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Yankin' A Tanker

by Jim Park

Some do it for the money, others for the glory. Perhaps it's just the fun of knowing the heaviest thing you're going to have to lift in the course of a day's work is a piece of hose and a bucket of slop.

To those who've never pulled a tanker, the thought of 20 tons or more of something green and gooey sloshing around a few feet behind you -- something that could blow up in your face without warning -- might not be so appealing. But the reality is, the tank truck sector has one of the best safety records in the entire trucking industry.

Tank trucking's contribution to the overall economic picture in Canada is a difficult number to pin down. Statistics on bulk transport often include rail and marine transport, as well. Wood chip haulage and the dump-trucking sector are usually included in the numbers, too. Trimac Transportation president Andrew Zaleski suggests that Canada's for-hire tank fleets earn between $1.5 and 1.7 billion per year with additional revenue represented by private fleets as well.

Zaleski also says that tank trucking is very regionally oriented and therefore subject to regional economic fluctuations. And right now, the west isn't doing as well as the central and eastern regions of Canada.

"Mining and forestry in B.C. are soft right now, there's been a downturn in the fortunes of Alberta's oil patch, and the agricultural sector on the prairies is having its moments," he told us. Normally, these industries are heavily dependent on tank trucking. The east, on the other hand, is still enjoying spin-offs from the strong U.S. economy.

"The Maritimes, Ontario and Quebec are very strong these days due to strong demand for raw materials such as paint, resins, glues and the various chemicals required to manufacture consumer products such as automobiles," Zaleski says.

Bulk transport has remained popular as the cost of warehousing packaged material has steadily increased. As well, the storage and handling of raw material in bulk form is more conducive to automated production systems. The material flows from the producer to the user in a pipeline, part of which is mounted on a vehicle chassis and rolls down the road at 100 km/h.

We'll focus on liquid bulk loads for this article, but we'll cover other bulk markets in future issues.

The Equipment

Liquid-bulk trucking really is a pipeline. Well, a segment of a pipeline really, measuring up to 48 ft in length and 8 ft in diameter, with a liquid capacity of anywhere from 4000 to 12,000 gal. Most tanks are made of stainless steel, giving them the flexibility of being able to accommodate a wide variety of cargo and making them relatively easy to clean prior to reloading. Other fabrication materials include aluminum, carbon steel, and fiberglass with rubber or glass linings.

Various service applications require different materials; aluminum is often used in gasoline or other petroleum product hauling where the cargo will not affect the structural integrity of the tank. Gasoline is neither corrosive nor temperature-sensitive and aluminum is lighter than steel, making it an ideal material for weight-sensitive, high-volume service.

Some corrosive materials will damage even a stainless-steel tank, so in this case a fiberglass outer shell is lined with a corrosion-resistant material such as rubber or glass to minimize the weight and to provide a useful service life for the equipment. High-carbon-steel tank vessels are still used in some high-temperature applications such as asphalt or crude oil, but because of the weight, aluminum is becoming a more popular option where extreme temperatures aren't a factor.

Some tank configurations are designed to haul specific products. Dedicated equipment, such as acid tankers, tends to have long, thin barrels because the product itself is rather heavy and only a small amount of material (4000 to 5000 gal) can be carried. To minimize the risk of a spill, acid tankers are designed to unload from the top of the trailer, using air pressure to push the product up a siphon tube and into the delivery hose. There's no bottom discharge valve, which makes these tanks difficult to wash out after each use. So this type of equipment tends to be used with only a single product.

Gasoline is relatively light and can be hauled in large quantities, so the 12,000-gal (or bigger) B-train has become a popular configuration. Gasoline tanks tend to be loaded and unloaded several times a day, so the loading and unloading lines are large in diameter to increase flow rate and save time.

General-purpose tanks can accommodate a wide variety of products, so they're popular with for-hire outfits that haul for a variety of customers and regularly backhaul a different load than they had on the headhaul. Such tanks use stainless steel for flexibility, and have capacities of between 6,000 and 10,000 gal. The shiny exterior of most general-purpose tanks is just a jacket covering the layer of insulation around the tank barrel itself. The insulation helps to retain heat when hauling hot products and also prevents accidental burns resulting from contact with a hot tank barrel.

These tanks have an opening at the top called a manhole or a hatch, large enough to allow the cleaners or inspectors into the tank when washing or loading. The product flows off the tank through a discharge valve located at the bottom rear or the center of the tank. Product can also be pumped into the tank through these ports. To permit effective cleaning, the barrels have no baffles inside, which reduce the movement or sloshing around of the liquid during transit.

Without baffles, the load will move around a lot, especially back and forth under braking or acceleration. Waves will form inside the tank. As they rush toward to the front of the tank under braking, those thousands of gallons of liquid can push a truck right through a red-light intersection even with the binders applied. When the driver accelerates, the load will slosh toward the back, and if he's not smooth enough on the go pedal to prevent a wave from forming, he may even find himself forced to drop back a gear as the load tries to pull him backwards.

"If you don't do it right, the truck will drive you, and that can get you into a pile of trouble," says Eddy Gosselin of Volume Tank Transport in Mississauga, Ont. Even so, he enjoys the challenge of having to drive the truck properly.

The driver training and orientation provided by even the serious players in the tank business seldom prepares the new tanker yanker for his first experience with a fully-loaded (weight-wise) tanker that's only two-thirds full (volume-wise). It's called the 'slosh factor', and that's where the sledding gets rough if the training hasn't yet begun to sink in.

The Job

Veteran tank hauler Moe Rivet says tank drivers used to enjoy a special bit of respect from their freight-hauling comrades. Nicknames like "suicide jockey" or "firecracker" were often used to describe someone who hauled something dangerous. Today though, Rivet says he's just like everybody else.

"There's no special requirements, no special endorsements and definitely no special treatment, and that's too bad," he says.

"Once you've got tank experience, especially service station experience, you can go just about anywhere," says Kelly Archibald, operations manager for Seaboard Liquid Carriers of Dartmouth, N.S. As you might expect, there's more training involved with hauling tanker than just learning how to deal with the slosh. The training process at Seaboard's Dartmouth operation is specific to petroleum hauling, and a comprehensive program it is. It starts with two days in the classroom, covering fire-fighting techniques, the Transportation of Dangerous Goods regulations, emergency response requirements, WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), and the obligatory in-house paperwork.

Next it's a minimum of two weeks on-the-job-training in a truck with another qualified driver. There the 'student' learns correct loading and unloading procedures for gasoline, as well as how to gauge customer storage tanks and how to load a multi-compartment trailer with different grades of gasoline or diesel fuel. Preventing a mix of the different products is extremely important, as is keeping the truck's weights legal.

Once that's done, the candidate hits the road with Archibald for a real-world evaluation.

"We go out and pick up a load at the distribution terminal, then deliver to the station," Archibald says. "Just like the real thing. And if I don't think the driver is ready, he goes back out with the trainer until he is. There's no room for errors in this industry; you're dealing with dangerous goods and environmental concerns these days. They treat one liter spilled the same as 10,000 liters spilled."

Such is the drill at a company specializing in a single line of product. Training programs vary, but every reputable company takes its training very seriously.

Companies hauling a variety of different products face the obstacle of dealing with a multitude of different product-handling requirements. Just putting a load on the truck can present its own set of challenges.

Take a product such as nitric acid, for example, which weighs about 15 lb per gallon. A full load of nitric acid in tri-axle tanker might weigh 75,000 lb, but volume-wise is only 5000 gallons. Methyl alcohol, on the other hand, weighs only about 6 lb per gallon, so a full 10,000-gal tank will weigh only 60,000 lb. You can see what would happen if you put a full load of nitric acid into a 10,000-gal tank. Either you get a very rough ride home, or you flatten every tire on the truck before you even pull out from the loading rack. This is where driver training plays a large role in a tank operation.

Familiarity with the product itself is obviously important. Many fleets maintain lists of drivers trained and company-qualified to haul particular products. Sometimes driver qualification goes beyond products and gets down to individual customers.

"Some of the shippers also keep qualification lists on the drivers, or will only certify certain drivers based on their driving records or product handling experience," says veteran tank hauler Ralph MacDonald, an owner-operator with RST Industries of Saint John, N.B.

Fleets like Volume Tank Transport often function as peak-season carriers for specialty-product producers such as Praxair or Air Products, distributors of cryogenic industrial gases. Mississauga terminal manager Lloyd McMaster says that developing a pool of trained drivers is really important in maintaining relationships with the shipper.

"We service several highly specialized fields where the driver needs to be trained and certified by the supplier before we can put him to work there," he says. "But getting drivers to take on that extra responsibility is becoming more and more difficult."

The Products

The food-grade segment of the tank sector uses the stainless-steel trailer exclusively. Common food-grade commodities include cooking oil, dairy products, chocolate, and liquors, but the category really boils down to anything that will eventually find its way into the human food chain. Food grade may be without the risks of chemical hauling, but the need for cleanliness is demanding.

The product pumps and transfer hoses need to be certified for food-grade use, and the washing process is more tightly controlled, but beyond that, the handling of various products is essentially the same. Products such as chocolate and some vegetable oils, which solidify at lower temperatures, are often loaded at elevated temperatures, and require heat to prevent them from setting up inside the tank while in transit. Heat is provided through piping that runs the length of the tanker, under the body but inside an insulation jacket. Hot engine coolant is circulated through the "steam coils" and back to the engine.

From the product-handling perspective, many products that are shipped as liquid bulk are normally in a solid state at ambient temperature. So wax, for example, is shipped at temperatures in excess of 180* F for ease of handling. Asphalt is shipped at approximately 350* F, which can cause serious burns even from momentary contact. At the other extreme, liquid oxygen, normally a gas at ambient temperature, is shipped at or below -300* F.

So, with the inherent risks sometimes associated with tank work, you may be asking why would any driver want to stick his neck out any farther than it already is? The real pros, the guys who've been doing this kind of work for years, say it boils down to pride in accomplishment. Taking the extra risks keeps you sharp. It gives the term, "all in a day's work" a bit more meaning.

Related article: Who's Driving Tank?

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