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A Higher Standard

What began as a way of gathering data on underground storage tank leaks at Amerada Hess quickly became an efficient fuel management tool for the company. This was achieved through device integration via an Ethernet Port Server (EPS) implemented by Saco, Maine-based Intelligent Controls Inc. (INCON) at approximately 875 company-owned Hess c-store/fueling sites along the Eastern seaboard. Pleased with the success of that initiative, Hess next plans to install the system at its 90 independent dealers. (The company will not be equipping its branded retailers who own their own property.)

Device integration is just what it sounds like: the seamless connection between the many devices that make up a convenience store/petroleum outlet and a central site like the POS, back office or headquarters.

One proposal being explored this year at Hess is the development of a new standard network architecture that would link all of those devices to a host site as well as to each other, creating "Global Device Standards." A proposed architecture for this network encompasses an IP Ethernet-type backbone that would enable high-bandwidth communications within stores, between stores and headquarters and even to suppliers. (See ""Getting Connected.")

INCON answers this proposal with its EPS, which "gives you an IP address for the tank gauge," said Rick Sales, vice president of sales and marketing." That, in turn, allows retailers to link a gauge to any communications topology — frame relay, satellite, hard wire or wireless — and access it via TCP/IP, or the Internet. "Now you can have a real-time update of information, with virtually no phone expense," he said. "You can have 1,000 tank gauges serving up information simultaneously. Being able to give an IP address to a site is big.

"The Ethernet is coming to the c-store, everyday more and more," said Sales. "A Web server receiving data from remote devices is the wave of the future."

The EPS installations are linked to the chain's satellite network, which communicates fuel and environmental compliance readings from INCON's and Veeder-Root's fuel gauges to INCON's System Sentinel AnyWare NT-based remote monitoring software at headquarters. Adding to the Web connectivity, the AnyWare version of System Sentinel, which Hess upgraded to, allows users to access the information from anywhere with an Internet connection.

Launched in the fall of 2000, the Hess program was initially aimed at leveraging the satellite network to gain data on leakage standards compliance of underground storage tanks, explained Jim Howard, manager of retail maintenance for Hess. "We had written instructions for detection, but we were frustrated by the level of consistency, so we wanted to bring it in-house and become Big Brother," he said. "If a red light goes off at the station, the person might not see it or understand it. We do understand it. So we took the human aspect out of it."

When the Systems Sentinel AnyWare upgrade was implemented, fuel management became "a great added bonus." For that, the system gathers inventory and sales data and projects when to make deliveries. Not relying on employees to call in fuel inventory is "cheaper, faster and more accurate," he said. The system is set up for exception reporting, flagging the sites with low inventory.

When Hess initially installed the EPS, it simply polled the fuel sites for compliance data. When Sentinel Server AnyWare was added, "the sites started communicating to us," said Howard. "We get information whenever we want, rather than having to poll 875 stores at once. Now it takes no time at all."

For leak detection of single-wall tanks, Veeder-Root and INCON monitors do continuous testing for changes or leaks and report failures immediately; if a station is lagging on meeting monthly state requirements, the system warns headquarters five days before deadline "so we have a window to make any necessary repairs," Howard said. Double-walled tanks are also monitored in the "interstitial space."

Howard emphasizes that Hess prefers an in-house monitoring system to an outsourced service such as the one offered by Veeder-Root. "We want us to be in control," he said. "We're hands on; we don't want to hand it off to anyone."

Howard said that Hess is testing the system with some of its carriers, to whom it would send low-product alarms suggesting loads and times of delivery to specific locations.

While Hess leverages its satellite network for IP communications, satellite technology may be beyond what a smaller chain could afford. For those companies, INCON has just released a new communications device, the CDPD (cellular data packet distribution), a wireless modem that "allows you to take a data transmission and break it into packets and send them between cell calls," said Sales. "The cost is microscopic compared to phone calls via modem." The CDPD modem is also TCP/IP compliant, so a client can have a wireless IP WAN with no cables, frame relay or satellite, at a much more affordable price.

"Satellite is too expensive for most c-stores," he said, "and it's too expensive to run cable to every store. CDPD modem or frame relay are, said Sales, "the best way to get IP into the store. Now there's enough CDPD coverage for it to be practical." Supermarkets don't have this problem, he said, because they already have IP connectivity in their stores, and can easily run a cable to a gas pump.

CDPD, Sales added, is a precursor to CDMA, a new wireless data standard for the United States that is two years away.

While companies such as Hess have a do-it-ourselves philosophy, other c-store operations don't mind outsourcing their fuel management operation to an outfit like Veeder-Root. TelaPoint, based in Louisville, Ky., takes the process further, offering retailers a soup-to-nuts ASP fuel management service that includes replenishment.

"Paper, phone and fax are still standard in c-stores for communicating with fuel trading partners," said John Humphreys, vice president, sales and marketing for TelaPoint. The company offers a Web-based petroleum supply chain solution, TelaFuel, which monitors inventory and dispatches fuel orders to carriers, automating everything from the bill of lading to the reconciliation of the invoice. "We're trying to eliminate paper and streamline the process," he said.

The process starts with collecting inventory data from the fuel site via automatic tank gauges and recommending deliveries. A fuel outlet can opt to use just-in-time or keep-full logic to optimize fuel inventories or fuel utilization. Orders are then placed online to transportation partners, which include 100 common carriers. The carrier acknowledges receipt of the order, delivers the product and reconciles the transaction, all seamlessly over the Web.

TelaPoint hosts the entire application on an ASP basis. Retailers access and manage the system via a Web browser. The typical monthly fee is $55 per site.

TelaPoint's customers include Albertson's, The Pantry, Dunigan Fuels, Davison's Oil, Tesoro Petroleum and William's Travel Centers. On its Web site, TelaPoint quotes Greg Tomberg, director of gasoline marketing and administration for The Pantry, which has used the service almost a year, as saying, "With TelaFuel we have quickly achieved significant efficiencies through improved just-in-time management of fuel inventory levels.
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