Cover Story: Pump Talk

Look who’s talking now... the gas pump?


Efficiency and reliability are key components in the constant challenge to keep a large, geographically-separated fleet fueled and maintained. Over the past 18 years, Bill VandenBrook, Fleet Service Superintendent for the City of Madison, Wisconsin, has proactively been searching for the most effective way to tackle this challenge, and now thinks he finally has found the answer.

Madison’s fleet is as diverse as the city itself. Everything from police cruisers to Park and Rec vehicles to snow plows to garbage trucks fall under the City umbrella. As a result of this diversity, the City has faced an uphill battle in ensuring each vehicle receives the correct fuel and correct quantities at each of its fueling stations.

OUT WITH THE OLD

In 1987, the City of Madison invested in what was then a new fueling system that allowed the fleet to accurately and effectively distribute and monitor fuel to all of its vehicles.

Dubbed Tech-21, the system was based on magnetic-striped card hardware and a software suite that downloaded vehicle information into a central database each time the vehicle was fueled. This allowed the city to track fueling and provided an easy means to schedule preventative maintenance for each vehicle based on specific mileage.

“The fueling pump takes two cards, one assigned to the vehicle, the other assigned to the operator,” explains VandenBrook. “Each time the vehicle is fueled, the operator swipes both cards and enters the current mileage on a keypad. The pump will dispense the correct fuel for the vehicle and will limit the number of gallons the vehicle can take. The pump also encodes the current mileage back onto the magnetic card. That information then gets downloaded to our maintenance database along with how much fuel the vehicle took and who fueled it.”

As simple and useful as this system sounds, its limitations have been painfully obvious to VandenBrook and his staff over the past several years.

ORPHAN TECHNOLOGY

The most challenging aspect of the system stems from the fact the company that produced Tech-21 in 1987 has been defunct for the past 10 years, essentially making VandenBrook and his assistant responsible for the upkeep and day-to-day maintenance of the entire network.

“We’ve had to replace hardware at the pumps, such as touchpads and displays, ourselves for quite some time,” he says. “To provide all the care and feeding of the network, in-house, by the top two guys in our shop without any kind of factory support is very difficult.”

Additionally, the two-card system and the manual entering of vehicle mileage continued to be a nuisance for the fleet.

“Cards get lost, broken, warped or demagnetized constantly,” VandenBrook notes. “Operators can forget mileage as soon as they step out of the vehicle, or accidentally enter the wrong information into the keypads. While these problems aren’t rampant, they certainly exist and highlight the need for a more user-friendly, up-to-date system.”

IN WITH THE NEW

Realizing their current platform was rapidly becoming obsolete, the City of Madison began shopping for a replacement.

“We wanted a more passive system that required no operator interface and provided better data that was more reliable,” VandenBrook explains.

With that in mind, the City began hitting the trade show circuit in the mid-2000s to take in the newer, more modern systems on the market.

E.J. Ward Inc. of San Antonio, Texas, was one of the companies providing fleet fueling technology that fit the needs of the city. After a two- to three-year process of convincing City of Madison authorities of the benefits of the upgrade, E.J. Ward was awarded the contract.

“This system will solve a lot of the problems we’ve faced with our older system,” notes VandenBrook. “First of all, we’re not tied down to using cards anymore and it completely takes the operator out of the loop.”

John Featherston, Vice President of Marketing for E.J. Ward, says that ease of use, high-quality hardware, and reliable maintenance information have been the cornerstones to the development of the technology.

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