Last month Harvest Energy launched a new sub-brand Breeze on a redeveloped site at Holmer Green, near High Wycombe. The company describes it as the first ’virtually attended’ filling station in the UK. The ’attendants’ are 100 miles away in Peterborough, remotely operating the forecourt as if they were on site, through a state-of-the-art system of CCTV links, Scheidt & Bachmann fuel pumps and Clou CRID card payment technology.

"We are effectively moving the ’competent person’ from being physically located at the site, to a remote monitoring facility," explains Simon Davis, Harvest Energy’s head of sales and logistics. "We have redefined how an unmanned petrol station works."

The site is covered by a number of fixed CCTV cameras and also a Pan-Tilt-Zoom camera. The trained operative at the remote location is able to approve and authorise the pumps to dispense fuel when they are comfortable the customer is acting in a responsible manner in exactly the same way as on an attended forecourt, thus avoiding problems such as underage sales, or fuelling non-approved containers.

The remote operator is also able to communicate directly with the customer over an audio-only intercom at the pump. Either the operator or customer can initiate these calls. Even if a customer initiates an audio-only call, the operator will automatically be presented with a feed from the CCTV camera in the immediate vicinity of the customer. In addition to the pump communication link, the site has an emergency cabinet in a safe area, away from traffic on the forecourt. This features an audio/visual unit allowing customers to conduct video calls with the remote facility. The bottom section of this unit houses emergency equipment such as extinguishers, sand buckets and so on. The opening of the door triggers an alarm at the remote monitoring centre. The camera will automatically focus in on the emergency cabinet when this happens. There is also an emergency telephone unit on the cabinet whereby customers can press a button to initiate a call direct with the emergency services. In the event of an emergency, the trained remote operator will escalate as appropriate. The operator has the facility to power-down individual pumps or the whole site if the need should arise. Should the situation not require the emergency services to attend, but the customer still needs assistance, this would be fulfilled by a key holder being alerted and attending within a timescale of 20 minutes.

Harvest has been looking at unmanned sites for several years, and has overcome many technical and health and safety challenges. "There have been a lot of contractors involved and they’ve all worked hard to get the site working," says Davis. "We went through a process of identifying sites, and chose the Holmer Green site because we didn’t want to lose it. The site had been dealer-operated by the workshop business next door, W&M Stevens. The Harvest dealer had not wanted to continue with the petrol station which had peaked at 3mlpa, but had fallen to 1.7mlpa prior in recent times so we rented it, giving the retailer a set income." The site was closed for six weeks for redevelopment and within three weeks was back to pre-closure volumes, with the new facility of 24-hour opening encouraging transactions through the night and early morning. Pricing is competitive matched to Asda. Work is about to start on a second Breeze site.

"The project is about giving low-volume sites that may otherwise close, a new lease of life, and providing a service to the local community," says Davis.