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  • Graeme Warnell

Still using sand on your forecourt ?

In over 30 years of working in the petroleum forecourt and environmental sectors I have seen a huge amount of positive change and innovation in ensuring the risk of pollution is reduced.

Remote wetstock monitoring and leak detection sensors aim to minimise product loss, drainage channels effectively catch spills and run off, moving them to the fuel separator and dry break couplings reduce product loss when hoses are accidentally separated from the dispensers, to name a few.

However, every time I fill up with fuel, I always take a good look round at the state of the facility I am in. More often than not, I am faced with dirty uncleaned pumps and end up standing in old spilled fuel. It makes my shoes smell, its slippery, I walk it into the shop and then into my car.

In fact, the only thing worse is when the spilled fuel is mixed with sand – then I have fuel and sand ruining my car mats plus the unpleasant smell of petrol for the rest of my journey.

All that contaminated sand that no one then bothers to clear up gets washed into the drains and blocks them also increasing the amount of silt in the separator. When the fuel capture drains are blocked by your fuel capture substrate, they become ineffective – ironic yes?

Getting those blocked drains cleared and the separator emptied adds cost to your operation, causes forecourt disruption and increases your CO2 footprint. Important to remember a liquid cargo tanker produces approximately 100 tonnes of CO2 and NOX emissions a year.

From an environmental perspective the use of sand then creates a secondary contamination waste chain. It then has to be stored safely, collected, cleaned and disposed of as inert waste. So, it makes you wander what is the real cost of that bag of sand and the carbon footprint associated with using it?

So, with respect to all the areas of innovation we have pursued in keeping fuel in tanks, lines, hoses and reducing any unforeseen spills - why do we still use sand or their absorbent equivalents which cause more problems than they resolve? Just because something has been used for so many years, does not mean that it shouldn’t be reassessed I terms of it being really fit for purpose and alternatives explored.

I spoke to 2 major fuel retailers with over 900 sites between them and the message I got back was universally, “We hate sand!” when I asked. “So why do you use it?”, the answer is simple, “We have always used it “.

It my mind this cries out for one thing – innovation and a challenge to the status quo of sand on our forecourt’s which goes back to the 1920’s !

When I look at any minor spill, I always think OK, let’s get this spill to the safest place on the forecourt, the appropriate fuel capture drain and then the separator, because after all this is what the drainage and separator are designed for.

From a safety perspective trapping the spill on the forecourt with sand on the busy refuelling lanes with customers stepping all over may not be the best solution. From a customer perspective that dirty old sand will be coming into your shop, into people’s cars and staining the forecourt beneath it.

So why was sand first introduced? Firstly, to stop the spill from spreading, which over 80 years ago, without all the spill reduction and environmental protection technology we have today would have been far less “controllable” in terms of the volume released and keeping it contained. Secondly, to reduce the risk of fire, (although I have to say I have seen sand soaked with fuel burn). With the modern design of cars and ATEX rating of electrical systems the risk of a minor spill related fire has been significantly reduced on today’s forecourts.

Are there alternatives to sand and absorbents? We think there are in terms of not just what we use but how we use it

Imagine this, a small spill is reported by a customer or noted by the petrol filling station staff as they are walking around the forecourt.

Instead of throwing sand on it the spill is washed away into the aco channel using water and a stiff brush. This is the faster way to get the spill into the infrastructure designed to hold it safely.

Now, what if you had a product that was water based, contained a natural surfactant to lift the fuel from the forecourt and contained harmless naturally occurring bacteria that fed on hydrocarbons.

A minor spill event could look something like this :

1 The fuel spill can be brushed into the fuel capture drainage system within minutes.

2 The forecourt does not stain.

3 The risk of staff or customers slipping has been reduced.

4 The spilled hydrocarbon begins to bioremediate within the fuel separator meaning it does not need to be emptied so often.

5 Ethanol contained in the spilled fuel is also bioremediated, reducing the risk of it passing through the separator

6 Drains are kept clean and running more freely.

7 No dirty fuel-soaked sand is walked across the forecourt, into the shop and your customers cars.

8 No secondary contaminated waste process created.

9 The carbon footprint associated with the spill event is reduced.

We believe there is a better way for every forecourt to manage minor spills for the sake of safety and the environment. So, we welcome all people to join this debate, email us their thoughts and even participate in trials. For more information please email

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