Remote Control Shutoff Systems Already Standard for Hicksgas

Oct. 1, 2000
WELL AHEAD of a July 2001 effective date, Hicks Oils and Hicksgas Inc of Roberts, Illinois, has already installed remote control shutoff systems on all

WELL AHEAD of a July 2001 effective date, Hicks Oils and Hicksgas Inc of Roberts, Illinois, has already installed remote control shutoff systems on all of its 75-plus propane bobtails. Safety, rather than federal mandate, was the chief motivation.

In fact, remote control shutoff was an area of interest for Hicksgas management years before the federal government launched its HM-225 rulemaking initiative. Technicians at a subsidiary company began development work on a remote control shutoff system in 1992, and Hicksgas vehicles were used for most of the field-testing.

"Delivery system failures resulting in product release are quite rare, but we felt for a long time that remote control shutoff would provide an extra margin of safety for our drivers and customers," says Todd Coady, one of the owners of Hicksgas. "We began this project well before RSPA (Research and Special Programs Administration) started work on HM-225.

"This is simply part of our safety commitment. The remote control shutoff keeps a worker from entering a hazardous environment in the event of an equipment failure and release. Even from a distance, the worker can take effective action to stop the release."

Even in its earliest years, the company was focused on giving customers the best and safest possible service. Established in 1926 as a petroleum jobber, the company shifted into propane distribution in the 1940s. Gasoline and heating oil are no longer part of the mix, but the company does distribute lubricants in addition to propane.

Operations today are spread throughout the northern half of Illinois and the northwestern quarter of Indiana. Bobtails reload at a number of bulk plants strategically positioned across the operating area. Seven company-owned propane transports help keep the bulk plants supplied.

From the outset, the Hicksgas owners wanted total control over the propane distribution process, right down to assembly and refurbishment of the bobtails. Before long, other propane marketers in the region were asking if they could purchase the same types of bobtails that were being built for Hicksgas.

Rocket Supply Corp was set up as a wholly owned subsidiary in 1959 to meet the demands. The company specializes in turning out premium products that are tailored to each customer's specific needs.

Remote Control Shutoff It was at Rocket Supply that the idea for a remote control shutoff system first emerged. Technicians Ron Warren and Fred Waldbeser saw that too many bobtails and trailers were arriving at the shop with inoperable or malfunctioning emergency valves.

"Valves were stuck on trucks, and trailers had both stuck valves and emergency release cables," Warren says. "Hardware certainly didn't meet the safety requirements set by the federal government."

They decided to do something about it in 1992, and they were given encouragement by managers at Rocket Supply and Hicksgas. Developing the basic system didn't take long, and prototype units were soon being tested in the field.

For the basic system, the technicians turned to the construction industry, where remote control systems were used on overhead cranes and cement mixer trucks. Radio interference was the biggest challenge they had to overcome. The new electronic engines turned out to be a big source of that interference.

Federal Mandate The remote control project took on greater urgency in 1997, when RSPA issued a final rule mandating such systems on propane bobtails. Under the rule, new equipment built after July 1, 2001, must have the remote control shutoff system. Retrofits on vehicles already in service must be completed by July 1, 2006.

The rule was prompted after an October 1997 incident in which 40,000 gallons of propane were accidentally released at a storage facility during loading. Analysis showed that the emergency shutoff system failed completely following separation of a hose and coupling.

Initially, RSPA wanted to require an extra person on every bobtail. During a negotiated rulemaking, the agency was convinced to accept remote control shutoffs on bobtails and new passive shutdown systems on transport trailers.

"Putting two people on each bobtail would have had a catastrophic impact on this industry," Coady says. "It would have doubled our labor costs and brought a significant increase in product prices."

By the time the final rule was published, Rocket Supply was ready to go to market with a product it calls Wizard. The system comes in two models: A basic unit that meets the regulatory requirements and another that can fully operate the product delivery system. In the event of an emergency, the Wizard unit can be used to close the main valve and shut down the engine.

"With our multifunction Wizard Plus unit, the operator can adjust engine speed, operate the pump, reel out the hose, and actuate the rear-mounted work lights," Warren says. "He can do all of that as far away as 300 feet from the truck."

The control unit is about the size of a television remote. It has a battery that delivers up to six months' life depending on how much the unit is left on.

Maintain-link technology ensures constant communication between the remote control and the truck-mounted receiver. Loss of signal will trigger an automatic shutdown of the delivery operation. Driver input is required at regular intervals or the truck will be shut down.

Among other safety features: The Wizard control will not operate until truck parking brake is engaged. In addition, a PTO interlock shuts down the engine if the parking brake is released while the PTO is still engaged. Tank valves cannot be operated while the vehicle is in motion.

In the event of a Wizard failure in the field, the system comes with an override attachment that makes it possible to drive the truck back to the shop. "This feature is very important to drivers out making deliveries during the winter," Warren says.

Driver Friendly The Wizard system was designed for drivers, and the initial reaction from the field has been very favorable. Marcy Lewis, a Hicksgas driver for the past five years, says she has been working with the Wizard system for about three years.

The biggest challenge she faced in the beginning was remembering to turn on the system before starting a delivery. "Sometimes, I'd get all hooked up to the customer tank and then have to disconnect everything, walk back to my truck, and turn on the Wizard unit," she says. "You can't make a delivery unless the system is active.

"I also have to remember to push the continue button every 20 minutes, or the system will shut down. Sometimes, I forget about the button when I'm talking with a customer."

To ensure that the Wizard unit is accessible at all times, Lewis wears it on a shoulder strap. She wears the unit even when driving and says it is comfortable even with a seatbelt.

Lewis drives one of the newest bobtails in the Hicksgas fleet - a Kenworth T300. The truck has a 206-inch wheelbase and was spec'd with a 230-horsepower Caterpillar 3126B engine and Eaton six-speed transmission. Other T300 features include a high-level trim package, power window on the curb side, AM/FM radio, heated mirrors, air-ride driver seat, and locking differential.

Kenworth Chassis The Kenworth chassis has become one of the most popular models offered through Rocket Supply. "The Kenworth T300 has really taken off and done much better than we anticipated," says Steve Bloomstrand, Rocket Supply vice-president of operations. "We didn't know how easy it would be to sell a diesel-powered truck to propane distributors. People are really proud to drive it.

"The thing about Kenworth is that the reputation means a lot. People realize it's a Class 8 heavy-duty truck and a well-respected name. The T300 is a Class 7 truck built to Class 8 standards. The other things that help to sell it are the aluminum cab features, the good visibility from the cab, the ease of entry and exit, and wide-opening doors."

Bloomstrand says the Cat 3126B is projected to run 300,000 to 350,000 miles without major repairs or overhauls. With a 25,000-mile-per-year average for propane distributors, the life expectancy should be 12 to 15 years compared to six to 10 years for propane-powered units.

Mounted on the chassis is a 3,000-gallon MC331 tank fabricated by Arrow Tank and Engineering Co. Tank hardware includes a three-inch Fisher main valve and RegO sight gauge. Product delivery equipment consists of a three-inch Blackmer and Muncie PTO, Neptune meter, and Hannay reel with product delivery and vapor recovery hoses. Controls are consolidated in a tower arrangement that Rocket Supply technicians designed.

The meter, hose reel, controls, and other hardware are mounted at the rear on an open aluminum deck. What makes the rear deck unusual is that it is convertible. Operators can have an open deck in the summer and an enclosed arrangement during the cold winter months.

"Our customers like aluminum because it is lightweight and rust-free," Bloomstrand says. "We paint our aluminum decks, while other competitors leave them raw. A painted surface is much easier to keep clean and maintain."

All in all, the bobtails operated by Hicksgas are as close to state-of-the-art as is possible. They send a clear message that the propane distributor wants to give its customers the best possible service with the best possible equipment.

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