Raising the roof on crude oil storage tank safety

Victoria-based Syscor’s FR-Tracker system acts as a wireless watchdog for floating tank roofs

For nearly a full century, the floating roof has been the lynchpin of crude oil storage.

The concept hasn’t changed much. But now, a British Columbia-based company is now putting a technological tiger in the industry’s tank, so to speak.

“The first floating roof was built in 1919, and it’s actually evolved very little since then,” says Nick Tzonev, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Syscor Controls & Automation Inc. “Much of the industry’s infrastructure is getting old; a lot of tanks were built in the 1950s and 1960s, during the big terminal industry boom.

“And we’re also seeing an exodus of knowledge from the field, either through retirement or today’s higher rate of job turnover.”

Enter Syscor’s wireless watchdog. In 2008, after emerging successfully from a field of over 80 competitors in an evaluation led by British Petroleum, Syscor unveiled its FR-Tracker technology to the crude storage industry.

Using multiple wireless sensors, the FR-Tracker system offers an early warning for potential problems associated with floating tank roofs—providing 24/7 monitoring of temperature, vibration, inclination, liquid levels on deck, and potential hydrocarbon vapors, and guarding against:

  • Excessive rainwater or snow accumulation;
  • Roof misalignment or inclination;
  • Sticking seals or ladders;
  • Overfilling and the effects of settling; and
  • Potential aftereffects of a seismic event.

Over the past decade, Syscor has successfully deployed its systems at tank farms owned by Enbridge, INEOS, Gibson, BP and Irving Oil—and now, the company is preparing to step up its game with the imminent launch of a second-generation facility monitoring system, pending certification.

“There are very well-developed statistics that tell us one in 149 tanks will have a $2-million-plus incident a year,” says Tzonev. “We’ve had about 30 tank installations so far; we’ve definitely prevented one sinking of a floating roof, and possibly prevented two others.”

In addition to owning and operating North America’s longest crude oil pipeline system, Enbridge also has about 39 million barrels’ worth of crude storage across North America, including large tank farms at Cushing, OK, Hardisty, AB, Superior, WI, and the greater Chicago area.

Enbridge actively looks for opportunities to adapt and harness technology to enhance our pipeline and facility safety programs. We invested in Syscor’s technology in 2011, we conducted a two-year pilot program in northern Alberta to help develop FR-Tracker 2.0, and we now have the technology installed on five tanks in the Fort McMurray area—with wider deployment coming soon.

“Through regular inspections and expert judgment, our tank terminal staff keep our system operating reliably and safely. Enhancing that program with an ‘always-on’ monitoring system helps us to spot small changes and patterns of change in a roof’s movement—developments that can provide early indication of a maintenance need, and create even greater operational reliability,” says Dr. Chris O’Neill, a technical manager with Enbridge’s Research, Development and Innovation (RDI) group.

“Syscor’s technology can spot these early signs and tell us there’s a problem worth investigating—usually earlier than we would have otherwise known—and that allows us to act before any issue becomes more costly to address,” adds O’Neill. “It’s really about giving yourself the data you need to make timely decisions.”

Syscor’s next-generation wireless monitoring system uses a leading-edge Internet of Things (IoT) platform to incorporate analytics, improve reliability and performance, and greatly reduce power requirements and overall cost.

It also uses WirelessHART, a more secure and reliable instrumentation standard rapidly being adopted by industry.

“This is a true facility monitoring system, with applications beyond floating roofs—and it was Enbridge’s RDI group that really made version 2.0 a possibility,” says Tzonev.

“We’re hoping that this new system will help facilitate a paradigm shift in safety while remaining very affordable.”