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Degradation of Fiberglass Underground Storage Tanks

Worker showing degradation of a fiberglass tank interior. Image Source: www.nwtli.comIt is a common assumption that fiberglass Underground Storage Tanks (USTs) are impervious to corrosion which is often seen in steel USTs, but recently fiberglass USTs have been shown to fail and the cause is interior tank degradation. These tank failures can result in catastrophic releases of fuel into the environment if problems with tank interiors are not detected early. A report published in 2013 by the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO) explains that increased concentrations of ethanol and biodiesel fuel blends can have a detrimental effect on the life expectancy of a fiberglass UST. It is important to understand that not all tanks or their components will be compatible with these new fuel blends.
How can a fuel with a higher ethanol concentration degrade a fiberglass UST? Biofuels have different chemical properties than conventional gasoline or diesel which can lead to compatibility issues. Biofuels are more soluble and can degrade, soften, and seep through hoses, gaskets, seals, elastomers, glues, and plastics. Biofuels are more conductive, which directly leads to corrosion in steel USTs. Biofuels have the capacity to absorb more water than conventional fuels, this causes the water to become suspended in the fuel to a greater extent than is normally seen. The presence of water creates a habitat for microbial growth while hydrocarbon fuel is a food source for many types of bacteria.
Water management is one of the main ways to protect your UST from degradation. Water intrusion into the UST can create a habitat for bacterial growth, which can waste product and result in tank or tank component failures. Many types of bacteria use hydrocarbons (gasoline or diesel) as a food source and once they consume the fuel they excrete byproducts that can degrade tank linings. Other types of bacteria can use the resin holding the fibers together in a fiberglass tank as a food source, which makes tanks vulnerable to failure. Tank components, especially those made of metal, can be degraded by bacteria as well; leak detectors, fill tubes, turbines, tank linings, elastomeric seals and hoses, low points in the piping, turbine pump components, filters and valves.
Because fiberglass USTs are not immune to degradation as previously assumed, it is a good practice to inspect for evidence of interior degradation and microbial contamination. Signs of microbial contamination in USTs include plugged fuel filters (< 6 month intervals between fuel filter changes), plugged fuel lines, erratic gauges, rotten-egg odor, and frequent replacement of valves, rubber seals, and hoses. Direct signs of tank degradation include white “hair-like” fiber debris and black coffee ground-like debris. These are typically found in used fuel filters. If you are experiencing any of these problems you should contact us about possible microbial contamination or tank degradation. If your tanks are over 20 years old you are at a higher risk for tank degradation and you should pay extra attention to this matter.
What we recommend you do:
·         Implement Good Water Management Practices: Water intrusion can occur from leaky riser joints, leaky tank top fittings, faulty spill bucket drains, or careless operators that drain spill bucket liquid back into the tank. Protect your tank from water intrusion.
·         Monitor Water in your Tank: New ATG probes can measure water in various fuel types including alcohol based fuel. Another method includes using a tank gauging stick and water finding paste.
·         Inspect your Filters: If your fuel filters need to be changed frequently (< 6 month intervals), then check to see if there are white “hair-like” fibers present or black substances that look like coffee grounds. These are signs of fiberglass degradation. If you suspect degradation, have your filters analyzed by a laboratory.
·         Keep Records of Replaced Components: Keep track of how often you need to replace valves, rubber seals, and hoses for each of your tanks. Frequent replacement of these items is a sign of bacterial growth in the tank.
·         Tank Interior Inspection: If you suspect bacterial growth in your tank arrange for your tank interior to be inspected. If your tank is still under warranty and is over 20 years old, we recommend having the interior inspected before the warranty on the tank expires. Tank interiors can be inspected using a camera which can determine if your tank is at risk of failure.

If you have any specific concerns or questions related to the tanks at your facility, please contact our staff so that we can further assist you.

36 Comments to Degradation of Fiberglass Underground Storage Tanks:

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These tank failures can result in catastrophic releases of fuel into the environment if problems with tank interiors are not detected early.
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Tank interiors can be inspected using a camera which can determine if your tank is at risk of failure.
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Pat Smyth on Monday, December 07, 2015 2:30 PM
Water can be managed effectively in biodiesel fuels. SAE J1488 is the industry standard “To determine the ability of a fuel/water separator to separate emulsified or finely dispersed water from fuels.” It was updated in 2010 to address ULSD and biodiesel, see http://standards.sae.org/j1488_201010/ . Any fuel polishing system that meets J1488_201010 will control the emulsified water, which in turn will control the microbial growth. One issue not mention in the blog, is that the fuel is becoming acidified; some of the microbe byproducts is acid, and with the large increase in microbes, the fuel is acidifying and corroding the fuel infrastructure. Remove the water, prevent the corrosion
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David Robertson on Thursday, May 04, 2017 8:38 AM
Please could let me know if you have heard of this problem on yachts and can I have the contact details of a fuel technician to understand the effect of ultra-low sulfur fuels on fiberglass tank coatings? I would also be interested to know if there is a difference in the fuel content of AGO and MGO?
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