Now we're talking! An update on UST data standards

Posted by Jon Kelly on 2021-04-06

Now We’re Talking! An update on the PEI & Conexxus initiative to standardize fueling equipment data protocols

Does this sound familiar? Retailer A has been a loyal customer for years. Your team sold and installed – and now services – most of the fueling equipment at their stores. Retailer A has a good equipment database (underground storage tanks, piping, etc.), which your team helped compile. This database ensures your techs are always well-prepared when they show up for compliance testing and other maintenance activities.

One day, Retailer A acquires 19 sites from Retailer B. You’re not familiar with these sites, but you’re excited about the opportunity to expand your business with Retailer A as they grow.

Retailer B also has a database of its fueling equipment. Unfortunately, it is in a totally different format than Retailer A’s database, with incompatible terminology and structure. Merging the two databases proves so challenging that your customer ends up keeping both, which makes tracking and monitoring equipment a huge headache for them and for you.

Your compliance testing team is dispatched to a Retailer B site to conduct cathodic protection testing on steel tanks. When they arrive, the territory manager mentions that new fiberglass tanks were installed last year. Retailer B updated their tank records with the state, but never updated the internal equipment database, so your team had no idea about the change.

A useless trip that you can’t bill for… what a waste of time and money!

Problem: No Common Language

Most service techs know that “shear valve,” “crash valve,” and “fire valve,” all refer to the same device at the base of a dispenser that automatically closes when a dispenser is hit by a car. But how many techs know that “composite tank,” “Buffhide tank,” “ACT-100 tank,” and “fiberglass clad tank,” all refer to a steel tank with an exterior coating of fiberglass?

Eventually, two techs would probably realize through conversation that those terms all refer the same kind of tank. However, as more and more PEI members use real-time, cloud-based, and mobile technology to monitor and manage fueling equipment online, our industry is becoming increasingly reliant on computer programs to interpret data.

Unfortunately, computer programs don’t have the luxury of discussing what words mean the way people do. Computers need a common language – known as a “standardized data protocol” – to exchange information accurately and reliably.

At present, however, there is no data protocol to describe fueling equipment. This decreases human productivity, curbs the positive impact of technology, and limits innovation potential in our industry.

So… if no common “computer language” exists, how do you create one?

Solution: A Universal “Data Protocol”

To address this problem, PEI members approached PEI staff in 2019 with a proposal to tap into PEI’s collective wisdom to standardize the structure and terminology used to describe fueling equipment. Given PEI’s position as the leading authority and source of information for the fuel and fluid handling equipment industries, it seemed like the right place to start.

The development of standardized data protocols is challenging and requires a disciplined framework. Although PEI has a robust process for developing Recommended Practices to be used by people, developing a data protocol to be used by computers presents unique challenges.

Fortunately, there is a standards development organization in our industry that provides a framework for this type of effort. Conexxus is an independent, not-for-profit organization that spun out of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Technology Project in 2004. Conexxus’ mission is to improve the financial success and viability of the retail petroleum and convenience industry through technology.

Conexxus has developed payment (mobile, loyalty) and point-of-sale data exchange standards, to name a few. In fact, there is even an existing data protocol (Conexxus calls it a “site asset data standard”) that defines the structure and terminology of most of the equipment found at a c-store. Unfortunately for PEI members, however, underground storage tank (UST) equipment was excluded from Conexxus’ original site asset data standard.

PEI & Conexxus Collaboration

PEI members and staff approached Conexxus to discuss including UST equipment in the existing site asset data standard. Doing so would help both NACS and PEI members leverage technological solutions that streamline UST-related business processes and operations.

In May 2019, Conexxus formally approved this new work item. Conexxus and PEI began to collaborate on the initiative: Conexxus agreed to provide the development framework and PEI agreed to provide the collective UST expertise of its members.

What progress has been made?

PEI developed a small task force to lead this initiative, including Scott Boorse (PEI), Jon Kelly (Canary Compliance), John Ryder (Canary Compliance), and Marcel Moreau (Marcel Moreau Associates).

Throughout 2019, this task force solicited feedback from PEI members, retailers, regulators, and other key stakeholders. Outreach efforts included:

  • • Roundtable discussion at 2019 PEI Convention
  • • Meetings with EPA’s Office of USTs and state UST regulators
  • • Call for volunteers to provide feedback in PEI’s Dec 2019 TulsaLetter
  • • Presentation at PEI Young Executives Conference in Feb 2020
  • • Virtual peer review with 45+ PEI members in May 2020

Responses have been enthusiastic and positive from both industry and regulators. Ed Kubinsky, Director of Regulatory Affairs at Crompco, said, “in the UST world, equipment data is shared between owners, consultants, testers, data analysts, and regulatory agencies. A standardized way to share data (for reporting, tracking exceptions, etc.) makes life a lot simpler for everyone involved and makes data useful for everyone’s needs across all their different systems.”

Mahesh Albuquerque, from Colorado’s Division of Oil and Public Safety, describes the need for standardized fueling equipment data as “critical” to improve operational and policy decision-making. Albuquerque said “if regulators and the tank owner/operators we regulate all used the same protocols, it would enable data sharing and data transfers, creating efficiencies and spurring innovations that enable us all to be more successful in our core missions.”

This enthusiasm is encouraging, but since data protocols are an unfamiliar concept for many in the PEI community, the task force has worked hard to clearly define and communicate the objectives of this effort to ensure broad alignment among stakeholders.

Scott Boorse, Director of Technical Affairs at PEI, said, “at first, people might think we’re proposing a new software product or database. We’re not. What we’re talking about is the language or protocol that serves as the ‘underbelly’ of any online tools that incorporate fuel equipment data, such as state registration databases, remote monitoring tools, or mobile inspection apps.”

Marcel Moreau provides further clarification:

“We’re not suggesting everyone throw out their existing UST databases and create new databases that are consistent with this data protocol. Instead, we are proposing an industry standard for voluntary adoption by anyone who sees the advantages of a common, carefully defined UST data protocol.

Stakeholders with an existing database can choose to: 1) ignore the proposed protocol 2) use the protocol going forward while maintaining an incompatible legacy database 3) migrate existing data to the new data protocol.”

Where does this effort stand?

By the end of 2019, a first draft of the data protocol was developed. In May 2020, a volunteer group of ~45 PEI members reviewed the draft to provide general feedback on its content and business relevance. A smaller group of volunteers agreed to conduct a deep-dive review with the task force.

The output of the project will be:

  • • A standard UST data protocol that specifies the terms to be used to describe UST equipment and how these terms are organized in a database
  • • An implementation guide to support adoption, implementation, and migration of existing data to the new structure
  • • A communication effort to promote adoption, market recognition, utilization, and adherence to the data protocol by industry stakeholders

What does the future hold? Stakeholders recognize that full industry adoption will not happen overnight. But the development of this data protocol is a critical element as the industry integrates new technology into daily operations.

Moreau notes that “over time – potentially quite a long time – communication concerning fuel system testing, inspection, and compliance will improve as IT vendors, PEI members, UST owners, and UST regulators adopt the new data protocol. Data accuracy will improve as stakeholders use the same term for the same UST component, driving better business outcomes. The first step, however, is to create this standard so that it is available for people to use.”

Maybe one day we’ll live in a world where a technician can install fiberglass tanks at Retailer B’s site, use a mobile app to immediately update his or her company’s equipment database, which instantly synchronizes the UST owner’s and the state’s records, too. No more time and money wasted figuring out what equipment is where. Your team can just focus on what they’re best at: getting the job done safely and efficiently to keep our industry moving.

Until we get there, the project task force remains hard at work on this effort and continues to welcome your input and support. If you have employees, customers, or other contacts that would like to get involved, please feel free to contact Scott Boorse (sboorse@pei.org) or Jon Kelly (jkelly@cancomply.io).

Jon Kelly is the founder and CEO of Canary Compliance, a remote UST monitoring software company that helps underground storage tank owners and operators achieve and maintain compliance in the most reliable and cost-effective way possible. Reach him at jkelly@cancomply.io.

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