These facilities are the backbone of the petroleum marketing industry.
By Brian Reynolds
Bulk Plants. If you say it out loud to the uninformed, you are liable to get a big yawn. But bulk plants are probably one of the more interesting pieces of architectures and business models in the fueling industry. For starters, there is no such thing as a typical bulk plant.
Most bulk plant facilities are manifestations of decades-old growth that have increased in size and purpose over years and years. What might have originated as a top-load staging area for small bobtail tank trucks are now monstrosities that have 500,000-gallon tank capacity and are connected to pipeline and/or railroad spurs. Products can include propane, biodiesel and bulk lubricants. They can have yard space for 18-wheeled tractor-trailers. There can be a card lock and warehouse space.
Retail c-store facilities are all about order in the universe and a structured competitive environment with car counts, hard corners and demographic research. Wholesale bulk plants are all about Armageddon and preparing to do battle and service a robust customer base!
Tanks rise from the ground up, stacked and standing at attention, surrounded by concrete beams and a staircase leading to a loading dock resembling a dais worthy of General George Patton. Trucks wait in line to be loaded and ready for takeoff to embark on their daily sorties. Warehouses are filled with barrels of lubricants and heating oil trucks ready to roll for their degree-day calculated deliveries. Bulk plants have that powerful, industrial look that demands respect.
A bulk plant typically consists of several tanks, either above ground (vertical or horizontal) or buried. Some bulk plants are located alongside railroads. They sometimes receive product from railroad tank cars, spurred directly to the bulk plant yard. More often, however, bulk plants are located at the edge of small towns or in the industrial areas of cities. Liquid fuels, such as gasoline, are delivered to plants by large tanker trucks and pumped or dropped into the storage tanks that are frequently manifolded together. Later, these products are loaded into smaller tank trucks for delivery to service stations and commercial fueling facilities.
Biodiesel production is common at bulk plants. Even though diesel rack prices have decreased in recent years, biodiesel is still something that operators continue to specialize in, and the demand remains strong.
Propane also can be found at many bulk plants. Propane’s popularity has increased over the years, and I have noticed that when I take my tanks to be refilled for my outdoor cooking appliances, the tank and my wallet seem heavier than when I go to get an empty one exchanged for a full one! Propane bulk plant operators have a slightly more complicated operational process that includes expertise in using pressure relief valve stacks, liquid and vapor compressors and pumps, loading and unloading stations (including truck bulkheads and railroad tank car unloading risers), emergency procedures and a working knowledge of shutoff valves.
Frequently the bulk plant is where you will see the dispatch office as well. Today, dispatchers are more supply chain managers than their predecessors from a bygone era. Dispatchers are well informed and highly trained computer operators who are motivated to maximize delivery trips and provide just-in-time inventory for many types of fueling facilities. Often, a marketer’s general office is on the same location and where environmental compliance is maintained. Bulk plants are also often the home base for many common carrier operations.
Another common sight at the plant is a cardlock facility. Cardlocks continue to be popular with jobbers and fleet operators Many systems have safeguards built into them to minimize misuse and ensure proper controls are in place for product dispensing, such as PetroVend’s Automatic Vehicle Identification RFID system. Such systems are designed to minimize human interaction at the pump to include the automatic capture of miles and engine hours, along with an EMV-certified terminal for card locks that take credit cards.
Modern petroleum bulk plants are sophisticated engineering marvels that often look like futuristic settings from science fiction movies. Bulk plants often go unthought of yet are the backbone of our petroleum marketing industry as command and profit centers.
Brian Reynolds began his career working as a teenager in his family-owned jobbership in Cisco, Texas, and was at the forefront of many significant industry milestones. Reynolds was an early adopter of cardlock systems in the 1980s, a pioneer of high-volume supermarket fueling centers in the 1990s and one of the key architects of inventing reward-based fueling loyalty in the 2000s. He currently works for Dover Fueling Solutions in ClearView, wet stock management sales. Contact him at Brian.Reynolds@DoverFS.com or (325) 733-6490.