WITH PROPANE distributors concerned about meeting new equipment regulations, R&W Supply Inc of Littlefield, Texas, is taking steps to ease the pressure. The fabrication, repair, and service company has expanded and reorganized the shop at its corporate headquarters in West Texas, and plans to have its Tyler, Texas, shop moved into a new, larger building by mid 2001. Additional personnel are being hired to meet customer orders.
The list to enhance customer service for bobtail users and bulk storage facilities doesn't end there. New van trailers are being added to the fleet to deliver parts to satellite centers in Tulsa, Oklahoma; El Paso, Texas; and Tempe, Arizona.
All of this means R&W Supply finds itself in the midst of unprecedented circumstances since it provides services for bobtails and the trucks' equipment, as well as services for bulk storage facilities, that fall under new federal regulations. All repairs and fabrication services typically needed for a bobtail are available at R&W Supply, with the exception of any construction or alterations to the vessel that would require a code-rated shop. The company also provides external and internal visual inspections, leakage tests, pressure retesting, sandblasting and painting, tank changeouts, custom fabrication, and compressor, pump, meter, and register repair.
"The federal regulations are a major factor in our recent growth," says Bill Conkel, company vice-president. "Propane bobtails and bulk storage are the two fields where we feel the growth will continue. To meet the market demand, we had to put in place the services to address it."
The Research and Special Programs Administration (RSPA) issued a final rule in 1997 mandating new emergency discharge control equipment on cargo tanks used to transport compressed gases, including propane. MC331 cargo tank vehicles manufactured after July 1, 2001, must have the equipment.
Remote shutdown system retrofits are mandated on MC330/MC331 cargo tank motor vehicles already in metered delivery services with water capacities of 3,500 gallons or less. Retrofitting must occur at the vehicles' first scheduled pressure test after July 1, 2001. All retrofits must be completed by July 1, 2006.
MC330 and MC331 tanks with capacities greater than 3,500 gallons that are in metered service also must have remote shutdown equipment. For obstructed-view deliveries allowed by the regulations, an off-truck remote with a query feature, or passive shutdown capability must be installed. These vehicles must be retrofitted at their first scheduled pressure test after July 1, 2001, or by July 1, 2003, whichever comes first.
Passive shutdown equipment is mandated for MC330/MC331 vehicles not in metered service. They must be retrofitted at their first scheduled pressure test after July 1, 2001, and all retrofits must be completed by July 1, 2006.
The rule was prompted after an October 1997 loading incident in which 40,000 gallons of propane were accidentally released at a storage facility. Analysis showed that the emergency shutoff system failed after a hose and coupling separation.
Initially, RSPA wanted to require an extra person on every bobtail. During a negotiated rulemaking, the agency was persuaded to accept remote control shutoffs on bobtails and new passive shutdown systems on transport trailers. The new rules also impact loading rack equipment at propane bulk storage sites.
The latest emergency shutdown rules came soon after another requirement was established for older non-specified bobtail trucks. The latter regulation has fostered work for R&W Supply as well. The company provides services for the retrofitting that includes hoses, valves, plumbing, bumpers, and lamps that are now mandated for the non-specified vehicles.
Industry Deregulation Stirring up the mix is deregulation of the gas and electric industries, a state of affairs that has propelled some electric companies into the propane distribution business. The new players in the industry are expected to boost the fabrication and repair market as well.
While R&W Supply is in an accelerated market because of the latest rules, the company is well-suited for the challenge because of a long history of specializing in propane truck and bulk storage services. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the company's sales representatives and technicians who handle customers' needs.
Sales representatives, based in Littlefield, Tyler, Tulsa, El Paso, and Tempe, are skilled in coordinating sales and fabrication between customers and shops. They understand the importance of designing a bobtail to fit specific needs of the customer. To expedite orders, R&W Supply stocks 90% of the components required for a new truck.
"We custom build all our bobtails," says Conkel. "That's how we know we have a quality product our customers can depend on."
The company also emphasizes quality in its shop personnel. Technicians are licensed by the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency that oversees the Texas oil and gas industry, including propane. To qualify for the license, technicians must pass an examination that covers several subjects related to propane equipment, including propane distribution, introduction to propane, appliance installation, bobtail operation, dispenser operations, and storage tank specifications.
New hires receive on-the-job training and are required to work under supervision until they have completed the training period and have become certified. Typically, they spend about six months before they are allowed to work alone.
Lelton Howell, fabrication director, points out that technicians often solve customers' equipment problems on the telephone. At other times, the customer's driver may just bring the bobtail to the shop unannounced.
"Our technicians have to be the eyes and ears for the customer," says Howell.
"People are calling every single day," says Joel Page of the Tyler shop. "Sometimes they say: `My truck won't run right.' A lot of the time, we can just talk them through the repairs so that they don't have to even come in."
However, with the 2001 regulation deadline looming, managers are anticipating a rush for service as soon as the propane season slacks off.
"A lot of customers are waiting until spring to bring their trucks into compliance," says Howell. "By then, their business will have slowed down so that taking a truck out of operation won't cause as much of a problem. But, our customers know that it has to be done."
Shop Expansions Just as the customers know the retrofitting must be done, R&W Supply managers realized they would require more space to meet the additional shop traffic - not to mention continuing routine service. At the Littlefield location, the 8,000-square-foot shop has been rearranged to accommodate five trucks at a time. Currently in Tyler, four trucks can be worked on at the same time, but the new plan calls for a building with 10,000 square feet.
Equipment in the shops includes a Lodestar hoist for lifting small, but heavy items, a Hotsy compressor parts washer, and various items for use in truck and hose pressure testing. It's not unusual for technicians to design and construct shop equipment.
For now, when customers send a truck in for major repairs, it is likely that they will opt for installing the remote control device, says Mark Powell, Tyler technician.
The basic system includes an antenna mounted on the back of the truck and a control unit about the size of a cigar box installed inside the cab behind the seat. Customers tend to rely on R&W Supply to select the system that will be used.
The type chosen most often provides two actions - it cuts off the engine and closes the internal valve in one function, as the regulation requires. Options include a system that will control the throttle, clutch, and hose reel retraction. Typically, R&W Supply installs Base Engineering products.
If a truck has air brakes, the cost for a basic system is less expensive than if the truck is equipped with hydraulic brakes. In the latter case, a compressor has to be installed. Depending on the system and the options chosen, the price of the equipment can vary.
Another aspect of the new regulation is applied to hoses, which must be tested at 1 1/2 times the working pressure designated by the hose manufacturer. The procedure is required for each new hose and when one is repaired. The test date has to be applied on the hose coupling. Hose crimp diameter is checked with a micrometer at the end of the hose to determine if the hose meets the standard.
The new propane regulations have boosted paperwork for both R&W Supply and its customers. The company provides documents that include the date, time tested, and name of technician who conducted the test. Documents are kept on file and copies given to customers.
Bulk Storage Meanwhile, at bulk storage facilities, R&W Supply is busy installing pneumatic equipment on loading racks that shuts off the flow automatically when pressure is lost from a breakaway or hose rupture.
Supporting the bobtail and bulk storage operations are the company's service centers, including warehouses at each location. The company uses products from many manufacturers, including Blackmer and Corken pumps, Dayco and Lifeline hoses, Dormont gas connectors, Gastite tubing, Hannay reels, Liquid Controls and Neptune/Schlumberger meters, Fisher and Smith valves, Rochester gauges, Sam Dick Industries vaporizers and air mixers, Veeder-Root registers, and Base Engineering and Impco fuel conversion systems.
Maintaining an efficient inventory system has been a priority with the company since it was established in 1946 by Dale Walthall and Nolan Ray. In 1958, Ray sold his share to Walthall's brother, Johnny Walthall. In 1962, Dale Walthall assumed full ownership.
"Their premise was that in order to keep the customer happy, you had to have the product on hand to ship immediately," says Shawn Pickrell, president and grandson of Dale Walthall. "Although the foundation of the business was sales of propane carburetion systems to the LP-gas dealers, an evolution of customer demand began to change the company's overall makeup, resulting in the services we provide today.
"As we move into the future, we are determined to meet and exceed our customers' needs by putting them first and by offering a variety in the inventory. We will always emphasize quality in both service and merchandise."