Push under way to develop new, improved device to test odorant levels

March 10, 2011 By    

A familiar issue has lingered in the air for years, hanging over the propane industry, casting doubts and clouding the senses.

Only recently has it risen to the forefront, given a voice by a self-labeled small marketer from Minnesota who has been bothered by the industry’s reliance on – of all simple processes – its sense of smell.

Last October, Michael Sheehan of Sheehan’s Gas Co. addressed the topic of odorant testing during the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) meeting in Baltimore. He was driven by well-documented odorization shortfalls unfolding in the Northeast, conversations with colleagues on the matter and an overall motivation that change into how the industry tests for odorant was needed.

“I wanted to make [PERC] aware that it’s a huge problem,” says Sheehan, a third-year council member. “When you fill a bulk truck, you test that you can readily smell odorant, but everybody’s nose is different. There isn’t a good test. That’s why it’s ludicrous that we don’t have something that can prove how many parts per million of ethyl mercaptan is in propane.”

Sheehan spoke to the propane industry, and the industry appears to have listened. According to Greg Kerr, director of research and development for PERC, the council is exploring the answer. Laboratories and manufacturers are being approached about creating a portable and cost-efficient device that can measure the amount of odorant in each product load. Kerr says there is some early interest from manufacturers.

“Can we get it done? I don’t know. It’s never been done before,” says Sheehan, who markets propane and natural gas. “But we have to take a fresh look at it.”

Fueling the issue
Joe Rose’s cell phone ended up in his freezer for two hours. His wife put it there during a dinner party because she couldn’t take the constant calls.

To say late 2010 was busy for Rose, executive director of the Propane Gas Association of New England, would be an understatement. His region faced supply challenges earlier than usual, but one in particular had him answering to Massachusetts state authorities.

Low levels of odorant were suspected in a fatal propane explosion at a condominium construction site in July. The incident touched off an investigation into whether the region’s propane supplies were adequately odorized. Several facilities were closed temporarily for testing – which was performed in different ways – and the attorney general in Massachusetts warned consumers that a potential odorization problem existed in the marketplace.

“The issue came out of the blue and just smacked us,” Rose says.

Rose detailed this series of events at a National Propane Gas Association meeting last fall in Baltimore. Sheehan was in attendance, thinking, “If we had a machine that we could use [to detect odorant in propane], we would be in much better shape.” A few days later at the PERC meeting, Sheehan spoke out.

A week after the fall NPGA meetings, the New England association hosted an odorization seminar that drew about 250 people and, due to the many questions from attendees, lasted about three-and-a-half hours (when it was scheduled for two).

The issue continues to gather momentum in the industry, as propane odorization seminars are scheduled for the NPGA Southeastern Convention & International Propane Expo April 16-18 in Atlanta.

The standard
While there are several types of odorant-testing methods available to the propane industry, including stain tubes, odorometers and gas chromatographs, “the sniff test is the only process because it’s the standard,” recognized by NFPA 58, Rose says. And some within the industry are saying that’s simply not good enough.

“From the beginning, there’s always been that sniff test to detect odorant,” adds Bill Mahre, a propane industry veteran of nearly 60 years.

Odorization requirements for the industry were first documented in 1937. An odorant – measured at 1 pound of ethyl mercaptan per 10,000 gallons of propane – must be detected at one-fifth the lower limit of its flammability.

According to NFPA 58, all LP gases must be odorized prior to delivery to a bulk plant. Verification of odorization is required through sniff testing or other means – at the bulk plant, when shipments bypass a bulk plant or on each delivery to a small LP gas system – and the results must be documented.

Basically, “NFPA 58 says when you transfer product from one vessel to another, you have to sniff,” Rose notes.

Concerns remain about the odorant tests available to the industry. The sniff test is subject to sense-of-smell issues, while the stain tube test, which involves taking a liquid propane sample and running it through a glass tube, has been called into question as well.

“Whenever human beings are involved, there’s a possibility of error,” Rose says.

Legal challenges
An odorant-testing device also could help the propane industry in the legal arena. Propane companies are often targets of plaintiff’s attorneys, and Mahre has seen a high percentage of odorization-related cases over the past 15 years.

As the owner of Minnesota-based Propane Technical Services, Mahre specializes in investigations of propane- and natural gas-related accidents, providing legal assistance and developing codes and standards for the propane industry.

“Litigators on the plaintiff’s side specialize in gas odorization actions and also gas detector actions against the propane industry,” says Mahre, a special expert to the NFPA 58 committee and a member of NPGA’s Technology, Standards and Safety Committee. “That’s all the cases they take. There are half a dozen very dominant ones in the U.S. that take case after case.”

Sheehan adds, “It’s just a gray area of how you test for odorant and how you prove it in court that you did have enough odorant in the gas.”

Instruments already exist that measure and record gases and chemicals in the air, Mahre notes. He utilizes a device at investigation sites that measures the amount of propane in the air, and he has a “truck full of test equipment” from several manufacturers. So why couldn’t the propane industry take this technology one step further so it could measure odorant in propane, he wonders?

“The technology industry could develop a unit of some type that would measure ethyl mercaptan,” Mahre says. “There isn’t anything right now to do that. Everybody says that it hasn’t been invented, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be.”

While the legal investigations into odorization have been ongoing for years, Mahre recognizes the potential benefits of a new odorant-testing device – “some method that a marketer could use to take a sample of gas very easily throughout the distribution chain; a piece of equipment they could have as part of their test kit, just like gauges and wrenches; something quick and easy that can be read out and recorded, where they can say, ‘That gas is properly odorized, and there’s got to be some other reason that the customer didn’t smell it.’”

Photo courtesy of the Propane Education & Research Council

About the Author:

Brian Richesson is the editor in chief of LP Gas Magazine. Contact him at brichesson@northcoastmedia.net or 216-706-3748.

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