Dirty diesel gums up generators

2008-02-02 00:00

Dirty diesel could bring to a halt standby generators that key installations such as hospitals rely on when the power goes down.

According to Ron Mattig of Clean Fuel Technologies (CFT), at least 90% of the fuel kept in standby tanks could damage generators. If the damage is minimal and spares are available, repairs could take at least 24 hours.

Badly damaged generators could take between one and six weeks to repair. Institutions and individuals needing to replace generators, especially at larger installations, could wait for up to a year.

Both Mattig and Lauge Steenfeldt-Kristensen, who manages the coastal region for CFT, confirmed this week that not one of the samples they took at key installations during the past six months passed muster.

The installations include factories, municipal fuel storage tanks in Durban and Pietermaritzburg, casinos, hotels, shopping malls and even hospitals and fire stations.

Samples that look like syrup or dark vinegar were taken from at least two hospitals. Good diesel is pale yellow and transparent, Steenfeldt-Kristensen said. He said companies such as CFT are called in to remove foreign bodies and questionable substances and purify the fuel by adding chemicals to reverse the ageing process.

The two said that fewer than half of the province’s hospitals have kept an eye on stand-by fuel stores over the past year, despite warnings of looming power cuts after the Cape Town electricity crisis.

If alarm bells are ringing for companies and government departments that have sampled their fuel stocks, then the situation at others is nothing short of a “time bomb”, another expert warned. He said managers of some of the province’s most important installations told him they cannot afford to keep check.

He said that at least 60% of hospitals do not have a qualified person on hand to look after generators or fuel stocks. He often finds that an artisan such as a carpenter has been put in charge, despite extremely limited technical knowledge.

One of Pietermaritzburg’s largest hospitals has delayed sampling and cleaning out its fuel stores because “it does not have the budget”. When its fuel tanks were cleaned out about two years ago, at least 10% of the 55 000 litres of fuel on site was contaminated with sludge, sand, water and even a dead cat. Nothing has been done since. Checks should take place annually.

According to a source close to one of the leading Durban public hospitals, the clean-up of its substantial diesel reserves is an ongoing problem. In 2005, 175 litres of emulsified diesel (diesel and water mixed) had to be destroyed. This served 78 stand-by generators that provide “mission critical power”.

Experts said there are three major reasons for contaminated fuel stores: ever-growing fuel theft, contamination of fuel along the supply chain and poor maintenance.

Mattig said lots of fuel is contaminated by suppliers en route to storage tanks. When cleaning the main supply tank for a generator at a major Durban hospital, his company removed a great deal of water and debris, he said. The tank was filled and a few days later the fuel was resampled. He said the contamination found could have come only from the tanker that delivered it.

An even bigger problem, especially at rural hospitals and installations, is fuel theft. According to Mattig, fuel is usually siphoned from the tank and the tank topped up with water or paraffin to maintain the level in the tank.

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