How clean are your tanks?

I ask because they need to be very clean to accept E5 (5%) ethanol petrol which is now being rolled out by Texaco to all of its terminals this year. And once you’ve got 5% ethanol in your storage tanks, there is no going back. You cannot mix and match (although motorists can as the volume is relatively small).

The literature sent to Robert Edge at Long Garden Garage in Shropshire near Shrewsbury, put the wind up him to say the least. In fact he stopped selling petrol. "We sell twice as much diesel as petrol anyway," he says. "Shropshire is agricultural." Rather ironic given that ethanol fuel is produced by fermenting crops including sugar beet, corn and potatoes.

He was informed by his supplier, NWF Fuels, that he would have to ensure that his storage tanks were fit for E5 by mid-October. Texaco sent him a lengthy letter (nine pages of which he faxed to me) saying that Chevron was not waiting until 2013-14 (the government’s delayed biofuel target) to introduce 5% ethanol but was rolling it out now. The pages included a lot of advice about ’product integrity contamination issues’. Ethanol blends attract and absorb water so, and I quote: "Any water or sludge present in a station’s underground storage tanks must be removed prior to the introduction of ethanol blended fuel."

Otherwise the stuff might separate which means it cannot be legally sold and your customers might not like their engines stalling and so forth. If this happens (I should underline this bit) it is irreversible and the product will be disposed of as a hazard.

As Robert puts it: "So if 44 litres of water gets into 20,000 litres of petrol then I may have to chuck it all out."

Robert’s tanks are 40 years old. Let me paint you a picture of his business. He’s on the A49 south at Dorrington with an old-fashioned five pumps-in-a-line site that sells a lot of fresh fruit and veg. He goes to the market at 2.30am.

"When I started it was 2-star for 3s 8d (shillings and pence) a gallon. Then 4-star for 4s 6d. Five star was five shillings a gallon and had a high element of benzene. I’m probably the oldest reader of Forecourt Trader," he told me.

"I’ve worn out six pairs of glasses reading it."

Another problem for Robert is that E5 may wear out/corrode pipework. E5 has solvent properties which ’clean’ the system meaning a loosening of any dirt or scale in it. Texaco advises checking with a fuels system contractor for guidance. Cost is clearly a factor. Robert has heard that it will cost him £600-£700 per tank just for the checking.

He has further heard that all that ’starry’ petrol his tanks once housed will mean that they will not be fit for ethanol (although I gather this is not the case).

Nick Vandervell, spokesman for UKPIA, reckons all the big supermarkets are already selling E5: "If you have good housekeeping, it shouldn’t be a problem," he says.

He sees a cloudy horizon though. "EU targets will mean higher biofuel blends like B7," he says with a shudder in his voice. "Post 2013 it will be very complicated, especially for the refining industry and supply side."

Fuel will also become more expensive. Sugar beet, corn and potatoes don’t grow on trees you know!

The tank checker’s tale

Edward Wheeler, managing director of Southampton-based EuroTank Environmental, confirms that all the oil companies are now switching over to E5 and have informed retailers of the need to have their tanks checked. Business is booming for some contractors.

"Previously nobody had to do anything with their tanks other than check for water," says Edward, "but now they need inspecting and depending on how dirty they are, they might need cleaning.

"Checking involves lowering a 15ft endoscope (camera). If we can see along the floor we can see how clean it is. If we can’t see anything, it means it’s dirty and needs cleaning."

The cost for this checking would be £500 for the first tank and £100 for each additional one.

Cleaning would be up to £2,000 a day and it could take a couple of days.

He also points out that Robert, in the previous story, won’t get round the expense by concentrating on diesel. Biodiesel (5%) has a lower sulphur content. Sulphur is a natural inhibitor of bugs.

"The more environmentally-friendly you make the fuel the better it is for bugs so tanks will now require more maintenance. It’s a double whammy," he adds.

The move to ethanol isn’t everywhere at once. Tim Elliot, operations manager with MTB Environmental, says: "It isn’t happening in Southampton yet but we’re alongside the BP site at the Hamble where they are building storage terminals for ethanol as we speak."

The company is getting calls from further afield though and Tim is concerned that retailers don’t realise they will have to close their site for checking and cleaning.

"It’s a horrible job. Under the metal plate on the forecourt there is rainwater and rusty nuts.

"The minute you open it up you expose fuel to the elements which becomes a fire hazard. You’ve got people walking by, smoking. You can’t just do a token job. My advice would be to contact your fire officer first."

It seems to me that the oil industry is laying a lot onto retailers here. It is their product after all, even though legislation is at the root of it.

How are some of their customers going to bear this extra cost?