Part One of Two: An Operator’s Response Guide to Fuel Contamination

I See Signs of Unacceptable Levels of Contamination in My Site’s Fuel. What Should I Do Immediately?

All fuel underground storage tanks contain some water. Unfortunately, this water is susceptible to microbiological contamination. It is also the contributing factor to causing phase separation in ethanol-blended fuels.

Under routine operations, the majority of contaminated water remains in the tank. Nevertheless, microbes in the UST water or on tank surfaces can contaminate fuel that is dropped into the tank. If dispensed, significantly contaminated fuel can damage both automotive engines and dispensers.

Operators who detect fuel is failing to meet minimum quality standards due to contamination (for instance, unacceptable levels of water, the completion of phase separation, or excessive particulate, slime or biomass), should execute the following actions IMMEDIATELY to prevent the distribution of the contaminated fuel:

1. Maintain safety protocols at all times, and follow all National Fire Protection Association, federal, state and local regulations that may apply.

2. Turn off power to submerged turbine pumps to halt further distribution of fuel from the tank and follow your fuel site’s procedures for registering an “out of order” pump.

3. If the dispenser filter is plugged, do NOT remove or bypass the dispenser filter to circumvent a reduction in flow. Efforts to sidestep these safety checks will result in contaminants passing through the system unfiltered, resulting in serious damage to vehicles and repair claims. Operators who run a dispenser without a dispenser filter also risk voiding their dispenser warranty.

4. Consult your site’s operational guidelines for secondary procedures, which may include testing the fuel, obtaining the support of a technician, requesting an inspector from your state’s Weights and Measures Department, evacuating the product from the tank and/or initiating remediation efforts such as biocides.

5. Do NOT drop a new delivery of fuel into the tank if you suspect phase separation has occurred. Doing so may cause additional inventory losses and prolong remediation efforts.

6. If excessive particulate or microbial contamination is detected, consult with a tank compliance company to obtain an assessment of the condition of the tank. With this information, you can begin to develop a long-term fuel quality management program (read about this in Part Two in an upcoming newsletter).

Critical contamination situations demonstrate the importance of dispenser filtration. By trapping particulate and other contaminants, and by slowing the flow of fuel to alert operators to the presence of phase separation, dispenser filters are the last line of defense against the distribution of contaminated fuel.

Although dispenser filters are an essential part of a strong quality assurance program, they are not capable of addressing the root problem: the contamination itself. The most effective quality assurance programs contain both a plan for responding to critical cases of fuel contamination, such as the one outlined here, and a longer-term approach devoted to the ongoing management of it (read more about this in Part Two). Operations that are prepared to address both scenarios through a clearly defined preventive and predictive maintenance approach will realize lower maintenance costs overall.

Related Link: Your Fuel Dispenser Filter Might Be Trying to Tell You Something Important. Are You Listening?