In some ways, not much has changed in relation to the way a fuel system is installed at a service station in Australia. There are still storage tanks, fuel pipes and dispensers. What has changed, however, is the technological sophistication of the systems that are now being installed.

These technological advances have increased overall efficiency of retail fuel sites and have dramatically extended the useful life of a service station sites by reducing the chance of long term liabilities associated with leaking systems.

Older fuel systems create long term business risk for fuel retailers

30 years ago, fuel tanks consisted of single walled steel, galvanised steel pipework and predominately suction pumps. If installed correctly and in the right conditions these systems would operate without any significant issues provided they were regularly inspected and maintained

Unfortunately, many of these systems still are still in operation today despite nearing the end of their useful life. Continued use of these systems brings considerable risk for the site owner/operator owing to:

  • Corrosion – Single walled steel tanks corrode if coating systems fail or are damaged. Tanks typically had a cathodic protection system installed to protect from corrosion, but the maintenance and testing of these systems was often not done until after installation, so once the anodes deteriorated there was no longer any cathodic protection of the tanks.
  • Pipework movement – Galvanised steel pipework with screwed threaded fittings were also prone to corrosion if the galvanising was damaged or backfill material was not in line with specifications. This type of pipework system has several screwed joints sealed with a thread sealant buried underground. There is a risk of this type of joint moving from ground movement, poor installation could also contribute to a joint leaking underground.
  • Loss of fuel underground – The older systems do not have any spill containment under the dispensing pumps or fill points. As a result, fuel spilled during routine maintenance of the pump units and/or replacement of filters went straight to ground. The same occurred at the fill points which resulted in any fuel loss going straight to ground during road tanker unloading operations.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of these systems is that fact that these systems remain in operation at a relatively large number of service station sites around the country.

Changes in government regulation over the years has seen many of these older systems retrofitted with modern components such as spill containment devices (under pumps, dispensers and fill points), system inventory monitoring and regular integrity fuel system testing.

These practices have allowed the older systems to continue to operate in full compliance with the latest regulations and industry standards and, although minimising the risks for the fuel operator, these actions have not eliminated them.

Sound business management suggests that all fuel retailers with older systems should consider replacement of these older systems with systems that take advantage of the technological advances in fuel systems that have occurred over the past 30 years.

New fuel systems and the benefits

The technology now available with the installation of new fuel systems is far advanced on the days of old and carries a dramatically reduced risk of loss of product. Some of the more notable advances of new fuel systems include:

  • Secondary containment tanks made of double walled fibreglass, glass or steel are non-corrodible and offer interstitial space between the inner and outer tanks that can be monitored for leaks.
  • HDPE pipework provides a non-corrodible and flexible solution with electrofusion joints and secondary contained product lines allowing an interstitial space where leaks can be monitored.
  • Containment sumps are fitted under the dispenser/pump, tank turrets and fill points to contain any spills.
  • Submersible turbine pumps are fitted with leak detection (electronic or mechanical) and are very efficient. The pump is submerged in the fuel and dispensers are silent.
  • Automatic Tank Gauging (ATG) electronically monitors fuel volume in real time with water sensors, high and low level alarms, electronic line leak detection and sump sensors to monitor any liquid in sumps.
  • Vapour Recovery 1 and 2 (as per regulations) reduces vapour to atmosphere by recovering and recycling.
  • Forecourt spill containment is achieved using various systems to contain contaminated surface water run-off and spills.

Owners and operators with old fuel systems, although likely operating as designed and complying with all existing regulations, face a substantial liability as the system nears or exceeds its intended design life.

In addition, where a site has changed hands, it is possible that the new operator is unaware of whether past practices may have resulted in problems to tanks and pipework that have since gone uncorrected – resulting in the new owner attracting liability.

Upgrading your old fuel system with a new fuel system provides an opportunity to not only secure technology that accords with industry best practice and satisfies market needs, but also to satisfy yourself that you are not carrying unforeseen liability associated with past operations of older systems.

What’s involved with replacing an old fuel system?

Replacing the old fuel system on site is a major undertaking and often involves full site closure – planning and preparation is the key to reducing the time it takes to replace the existing fuel system.
Planning Stage

  • Environmental site assessment – This will be required for regulatory approvals and also gives a look at potential remediation works that may be required as part of the replacement works.
  • Design – The new fuel system will need to be designed to ensure it meets with regulations, operational requirements and constructability requirements.
  • Regulatory approvals – All above information is submitted to gain approvals for the replacement of the fuel system.

Construction Phase

  • Removal of existing fuel system – remaining fuel, pumps/dispensers are removed and the site is excavated to remove tanks and lines, soil is remediated (if required) before backfilling of old tank excavation (as required).
  • Installation of new fuel system – Excavate for new tanks ensuring appropriate ground support (bench, batter or shoring as required), install new tanks, containment sumps and fill box. Install new pipework, electrical system and pollution control system, integrity test new fuel system (pre and post burial), backfill, concrete, install dispensers, submersible turbine pumps (STPs), automatic tank gauging, leak detection and commission entire system.

Summary

While this article only discusses what is involved with fuel system replacement, these works also provide an opportunity to refresh/upgrade other existing site infrastructure while the site is closed (e.g. the canopy, shop building, and LPG system).

It goes without saying that the replacement of a fuel system is a costly capital exercise that also involves loss of earnings during the site closure period. Few consider, however, the fact that a leaking system left unaddressed poses a far bigger threat than mere profitability in a given year – it can potentially mean total loss of the business and/or environmental prosecution.

It therefore follows that delaying the replacement of a fuel system that is beyond its life is a false economy – businesses with older fuel systems should start to plan to replace these systems in the near future.