Monday, November 11, 2019

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The Tank Monitoring Evolution Continues


The reasons for and benefits of adopting tank monitors have been covered pretty exhaustively in past issues of Oil & Energy. One provider summed them up succinctly.

“In all tank monitoring solutions, the main focus is to provide precise and timely data to allow our clients to increase their drops, minimize mileage, avoid runouts and cover lifts, and achieve great ROIs,” says Sean Hughes, vice president of sales and business development for Otodata. Based in Montreal, the company recently entered the U.S. market as Otodata Technologies USA Inc. “To date our U.S. expansion has been a resounding success,” Hughes says, adding that the company now employs a staff of 85 across North America and, with yearly double-digit sales growth, is poised for further expansion.

How did they build up business so quickly? Is it a product of fuel dealers coming off one of their most successful heating seasons, margin-wise, in recent memory? Or are more and more retailers beginning to catch on to the efficiency, predictability and profitability that tank monitors can help make possible?

Both of the latter might explain why monitor adoption is increasing across the board, but neither speaks to the specific circumstances that have enabled Otodata to position itself as a new leader in tank monitoring. “This is attributable to our extremely reliable, precise and cost effective remote readers, outstanding customer service and support as well as industry leading product life cycles and warranties,” Hughes says.

Another big differentiator Hughes sees is Otodata’s vertically integrated business model. “Being in full control of the design, development, assembly, marketing and support of our products allows us to make adjustments on the fly to satisfy our various customers’ requirements,” he explains. “We currently deal with almost 500 different fuel marketers, and they all have different specific needs.”

Otodata’s TM6030 remote tank monitor, supported by the company’s free online dashboard and branded Nee-Vo app, received the Canadian Propane Association’s 2018 Innovation Award. This second-generation model, launched two years ago, improved on Otodata’s first-gen monitor in terms of both communications and reliability. Whereas the first operated on Otodata’s private SPRS network in Canada, Hughes says the TM6030 is a cellular monitor that operates on various partnered carrier networks across North America. “A battery upgrade providing longer battery life was also an added feature,” he continues. “Since day-one, our hardware and software have continued to evolve every day. We are always adding features to help our customers increase profitability.”


Otodata’s customers’ customers are enjoying the perks too. “By deploying our innovative branded mobile application, consumers are benefitting from ‘fill detection’ alerts, which,” Hughes explains, “our customers report is minimizing inbound calls and eliminating invoice debates.”

Next up: as Otodata looks to launch its third-generation tank monitor in the near future, the company continues to improve on battery life and take advantage of evolving cellular technologies, such as the Long Term Evolution (4G) category M1 (or Cat-M for short) and Narrowband Internet of Things (or NB-IoT) networks, which enable widespread deployment in challenging environments.

“The monitor is the fuel, the data is the engine…”

Earlier this year, Angus Energy introduced its GREMLIN® Cellular tank monitor, and according to GREMLIN Client Relationship Manager David Montgomery, the results have been “nothing short of fantastic.”

Montgomery says, “The industry now has a go-to monitor that measures heating oil, diesel, bulk lubes and most other liquid fuels, and does not need a remote-ready gauge to make a connection between the tank and the monitor.” Instead, he explains, the monitor is installed directly on non-pressurized tanks in a spare opening and uses ultrasonic technology to measure the distance between the top of the tank and the fuel inside. “By using this technology,” Montgomery says, “a marketer can now save the cost of adding a remote ready gauge to tanks that don’t normally use them, which can save around $50 per installation.”

As for the cellular component, Montgomery sees it as the ideal solution for areas where Wi-Fi is not available, as well as those homes in which the signal is not strong enough to reach a storage tank located in the basement.

Of course, bridging the gap between a customer’s basement and a dealer’s back office is one thing, but what about connecting consumers themselves to the chain? Are tank monitoring apps chiefly for young homeowners who are typical early technology adopters? Is this yet another passing home comfort trend, like so many others that made headlines before fading to obscurity?

Montgomery doesn’t think so. Thanks to consumer-connected tank monitors, “a homeowner, no matter their age, can leave their home in the winter for an extended period of time, and not worry about whether their fuel company is going to make deliveries on time,” he says. “Consumer apps are here to stay when it comes to monitoring their homes. Consumers are not only monitoring the safety of their homes but also the overall health of their home by making sure they don’t run out of fuel.”

From that point of view, tank monitoring apps could in certain cases prove every bit as vital as life-alert systems, security cameras and other popular home-monitoring technologies. Indeed, it wouldn’t be too surprising to see some fuel dealers marketing them as such. “Marketers use monitors in many different ways,” Montgomery says. “We see clients buy monitors for hard-to-predict customers who are not on the heat curve. We see monitors on hard-to-get-to customers as well.” At the end of the day, however, tank monitors remain primarily a tool for efficiency and optimization. “The client who, from the top down, manages their population of monitors and sets the expectation that monitors are meant to focus delivery efforts on efficiency and optimization are the biggest winners we see in our industry.

“Angus Energy has been working extensively on true optimization data and is unlocking the code to creating a true optimization delivery solution,” Montgomery continues. Due to these efforts and to forward-minded dealers with change-management savvy, the company is able to cite numerous examples of GREMLIN customers who have increased their average delivery size by 20%-30% since deploying tank monitors. The “very best rollouts” were able to achieve 50%-60% increases, according to Montgomery.

“Anyone can sell a piece of monitoring equipment, and they all work,” he concludes, “but unless marketers use the power of the data being provided, the monitor will only provide readings. The monitor is the fuel, the data is the engine that powers the real change in bottom line results.”

 

“Beyond collecting the data…”

A well-managed tank monitoring data program doesn’t only increase profitability. It also makes for more predictable business operations and happier customers.

“Tank Monitoring is a foundational element to eliminating uncertainty in fuel delivery operations,” says Chet Reshamwala, CEO of Anova, the parent company of WESROC Monitoring Solutions. “The cost of that uncertainty has a financial and non-financial impact on this industry.” (Editor’s note: former parent company Independent Technologies sold WESROC to DataOnline in 2018; DataOnline rebranded as Anova earlier this year. See our September 2018 and May 2019 issues for details.)

Chet sees consumer satisfaction as a cornerstone of any successful tank monitoring program. “One of the first benefits of removing uncertainty is eliminating runouts, thereby increasing customer trust,” he says. “The next phase is leveraging the remote monitoring data to increase delivery efficiencies. These increased efficiencies result in fewer deliveries, fewer driver hours, and overall increased profitability. Engaging customers with both the tank data and delivery details increases customer trust and loyalty and reduces customer calls and turnover rates.

“A well-executed tank monitoring and management program results in increased profitability, customer trust and loyalty, and reduced stress for the fuel dealer owner and employees,” Chet says.

Although tank monitors continue to gain in popularity, in Anova’s experience, business-wide adoption of a data-driven tank monitoring program typically remains a step-by-step process. “Many of our customers start by looking at the potential benefits on a tank-by-tank basis,” Chet explains. “They start with the troubled tanks and the high-value customers, with an initial focus on eliminating runouts and increasing efficiency for this subset of their population. As they become more comfortable with the software tools we provide on top of our tank monitoring service, many of our customers are expanding their population of monitored tanks. And with these expansions our customers are seeing continued increases in profitability, customer retention, and reduced stress in the workplace.”

WESROC has provided dealer back-office software integration for decades, and a customizable consumer app since 2017. But the Anova suite of software capabilities propels these solutions even further. “Anova is moving substantially beyond collecting the data into ensuring that our customers realize its potential value,” Chet says. In addition to rolling out updates for existing consumer apps, Anova is “releasing a new, integrated suite of tools that will enable service-as-a-utility for the end user, enhanced forecasting for monitored and unmonitored tanks, and delivery schedule and route optimization.”

If that sounds like a lot for a small business’s back-office platform to handle, Chet is quick to point out that the new software suite is being developed with companies of all sizes in mind. “This toolset scales from a complete cloud-based IT system for a smaller dealer to tools that integrate with more complex IT systems for larger dealers.”

In fact, in some cases it’s the fuel dealers that have helped drive consumer demand for these capabilities. “On top of the benefits we previously discussed, the most novel application we’ve seen recently has been dealers using monitoring programs as a marketing tool,” Chet says. “These dealers have leveraged Anova’s customer engagement tools to attract new customers with a service that they cannot get by shopping around for a few cents off per gallon.”


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