Growing trends in tank monitoring

July 17, 2018 By    
photo courtesy of skybitz tank monitoring

Tank monitors can add efficiency to refilling. Photo Courtesy of Skybitz Tank Monitoring

If you averaged 290 gallons per auto-fill delivery to your 500-gallon tanks last winter, skip this column. Otherwise, read on.

Over the past several months, we have talked about the importance of:

The Internet of Things: Amazon has disintermediated a number of industries. It’s only a matter of time before it happens to retail propane – with or without Amazon. We’re doing it, and so are many of you.

Technology strategy: A technology strategy requires a business strategy. You may overspend or underspend on technology depending on your strategy and what you buy. Try to avoid that mistake.

Your customer management system: I spent two columns talking about the importance of your customer management system (CMS). In the first issue, I talked about the importance of connectivity and efficiency. In the second issue, I did a shallow dive (a deep dive is well beyond the subject matter of a published column) into some of the internal features that are important to a CMS.

Now it’s time to talk about tank monitors. Much has been said about them in many other settings that one might think that there is nothing left unsaid. Not so, for two reasons:

Technology: Enhancements in technology have enabled tank monitoring vendors to make monitors accessible to remote areas. For example, our own business struggles with cellphone connectivity in significant portions of our delivery area. The availability of CATM and low frequency radio spectrum has supplemented satellite access when cellphone connectivity is unavailable.

Lower cost: New entrants into the propane industry are providing a low-cost alternative for retailers who want to scale their tank monitoring to a larger base of their auto-fill customers. Of course, cost is less of a concern for retailers who do not need to scale their tank monitoring to achieve appropriate average delivery results. There are at least two low-cost alternatives available for about half the price of many other alternatives.

If your operation might benefit from tank monitors, here are some of the considerations that you should use to evaluate your alternatives:

Battery life: This is a significant driver of cost and maintenance activity. Vendors range from “up to five years” to 10 years of battery life. That’s up to a 50 percent variance in maintenance cost.

Ease of installation: All of us have purchased and activated cellphones or changed cellphone providers. Setting up monitors is a similar process. Attaching them to the tank and a remote-ready gauge is an additional step that varies significantly among monitors. Make sure you understand this in detail.

Data delivery method: We have already touched on this, but it’s important to understand the availability of data delivery options in your delivery area because it has a big impact on both cost and, most importantly, reliability.

Data access: Many customer management systems (CRM) are able to integrate with tank monitor solutions. Make sure that you understand the cost and extent of the integration with your CRM. You also should make sure that you understand your customers’ access to data. Can they get to it through your CRM app or portal or do they need to access it from the monitor vendor?

What gets monitored: For many of us, it’s all about the tank level. However, if you have a lot of underground tanks or metered tanks, the ability to track cathodic protection or meter levels is an important feature.

Safety: Make sure that the monitor has the appropriate regulatory approvals and is safe for the intended use. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not. For example, there is some debate about whether a monitor on a residential site requires Division 1, Class 1 approval or whether Division 1, Class 2 approval is sufficient under NFPA 58.

Finally, make sure you understand the economics of monitors. You don’t want to give all of your savings away to the vendor. You also need to consider whether it’s best to purchase or lease the device given the risk that future technology developments may render current monitors either obsolete or less effective than the monitors of the future.

Christopher Caywood is a co-owner of Caywood Propane Gas Inc.

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