IoT for Gas Stations? Smart Sensors for Fuel Monitoring
Apr 26, 2021
Gas station owners and operators don’t have real-time visibility into fuel inventories across different locations. That basic problem leads to significant complications. One is maintaining oversight of inventories and sales of fuel. An operator who manages 20 or 30 gas stations or fuel-dispensing convenience stores can at best only estimate how much fuel is in each tank in a particular station at a particular time. Comparing levels of fuel storage tanks in different stations throughout his territory is similarly a matter of guesswork. Measuring, recording and sharing data on multiple fuel tanks in disparate locations involves labor-intensive manual intervention that yields limited, out-of-date and often inaccurate information.
Because of this lack of clarity, most fuel deliveries are calendar-based, rather than ordered in response to demand. This negatively impacts cash flow and revenue, as operators either carry unused inventory when demand is low or experience shortages when demand peaks.
Limited data also prevents real-time reconciliation between sales and inventory, which means that operators can’t pinpoint the factors that impact sales and plan accordingly. For example, while they know that demand will spike during the Fourth of July weekend and wane in late February, they lack the detailed insight needed to optimize supply management and forecast needs based on historical data.
Another problem is that fraudulent operators can skim fuel from tanks or trucks and add water to mask the difference. A distributor carrying 4K gallons of gasoline might siphon off 500 gallons, then top off the tank with 500 gallons of water before making his delivery. Or, a station manager might sell gas off the books and then either dilute the remaining inventory or change the settings on his console to make up the difference.
Here’s where the Internet of Things and Edge Intelligence can help. While “Internet of Things” typically evokes images of amazing innovations medical implants and self-driving cars, the combination of data-collecting sensors and analytical platforms can address a wide range of everyday business challenges. For gas stations, the payoff is remote fuel tank monitoring; specifically, real-time and remote visibility into fuel facilities and access to inventory data – including insight into fuel arbitrage, as well as timing, location, distribution, product availability and quality of supplies.
Smart sensors deployed within a gas station’s underground fuel tanks can gauge volume and water level of existing inventory and new shipments. The sensor within the tank collects and transmits data to a controller located outside the tank. The controller, in turn, connects to a Cloud-based analytical platform that processes data and allows operators to monitor fuel volumes and water levels in multiple tanks in multiple locations. Based on this insight, operators can improve supply management and place orders for new deliveries in response to demand – that helps to address the problems of inventory excesses (higher costs) and shortages (missed sales). Analytics can also support consolidated reporting and help optimize inventory management in anticipation of market fluctuations.
Edge Intelligence solutions can also combat fraud by gauging and flagging excessive water volumes. By automating and documenting the reconciliation of deliveries and dispensed fuel against inventories, the tools can prevent the practice of recalibrating measurements to mask skimming. Additional benefits include enhanced trust between owners and station managers, as well as reduced employee exposure to hazardous materials.
The importance of razor-sharp insight into fuel inventories was underscored by the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. When prices and demand for gas plummeted in the Spring of 2020, operators had to take proactive action to optimize already thin profit margins. By improving cash flow and managing supplies based on actual demand, operators were better able to avoid carrying excess inventory or running out.
The takeaway: IoT solutions that enhance inventory management, logistics and maintenance can make a critical difference when times are tough.
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