Avoid disaster with simple farm fuel management steps

With producers buying fuel tanks in record numbers, now is the time to review safe practices

Everyone loves a bargain, and producers got a big one this spring when fuel prices dropped to lows not seen in ages.

With average prices ranging around 65 cents per litre for diesel and 50 cents for gasoline with tax exemptions, producers quickly queued up at their local suppliers to shave some dollars off their farm fuel budgets.

Not surprisingly, higher-than-normal demand for fuel tanks quickly followed. Just ask Mike Brochu.

“We noticed a big surge in fuel tank sales both in our new and used tank sales,” said the general manager of All Peace Petroleum in Grande Prairie and Bar W Petroleum and Electric in Red Deer.

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“In general there was a bit of a mad scramble in March, April and May when fuel prices went down and farmers were getting some extra storage.”

But more tanks can equal more risk. Tank location, choice in base and distance from buildings and water bodies all make a difference between a safe farm fuel setup and a potential disaster.

“There can be a human impact, an animal impact or an environmental impact for not storing fuel correctly,” said Brochu.

“There’s potential for creating fires and explosions. You can have leaks that damage the environment — animals shouldn’t be eating the vegetation that comes from contaminated soil. On the human side of things there are potential health problems.”

The rules

Although fuel storage used solely for agricultural purposes is exempt from the Alberta Fire Code, producers can still be charged under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act if they don’t employ “due diligence” in their storage practices. That’s why the province recommends using Alberta Fire Code guidelines.

Also, some municipalities may have specific bylaws requiring producers to, for example, enact certain setback distances or have secondary containment in place, said Brochu. Producers’ best bet is to contact their local municipalities and fire authorities before installing or adding to their fuel storage systems, he said.

“They also need to reach out to their insurance providers, which may have mandates in place in order to keep their liability insurance valid.”

The Alberta Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) program offers some tips on how to store and manage fuel safely (go to the Resources/Technical Tips section of www.albertaefp.com). As well, a publication called Farm Fuel Storage and Handling can be found at www.alberta.ca (search for ‘farm fuel storage’ and click on ‘farm safety fact sheets’).

Siting tanks

Location isn’t everything when it comes to farm fuel safety, but it’s close. Your tanks should be placed where they present the least damage to water sources and human and animal health in general.

“(Locate them) where a spill won’t run into a water course or a ditch or a slough, so it won’t run into a producer’s water well or an adjoining water well, it won’t run into a basement or an adjoining building or into an area with livestock,” said Brochu.

“Set up your fuelling area so if you have a bigger spill it’s going to stay contained in that area. Make sure your tanks are located in properly ventilated areas. Don’t have a gasoline tank inside of a building where you are breathing in fumes and potentially having fumes collect, creating a chance of explosion.”

The EFP program offers suggested minimum setback distances. They include placing tanks at least 50 metres from any water source, 30 metres from a water body or forested area, six metres from any source of ignition, six metres from propane cylinders and tanks, and one metre from another fuel tank.

“The best practice is to maintain as great a distance as possible between fuel storage and water sources and water bodies,” said Lisa Nadeau, program manager for the Alberta EFP program.

Setting up a tank

A double-walled tank or a secondary containment structure capable of capturing 110 per cent of a tank’s volume can prevent or minimize the costly and dangerous effects of a fuel leak. As previously mentioned, Brochu recommends checking in with your municipality and local fire authority to find out about any local rules around secondary containment.

Tank bases should consist of material such as concrete or compacted gravel in order to prevent fuel leakage into groundwater.

“Your base should be non-combustible,” said Brochu. “I was born and raised on a mixed farming operation. It was quite common to see tanks on wooden stands and that’s just not safe. If there was ever a fire your stand could be compromised and your tanks can fall over, causing more damage and more fire.

“You need to be able to reach the nozzle safely without stepping up on a block that is not designed for access,” said Brochu. “Use proper steps and ladders.”

Fuelling up

Fuel tanks should be ULC or CSA approved and actually designed for the purpose of storing fuel products. While some producers might consider this advice an insult to their intelligence, Brochu said he’s seen farmers use a lot of off-point — and potentially dangerous — workarounds over his 30 years of selling and servicing petroleum products.

“They might be using water tanks and you name it, that were never designed to hold fuel. That could create all kinds of different problems, from tanks leaking to not having the proper ventings.”

Ensure fuelling equipment is appropriate for the equipment being fuelled. A lot of farmers are buying high-speed pumps in order to fill large equipment faster, said Brochu. However, think twice before using that pump to fill your truck.

“If you have a fuelling system that might be filling 115 litres per minute to fill your combine, remember that your truck is not designed to take fuel at that capacity. There’s a good chance you will put the nozzle in and it will take it for the first 10 seconds and all of a sudden it’s blowing back at you.”

Although automatic nozzles that shut off when a tank is full are a great idea in theory, don’t depend on them, said Brochu.

“You should always attend and manage your fuelling operations — don’t walk away from them.”

On that same note, producers should diligently maintain fuelling equipment.

“Cracked hoses and older hoses that blow apart are things that can cause big problems. It’s the same with leaky fittings. A fitting that’s leaking a drop a second adds up to a huge amount of fuel over a short period of time, so make sure everything is in good condition.”

Any electric components — pumps, for example — should be installed by a certified electrician, said Brochu.

“Consult with an electrician in regards to when grounding is required and when it’s not required,” he said. “That will vary from one system to another. Tanks usually need to be grounded in order to be safe and sometimes you need to ground between your fuelling equipment and what’s being fuelled, depending on the situation.”

In some cases producers may be able to completely avoid the risks of on-farm fuel storage by simply not having it. This might be an option for smaller farms located close to a fuel supplier, said Brochu.

“A smaller producer might say, ‘I don’t want to even have tanks on my farm,’ or, ‘I’m going to keep a minimum amount of tanks on my farm. To get to my land I have to drive by a UFA Cardlock — I’m just going to fill up my slip tanks that way.’”

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