Propane tank level can be viewed online
By John MacKenna
A Boston area startup is developing a propane tank monitoring system that enables customers to check the fill level on their propane tanks remotely via smartphone.
Tank Utility has developed a propane monitoring system that consists of a gauge reader and transmitter that communicates tank level data to an online app that is available for iPhone, Android and Windows smart phones.
Tank Utility founder Nicholas Mashburn has experience in the energy industry, having worked as an engineer for EnerNOC, a Boston-based provider of demand response and energy management solutions for commercial end-users, utilities, and wholesale suppliers. He has assembled a team with over 40 years’ combined experience with remote energy data collection, processing and analytics.
Mashburn became interested in propane supply tracking after buying a cabin in New Hampshire in 2013 that was heated by propane. One Friday night in early 2014 during the polar vortex, he arrived at the cabin for a weekend stay to find his propane supply had run out. “The first sign came when I opened the front door and saw that a water dish for my cat was frozen solid. It turned out some of the cabin’s plumbing was also frozen, and there was flooding damage,” he said.
Leveraging Existing Technology
He was able to save most of the plumbing, but the first seeds for the invention that became Tank Utility had been planted. Mashburn recognized that he had dodged a major bullet and decided to look for some kind of a solution that could protect him and other homeowners from the potentially devastating effects of a propane runout.
“I asked my propane supplier for a solution that would allow me to track my tank level and alert me when I was running low,” he recounts. “My supplier told me that nothing exists at a reasonable price.”
He researched propane tank gauges and found that there are remote-ready models that include a port where data on the tank fill level can be read with a Hall effect sensor. “The technology exists in the gauges, but it hasn’t been leveraged,” he said.
He changed that by designing hardware and software to extract the data, transmit it wirelessly and export it to a remote database using the home’s existing WiFi network. The customer downloads the Tank Utility app to their smartphone or desktop and accesses their tank data online from the central database.
The app enables a customer to check their tank’s fill level at any time and to program customizable alerts to be sent by text or e-mail whenever the tank is running low. Users can also check their consumption history and look for anomalies that could indicate a leak or other problem. The app can also alert them to events such as a WiFi outage, a power outage or a low battery in the Tank Utility device.
For added convenience, users can also program their propane supplier’s information into the app and order directly from there. The order information will go to the Tank Utility server, which will pass it on to the customer’s supplier. The company is exploring the possibility of integrating the fuel ordering function with back office software.
The monitor fits the port in R3D-compatible tank gauges and connects to a weatherized WiFi transmitter unit via a 15-foot cable. The transmitter is housed in a watertight enclosure that meets NEMA-4X rating specifications, meaning it is fully waterproof. The equipment has been successfully tested to -40°F, and the transmitter’s 3 AA batteries can last more than three years.
Launching the Startup
Mashburn has made a strong commitment to Tank Utility, working fulltime to launch the company and its signature product. He applied to work at the Greentown Labs business incubator for clean tech companies in Somerville, Mass., and was accepted. As a Greentown member, he gets space to develop his product while working besides dozens of other clean technology innovators. Greentown provides access to CAD design software, assistance with legal issues, and on-site seminars on issues facing startups. To fund the venture, Mashburn ran a Kickstarter campaign in late 2014 that received $12,000 in support.
Tank Utility is now testing the monitoring system with a limited number of consumers and will begin taking pre-orders for final shipment in May. The product is engineered and assembled in Massachusetts.
Mashburn is weighing his options on how to market it. He expects to sell directly to consumers and to develop a sales channel with propane suppliers, who would provide the devices to their customers. “Prior to Tank Utility, propane marketers didn’t have a low-cost option that they could sell to their customers,” Mashburn said. “If a marketer has a new customer or an old customer with irregular usage patterns, this is the best option. This is absolutely the best will-call monitor, at a competitive price.”
The company is also working with the large home improvement outlets to add integration functionality that will allow consumers to add the device to home automation systems including Nest, Wink, SmartThings and Iris. This will enable the fuel level monitor to communicate to other home automation devices, such as the Nest Leaning Thermostat.
“We are confident the need exists for an inexpensive propane level monitor, and the opportunity to partner with home automation platforms allow ‘smart homes’ to process that information and make intelligent decisions. Imagine a thermostat that dropped the temperature setpoint when a tank dropped below 10 percent,” Mashburn said.
With 8 millions American homes using propane for heat, Mashburn hopes to tap into a robust market. Units will be priced for under $150 when sold directly. Contractor prices will vary depending on quantity, co-op advertising arrangements and other factors.