Martin Devine outlines for Transport Business readers how a technology, once primarily concerned with fuel access and accountability, now has a vital role in helping commercial transport operators and local authorities address the environmental challenges of CO2 reduction
The simplest form of fuel management is a padlock. Lock the nozzle and no one has access to the fuel pump. Someone must ask for the key and the manager will only hand it over if he recognises the driver, knows the vehicle and knows that a reasonable interval has passed since the last fuelling. If you want more sophistication then you could add a book that the driver signs, records date, time, vehicle identity and mileage readings alongside the fuel drawn.
Clearly this has its drawbacks. It is slow, it is labour intensive, it doesn’t necessarily capture all the data you want or as accurately as you may need. And, what happens if the key is misplaced or not returned? As for making any sense of the information, a dog eared log book, with inconsistent entries in hurried handwriting is hardly the best starting point.
The role of fuel management is to overcome these problems and address several management and logistical issues at the same time.
The hardware and software
Fuel management systems, as we know them today, have been around for about 25 years. The three key elements are robust control units located at the fuelling station, telemetry to link them to the core computer and software to process the incoming data and produce useful reports.
The Fueltek FT4000 Fuel Access Control Terminal (FACT) is a typical modern unit and illustrates how these systems work. The FACT is located at the fuelling point and is the gatekeeper to regulate access and gather data. It can be configured as a stand alone unit to control existing fuel pumps or as an integrated fuel pump and fuel management system. Existing equipment, such as pumps and tanks, is easy to integrate providing it is sound and suitable for purpose.
Fuel is accessed via the FACT using a robust datatag. These are like the tags used on alarm systems and work on proximity by being presented to a reader. This tag identifies the vehicle and driver then allows them to draw fuel after inputting a mileage reading. The datatag is programmed with required access parameters such as maximum delivery amount, maximum number of fills per day and valid access zones. Tags can even be programmed with vehicle service, MOT and tax information so that the system provides prompts when these are due.
From the data captured by the FACT, the Fueltek fuel management software produces detailed reports customised to the information needs of the organisation.
The software package provided by Fueltek is Fuel Management On-Line (FMO). Scalability is a key feature of this software making it equally good for small fleet single depot operations as it is to large scale transport operators with hundreds of vehicles and scores of locations. There is no limit to the number of devices on the network. These may include fuel management terminals, tank monitoring systems or other devices such as gates, barriers or even key cabinets.
Internet Protocol (IP) provides the communication backbone. Every hardware device in the system has a unique identity and is connected via the internet (or the client’s dedicated intranet). IP based networks are extremely reliable and IP is also increasingly used in the security industry to network and monitor CCTV, access control, security and fire alarms.
New environmental challenges
Rotherham MBC is typical of many local authorities. With a fleet of around 450 vehicles and an annual fuel consumption of over 1.3 million litres, control of access to fuel and accountability are crucial. New obligations from central government for CO2, NOX and PM10 reduction impose additional challenges. The fuel management system therefore has a key role in gathering the benchmark data that is essential to plan a rational reduction programme.
Several years ago Rotherham MBC decided to centralise all transport services, enabling more effective management and use of the fleet. After a review of the existing fuel management system Rotherham decided that renewal was the only option and four companies were invited to present proposals.
Fueltek offered the most comprehensive fuel management package, going beyond just fuel island equipment and software to include a complete engineering package. This involved the integration of some existing pumps and tanks, the provision of new bulk fuel storage and all the associated civil and electrical engineering work. This also delivered single contractor responsibility for the whole project, avoiding possible disputes and delays.
Care was taken to customise the software to meet Rotherham’s individual needs. For example, the transport department must re-bill council departments for fuel use, as Roy Nixon, technical manager, explained: “Fueltek programmed their system so that each vehicle on the fleet has an individual cost code for the relevant department. This made it much easier for us to attribute costs and track fuel use, mpg and report to the departments on vehicle performance.”
In 2008 DEFRA adopted a new framework against which local government reported performance against 198 key performance indicators. The indicator set focused on issues such as tackling climate change. In particular, NI 185 concentrated on CO2 reductions and NI 194 on reduction of air pollution by NOX and PM10 particles. Local authorities have a requirement to report fleet performance and plan for systematic reductions.
The fuel management system provides the benchmark data for the DEFRA report. It also allows managers to analyse data in various ways. “Each department can see fuel usage, mpg and fuel use per vehicle and per class of vehicle. We can then work with the departments to help them make the right strategic decisions on fleet mix to meet future operational needs and environmental requirements,” explained transport manager Craig Simpson.
On a routine basis the FMO fuel management reports highlight under performing vehicles so these can be examined in the workshop to identify the underlying cause. Sometimes it may be that less efficient vehicle MPG is due to driver behaviour. To address this issue the transport department at Rotherham MBC has two full time trainers to promote safe and economical driving.
The environmental data required by DEFRA is reported via a customised spreadsheet. While the Fueltek system provides much of the raw data for this process, further calculations are needed to derive the CO2, NOX and PM10 values. However, an upgrade to the software is available from Fueltek that will integrate these calculations to produce final data in DEFRA format.
Diesel and petrol provide high levels of energy relative to their bulk and weight and so are ideal vehicle fuels. Hydrogen may be the best alternative, but this is not really viable until there has been a substantial investment in the production and distribution infrastructure. At this time, there are no viable alternatives to liquid vehicle fuels. However, given the probability that we will pass peak oil production in the near future the cost of these will continue to rise. This is the traditional justification for fuel management.
Global warming, atmospheric pollution and the long term health of the population add another dimension to this debate. Action on fuel use is now mandatory. Again data capture and analysis by fuel management systems play a vital role in enabling local authorities and commercial organisations to plan active fuel use and CO2 reduction programmes.