A NEW tankwagon with 5,000-gallon capacity and new electronic tank monitors on 25 customers' storage tanks are just part of the steps underway at Gate Fuel Service, Jacksonville, Florida, to boost service quality.

“We're very bottom-line driven,” says Mike Love, vice-president of the Gate Petroleum Co division. “Everything is so competitive today. We have to be efficient to stay in business.”

Gate Fuel Service, as a distributor and jobber, operates 19 tank trailers and 12 tankwagons (dedicated to the Jacksonville service) and serves hundreds of customers with gasoline and diesel throughout Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. In addition, Gate serves 100 convenience stores owned by its parent.

The company typically handles 300 million gallons of product annually — 80 million gallons of which are for wholesale accounts. In addition, a small amount of fuel oil is provided for residential accounts over about a three-month period each year. Gate also handles diesel and gasoline under Exxon, BP, Citgo, and Marathon brands. Some product is transported by common carriers in addition to Gate tank trailers.

The company limits its bulk tank storage to 20,000 gallons for high- and low-sulfur diesel and kerosene, preferring to maintain low storage inventory as part of its operation plan. Gate also prefers to load gasoline at terminals and transport it from there to customers rather than handling the product at company facilities, which eliminates the need for underground storage tanks and their accompanying environmental requirements.

Diversified customers

Although the petroleum service is typical — gasoline, diesel, kerosene — several of Gate's customers are not. One reason for the diversity is the Jacksonville location, which has a nearby US Navy base and a commercial port, is home to a Professional Golf Association (PGA) annual tournament, and is in the same area as a NASCAR event. Gate has tagged them all.

“We're always looking for opportunities,” Love notes.

One of the latest marine opportunities allows Gate to distribute fuel directly to ships in the port. In order to qualify for the job, Gate had to meet stringent Coast Guard requirements.

Enhancing Gate's ability to meet the requirements is the company's membership in Jacksonville Spillage Control Inc, a cooperative group that holds spill response certification with the Coast Guard and discharge cleanup certification by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Also as part of the marine service, Gate supplies diesel for tug boats that move US Navy ships in the nearby harbor.

Back on land, Gate hauls special fuel for racing cars at the Daytona 500 and supplies diesel for generators used at the PGA Players Championship at Ponte Vedra Beach.

In September of this year, Gate entered the lubricants business.

More typical for a petroleum distributor is the night service for trucking companies that keeps their storage tanks filled with diesel. Similar services are provided for automobile dealers to supply gasoline for vehicles on the sales lots.

“Our goal is on-time delivery with a quality product,” says Love.

Electronic monitors

Installing storage tank electronic monitors is one way Gate improves on-time delivery. The Centeron wireless system from Robertshaw Industrial Products Inc is supplied by ETank Systems. The Centeron system uses DSSS (direct sequence spread spectrum) technology to monitor customer tank levels remotely. The information reaches Gate dispatchers via e-mail so that they can schedule deliveries. In the event of a low-product alarm, the system will send a message directly to the dispatchers' cell phones. However they receive the information, the dispatcher can route drivers immediately to the customer. Drivers are issued Nextel phones with Direct Connect Service that in addition to telephone services provides communication via the cell phone's digital walkie-talkie feature.

“This system pays out in a matter of months because of the time it saves us,” says Love. The company is adding the system to about five locations per month.

Another timesaver was purchase of the 5,000-gallon tankwagon assembled by Oilmen's Truck Tanks Inc. Gate trucks generally have 2,800-gallon and 4,000-gallon capacity.

“The 5,000-gallon truck gives us the extra capacity we needed for a truck to stay on the road rather than having to return to the terminal for more product — and that saves time and money,” Love says.

Another plan to increase efficiency will be to eliminate ticket printers in the truck cabs. “We will be integrating an electronic system from Liquid Controls that we can use with our own computerized billing system,” he says. “We are working toward becoming paperless.”

Using the latest electronic equipment is but one of the vehicle regimens in the operation. The company is getting as many miles out of its tankwagons, tank trailers, and tractors as possible.

The goal originally for tractors was to drive them one million miles. Having reached that goal, they've now been able to achieve 1.3 million miles before a trade. As for the tankwagons, Love says: “We've gotten tremendous service out of them.”

Vehicle maintenance

Gate has a shop directed by Bob McVay. Although he sends vehicles out for major repairs, tractors are serviced in the shop every 15,000 miles, and mechanics check and service trailer brakes on a regular basis. Tankwagons, the workhorses of the fleet, are under constant scrutiny by both drivers and mechanics who are alert for any mechanical warning signs. The close watch pays off with the vehicles' long-time performance.

Love lauds the Allison automatic transmissions used in the Kenworth tankwagons, which he says helps explain the vehicles' life on the road. “The automatic transmissions have done more than just about anything to stop mechanical downtimes,” he says. “We've gotten tremendous service out of them.”

The new 5,000-gallon tankwagon is equipped with Scully overfill protection systems and EBW dry disconnect couplings and vapor return systems. Meters are from Liquid Controls, and Veeder Root supplies in-cab printers. Two Blackmer pumps are used for separate jobs — one for gasoline and another for diesel. Four reels handle the different hoses for different services.

The 9,200-gallon, four compartment, Heil tank trailers have single bulkheads. Components include Scully overfill protection systems and EBW dry disconnect couplings and vapor return systems. Gate specifies Alcoa aluminum wheels to lighten the load.

Drivers are consulted before the company purchases new tractors to get their input on performance requirements. Some of their safety suggestions include lighted cab steps, heated mirrors, and corner windows in the doors.

Kenworth T-800s with Cummins 370-horsepower engines are the tractors of choice. They are equipped with Fuller 10-speed transmissions. Dana Spicer supplies axles, and antilocking brake systems are from MeritorWABCO.

Driver pool

Handling the vehicles is a driver pool of 42 company drivers. Because of increased security at terminals, they all carry identification cards with photos. Training is under the direction of Ernie Miller, operations director. Drivers are schooled in company policies, Department of Transportation regulations, defensive driving, and hazardous materials handling.

Love says drivers have played a major role in enabling the company to have a successful growth that currently stands at about 15 to 20 percent per year. The future looks bright as the Jacksonville area continues to offer opportunities for Gate Fuel Service — and as the company expands services into other parts of the country.