Aggressive competition in passive shut-offs

January 1, 2007 By    

A hose or fixture malfunction while filling or emptying a propane transport tank can create an explosive situation, and equipment manufacturers are aggressively debating which passive shut-off technology is better, complete with dueling testimonials.

Emergency shut-off devices provide safeguards against transport hose or fixture failures during product delivery or removal.
Emergency shut-off devices provide safeguards against transport hose or fixture failures during product delivery or removal.

Officials at Smart-Hose Technologies Inc. contend their product line is the only tried and true solution to coupling ejection, hose stretching or hose separation. Their design has racked-up considerable industry endorsements over the course of 10-plus years on the job.

Smart-Hose has even been cited by name in U.S. Department of Transportation regulations easing loading and unloading procedures due to the safety aspects provided.

Longtime propane industry veteran Sam McTier started Propane Technologies Inc. to bring his newest safety shut-off device, BreakGuard, to the propane market.
Longtime propane industry veteran Sam McTier started Propane Technologies Inc. to bring his newest safety shut-off device, BreakGuard, to the propane market.

“The exemptions that we have are for railcars and motor carriers; these allow for relaxed attendance requirements during transfer operations,” says Andy Abrams, Smart-Hose’s president and CEO.

“Some of our customers take advantage of these exemptions, and some do not even tell their employees – they just want the additional safety. I would suggest that our hoses are an additional measure to protect a facility and its employees from spills and the inability of EFVs (excess flow valves) to cope with transfer hose failures,” he points out.

“Ours stops the flow from both directions,” says Abrams, noting how 8,000 LPG units have been sold worldwide over the past five years, capturing about 75 percent of the transport passive safety device market.

“It’s the only solution that stops the flow from both the tank and the truck. Every other device on the market is crap.”

The entrepreneurs behind the new-to-market BreakGuard, however, counter that their remote radio-frequency shut-off technology represents a safer and more cost-effective option by terminating the pumping apparatus when trouble brews.

Abrams pronounces BreakGuard to be a “gizmo” that offers no proof of performance.

Sam McTier, , who has been working on his invention for five years, begs to differ. After selling his McTier Supply Co. last fall, the propane industry icon is escorting BreakGuard to market through Propane Technologies LLC, a Lake Forest, Ill.-based company he founded in 2005.

“We don’t have a production line yet; we’re building them as customers order them.”

Rising competition

“It’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” McTier proclaims of BreakGuard. The five-inch by half-inch units attach to the hose with Velcro and activate when a hose failure or other mishap causes the box to strike the ground or another object.

“Any impact on it will send a message to the RF device and shut everything down.”

A button performs the same function when held in an operator’s hand.

“It’s 100 percent better than the Smart-Hose,” McTier says, explaining how the units are programmed not to go off during normal vibrations, and can be activated repeatedly without having to be replaced.

“We have several hundred of them out there already,” McTier says. “The potential market is fantastic for this thing. We just haven’t marketed it yet.”

The device is sold to equipment distributors rather than directly to retailers.

“Propane is just the beginning. We have a customer who says he has the Coast Guard interested in it. We’ve already sent him a unit for filling ships with diesel fuel. If this gets Coast Guard approval it’s a whole new ballgame,” asserts Jack Glandon, McTier’s partner at Propane Technologies.

“We can’t think of a safer unit out there. It’s simple to operate and easy to install,” he says.

Glandon further notes how DOT regulations call for daily testing, which can be accomplished with this device.

“I don’t knock competing units,” he says, “but if you ‘test’ (the Smart-Hose) you’ve destroyed it.”

BreakGuard remains fully functional even if the operator is somehow incapacitated.

“You can have a heart attack, or if the hose gets lose it can break your legs. You don’t want the product flowing when the man is unconscious. The unit will shut off the main valves on the truck without human intervention,” Glandon says.

“As soon as it hits the ground it transmits the signal to the truck and shuts the system down; it transmits on the same frequency as the bobtail units.”

A wider application

Blue Star Gas of Santa Rosa, Calif. has three transports and 22 bobtails serving 12,000 customers throughout the Golden State and Oregon. After a stellar test run with BreakGuard attached to the transport hoses, the company is adopting the system to shut down all aspects of the propane plant.

BreakGuard is much more encompassing than other safety shut-off systems, according to Bill Stewart, Blue Gas president.

“This has a much wider application than just a leaking hose,” he says.

When a propane accident begins unfolding, the people closest to the scene tend to flee the immediate vicinity.

“If you have a leak that’s significant the driver doesn’t want to get near it, so from a practical point of view you need to shut that thing down from a good distance,” Stewart says.

Drivers and other plant personnel carry the units to deactivate equipment should trouble ensue. The devices are carried on key fobs, tucked into pockets and positioned in stationary posts.

“When the hose breaks it’s whipping around, but that’s not the only thing that can go wrong,” Stewart says. Hoses can get nicks, develop leaks or get pinched when run over by vehicles or afflicted with other calamities, observes Stewart, adding that he avidly seeks out technological innovations.

“You’re going to have a tough time staying in business if you don’t,” he says.

Over the years, Blue Gas has tried fume-sniffing devices and researched other safety equipment. But Stewart believes BreakGuard is the way to go – particularly because of its ability to be utilized throughout the entire facility.

He says he has experienced maintenance problems with the sniffers as the sensing mechanisms deteriorated, and found it difficult and time-consuming to get them serviced.

“We’re operating our transports near the ocean on the West Coast,” he explains, and the saltwater atmosphere aggravate corrosion issues. “I imagine the same situation would occur where salt is used on roads when they freeze.”

BreakGuard has so far been able to withstand Stewart’s rigorous safety-testing scenarios.

“The reliability is significantly better than anything else we have used.”

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