Propane tank-level gauges put to test in comprehensive study

November 2, 2011 By    

Addressing the subtleties of apples-to-oranges comparisons surrounding a complex set of competing technologies, the Propane Education & Research Council (PERC) has prepared a marketer-friendly guide to remote tank level monitoring systems.

Funded by PERC at a cost of $375,000 and conducted by the Battelle Memorial Institute, an Ohio-based research and development organization, the comprehensive 133-page report evaluates the performance of 13 commercially available remote tank level monitoring systems from nine manufacturers.

“We wanted to do a Consumer Reports-type study,” says Stephanie Flamberg, a principal research scientist at Battelle. “We worked with PERC and their advisory committees on what features were important to propane marketers.”

Greg Kerr, PERC’s director of research and development, says the objective assessment gives propane marketers who are interested in the technology an opportunity to compare the different systems that are available on the market.

“There are a lot of marketers who are interested, so we thought there would be some value,” Kerr explains. “It’s been two years in the making. It took us a while because we wanted to make sure the Research and Development Committee [at PERC] had time to review it along with the manufacturers.”

A typical remote tank level monitoring system consists of a tank-mounted transmitter and a receiver. The transmitter uses a sensor that is mounted on a fuel gauge and sends a radio signal to the receiver indicating the fuel level in the tank. The receiver communicates back to a computer server by phone or Internet. Alternatively, several manufacturers offer products that use a satellite or cellular phone connection and require only a tank-mounted transmitter.

Overall, the study rated top-performing models broken down by system characteristics. It also scored each system separately based on its performance for measurement accuracy, repeatability in varying temperatures, communication range, failure recovery, battery life and overall cost.

Each company had the opportunity to comment on the study findings prior to the study’s final publication.

Creating an effective methodology to evaluate diverse systems was a daunting task for those involved in the study. Like the propane marketer companies they serve, the systems use equipment designed to serve a range of needs – from small and simple through large and sophisticated.

“There were some challenges there, but we tried to group ‘like’ systems and report the data in a way that was easy to understand for the reader,” Kerr recounts.

“It wasn’t easy,” Flamberg notes. “It was a pretty extensive effort; it took a lot of effort and test equipment to get the results.”

Testing was done in a Battelle laboratory, plus a propane tank was installed in an open area outside to ensure a complete analysis.

Ease of installation was a crucial element of the evaluation process along with the overall cost of the competing units. Accuracy and the repeatability of consistent values under different temperature conditions were key factors as well, according to Flamberg.

Range of communication was analyzed in an open field. The equipment was also put to the test by three barriers common to real-life settings – wooden and chain link fencing along with a concrete block wall. An industrial-type site featuring metal buildings was another element brought into play. “We were trying to see how good the signal was in that type of setting,” Flamberg says.

Battery lifespan and “failure recoverability” – getting the systems running again and producing relevant data after an outage – were other factors included in the study.

“It’s a good tool for marketers to use to select the features that they are most interested in,” Flamberg points out. “You can make more informed choices.”

“It might encourage manufacturers who didn’t score as well in some areas to improve their systems,” Kerr says. “Some may revisit the cost of the service, but that really wasn’t the goal. The goal was to inform the industry of the systems that are available.

“If the industry deems this useful – and I hope they do – it might lead to other types of propane equipment being tested.”

PERC already has had similar product testing done on regulators, tank coatings and relief valves over the last five years.

“I think it’s a great study,” says Tom Dudycha, marketing manager at Independent Technologies Corp. Inc./Wesroc. “We have a lot of clients who have saved a lot of trips by monitoring. This study will show that it’s profitable [for the propane marketer] because it’s paid for with reduced trips.”

The technology is especially useful for serving commercial accounts and those with unpredictable usage patterns, according to Dudycha. And not every customer needs such a device, he adds.

“When you put a brand new propane tank in, put a monitor on it for a year to see how much usage they have,” he suggests. At the end of that period, you can remove it or see if the customer wishes to pay a fee to retain the unit.

“PERC’s doing a good thing for the industry by helping the dealer make comparisons,” says Chris Clabaugh, CEO and president at TankQ.

The old strategy of calculating degree-days to schedule deliveries “just doesn’t cut it” for accurately measuring how much propane is being consumed.

“They’re using propane for other services rather than just heating their homes,” Clabaugh notes. “There’s a lot of room for mistakes” as generators, water heaters, heat pumps, pool heaters and other appliances – plus the presence of a wood burner to augment the heat output – can all skew the process of trying to estimate when a delivery is necessary.

“It seems like the industry has been very slow to move toward monitoring,” he observes. “I’d like to see more movement toward using this technology.”

“It will stimulate more interest,” says Pat Mansfield, executive vice president at EnerTrac Inc. “It will give them a frame of reference: Who are the players in this market? Who should I be talking to?”

Mansfield does note, however, that the ultimate selling point will continue to be marketers talking to one another and making recommendations based on what works for them.

“Word of mouth is as important as anything else in this industry.”

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