chain.

Tank level gauges ensure tanks are running at optimum efficiency, usually based on efficiency goals set forth by the organization as it aligns with industry standard regulations. The industry today delivers on a 40 – 45% tank efficiency rate, with the average delivery to a 1000 gal. tank around 400 – 450 gasl. By monitoring, the efficiency can be increased to 70 – 80%, so instead of taking 450 gal., 700 – 800 gal. can be delivered. This will increase fleet efficiency while also increasing profit margins over the fixed delivery costs. This information can be used to create reports that will improve operations.

Predictive analysis encompasses the analysis of a variety of statistics and historical facts in order to make predictions about future or unknown events. RTM applications take tank level gauge data, among other useful information, and combine it to perform a variety of reporting algorithms that help an organization run more efficiently.

One of the more essential pieces of data that RTM applications can help identify is how to meet efficiency targets among multiple tanks. Seeing one tank that needs to be serviced is great but being able to pool data from various tanks and identify which others are nearing fill efficiency is even better. This now allows distributors not only to see the levels of each tank but form fill patterns based on customer locations and dispatch to several tanks along the same route.

Companies are also increasing their savings by specifying the average delivery cost against a pre-set target efficiency model developed when they implement their system. This way, they can see the efficiency data for the current month and cross-reference that to the data from last month to see if they have improved the average delivery cost or not. Having this information readily available to management provides a more realistic picture of whether or not they are meeting their target deliveries when compared to actual deliveries performed. This is helpful when it comes to ensuring they have achieved their efficiency goals and for better streamlining their organization.

Conclusion

While software has taken center stage in most conversations and justifiably so, there is no mistaking that the hardware components that pull the data from mobile or stationary assets are equally important. Tank level gauges are an integral part of providing accurate data to the tank industries’ supply chain. As technology continues to develop, it is important to ensure that activities such as installation and reporting are becoming easier for the end user.

To learn more about remote tank monitoring solutions, contact SkyBitz to talk with a tank logistics expert.

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Published on March 27, 2019

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