Processing Magazine

Bulk Liquid Thefts Highlight Need for Remote Monitoring Systems

May 24, 2012

Thefts of bulk liquids are on the rise — and the thieves are branching out. They''re not just targeting familiar valuable commodities like gasoline, heating oil or diesel fuel. Today’s thieves are looking at liquids you probably never thought of as being seen by thieves as opportunities. How about... used cooking oil from restaurants or anhydrous ammonia from farms?

Changing technology and an appetite for more exotic vices are helping drive a new bulk liquids thievery epidemic. Used cooking oil can fetch up to $4 per gallon when used as a basis for biofuels. And in agriculture, anhydrous ammonia, commonly known as ammonia, is a component in fertilizers and animal feed. But it''s also a key ingredient for concocting methamphetamines.

Many different types of business operators may find themselves vulnerable to theft if they store bulk liquids, from rancid oil to fuels and industrial chemicals, wherever thieves can get at them. How can you protect yourself from these hijackers? Businesses are trying to defend their bulk liquids in various ways, but one means of protection that''s worth taking a closer look at is use of remote liquid level sensors.

Remote monitoring systems measure the volume of liquid held in offsite, bulk storage tanks. Levels are detected using continuous-range or point values and are reported back to headquarters. Continuous-range sensors monitor the fluid levels within a predetermined range. Point-level sensors monitor only whether the liquid level is above or below the detection point. These sensors are useful in providing an alert when levels become excessively high or low.

Other Uses Too

While theft of valuable liquids has been an ongoing problem, and one that''s getting worse, theft is by no means the only bulk-liquid problem where a remote monitoring system, capable of detecting the liquid level, could be useful. There is, of course, the problem of serious leakage.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by September, 2011, more than 501,000 "releases," or leakages, from underground storage tanks had been confirmed by the agency. "Steady cleanup work has progressed for over a decade and over 413,000 contaminated sites have been cleaned up," says the agency on its website.

The EPA warns that despite years of determined cleanup efforts, about 88,000 sites contaminated by leakages from underground storage tanks remain to be cleaned up.

Often, companies are assessed heavy costs or fines for leakage contamination from their bulk liquid storage tanks, whether underground or on the surface. And there''s usually an associated "goodwill" cost in terms of adverse publicity and sour public perception.

Preventing such leakages in the first place is where a monitoring system deploying remote liquid level sensors can save a company — or public agency — a lot of expense, both in the bank account and in terms of community attitudes and perception.

Some devices, such as Automation Product Group’s (APG) LOE remote monitoring ultrasonic sensor, use the Internet to communicate the levels of a network of storage tanks. APG provides a unique abrupt-change alarm, which, when triggered, can signify a massive leak or a possible theft. One of its customers has used the alarm to activate a security camera and notify officials.

Device’s General Efficacy

Remote monitoring systems are a cost-effective way for companies to keep track of their bulk liquids inventory, and they don''t require manual operation or surveillance, which wastes time and money. According to DP&C, a logistics optimization firm, the average tanker truck operation spends $180,000 per year for each truck in the fleet. Most of the cost, $110,000, is for truck maintenance and fuel, and the remaining $70,000 is spent on drivers. Imagine if the driver continuously serviced tanks that were half full. Asking how much time and money would the company waste with each trip is more than a purely academic exercise.

Remote monitoring systems can make the maintenance and surveillance of liquid bulk storage tanks an easier and less expensive process. The right equipment and set-up can track inventory, optimize logistics, facilitate compliance and detect thefts, such as the one caught in a recent YouTube video.

The surveillance film shows two thieves stealing anhydrous ammonia from an industrial-sized storage tanks. It took them just one minute to open the valve that released ammonia into a waiting portable tank. They didn’t need a lot of equipment or a complex strategy to steal valuable liquids, only motivation. This small-scale heist occurred around during daylight hours by thieves wearing shorts and sneakers.

Lyndon Henry is an application engineer with Automation Products Group, Logan, Utah.