Fuel Testing and Analysis

May 15, 2020

The quality of your fuel helps determine the reliability of your vehicles, generators and other equipment, so to be ready for a critical event, you need to ensure that your fuel stays in good condition. Fuel testing and analysis can help you accomplish this. When you have your fuel tested regularly, you can feel confident that your equipment will be ready to go when you need it most.

What Types of Fuel Should Be Tested Regularly?

What types of fuel should you have tested regularly? A few examples of fuels that require regular testing include:

  • Diesel: Diesel fuel, a petroleum distillate fuel used in compression ignition engines, powers vehicles, generators and more. In 2018, diesel/distillate made up approximately 20% of total petroleum consumption in the United States. To ensure quality, diesel fuel needs to be tested regularly.
  • Biodiesel: Biodiesel is a renewable fuel made from substances such as vegetable oil, animal fat and recycled restaurant grease. It can be used as a substitute for diesel fuel and has properties similar to those of diesel. Like with regular diesel, testing biodiesel regularly is important for ensuring it maintains its quality.
  • Gasoline and ethanol: Gasoline is made from crude oil and other petroleum liquids and is used mostly to fuel motor vehicles. More than 98% of gasoline in the United States contains ethanol, a fuel made from plant materials. Ethanol is added to gasoline to reduce air pollution. Gasoline, both with and without ethanol, requires regular testing to check for contamination and other issues.
  • Jet A fuel: Jet A is a kerosene-type jet fuel used mostly in the United States. It can be used in turbine engines and other compression-ignition piston engines. Regularly testing Jet A fuel is essential for ensuring it maintains its quality.
  • Kerosene: Kerosene is a light petroleum distillate that’s typically used in stoves, space heaters and water heaters and can also be used in wick-fed lamps. Testing kerosene regularly can help ensure it performs as expected when used.

Benefits of Getting Fuel Tested Regularly

Why test your fuel regularly? Some of the benefits that regular fuel testing provides include:

  • Improved fuel quality: Over time, fuel degrades. Contaminants may get introduced, and fuel has a finite shelf life. Regularly testing your fuel ensures that it is up to your quality standards at all times so it’s always ready when you need to use it.
  • Enhanced reliability: When you maintain the quality of your fuel through testing, you can feel confident that it will perform as expected. Since your fuel likely powers vehicles, generators, machinery and other equipment vital to your operations, maintaining fuel quality increase the overall reliability of your operations. Using degraded fuel can damage equipment, which may then require downtime to repair. Ensuring fuel quality through regular testing can help prevent this potentially costly downtime.
  • Failure prevention: While fuel testing comes with costs, it can help prevent problems down the road that may result in much more significant losses and expenses. Investing in maintaining the quality of your fuel can prevent large-scale failures in the future that can lead to downtime, substantial repair or replacement costs and safety issues.
  • Prolonged life: Using high-quality fuel helps keep your equipment working optimally and avoids premature wear and other issues that lower-quality fuel can cause. Over time, using only quality fuel in your equipment can increase its useful life, helping you to get the most out of your equipment investments. Having to replace equipment less often can reduce your costs considerably.
  • Help with identifying maintenance needs: Even if you’re fairly certain your fuel has gone bad, it can still be beneficial to test it. Testing your fuel can tell you why your fuel degraded, which may enable you to prevent the problem from occurring again in the future. For example, the test may reveal excess water in your fuel, which suggests there may be a leak in your tank.
  • Compliance with standards and regulations: Regularly testing your fuel may also help you maintain compliance with federal and state requirements, voluntary standards, accreditation programs and insurance requirements. Healthcare facilities, for example, may be required to have a generator on-site and test it regularly. These requirements are in place to ensure that healthcare facilities and other critical operations can provide their services during emergencies. Even if an organization is not required to test fuel, testing can still help ensure that it can operate as expected during a critical situation.

What Is Fuel Degradation?

The primary reason to test your fuel regularly is to ensure that it maintains a sufficient level of quality. Recently refined fuel meets quality standards, but as it’s transported or stored, it may start to degrade or become contaminated. This degradation can lead to decreased performance and damage to equipment.

Why Does Fuel Degrade?

Fuels such as diesel and gasoline are inherently unstable and naturally degrade over time. The degradation process begins as soon as the fuel is done being refined and continues until it is used. In addition to the natural oxidative degradation process, contaminants also compromise fuel cleanliness and degrade its quality. Environments with higher temperatures and more moisture and contaminants lead to faster degradation.

Water is one of the main causes of fuel degradation. Fuels such as gas and diesel contain water in solution, but past the saturation point, the water separates and can cause problems. Water can be introduced into the fuel through condensation, humidity and leaks. Increased water content can lead to increased oxidation and corrosion, which can lead to particles in the fuel that cause further damage. It may also result in the growth of mold, bacteria and fungus, which can produce acids and slimes and cause further corrosion.

Asphalts or asphaltenes are other elements in solution in fuels. As the heaviest such elements, they may eventually fall out of solution and form a tar-like substance at the bottom of a storage tank. The waxes in certain fuels may also crystallize, increasing the amount of particulate matter in the fuel.

Contaminants, such as dirt, sand, metal particles, dust and rust, can also be introduced into the fuel during transportation or storage. These particles may cause damage to fuel systems if the fuel is used.

Signs of Fuel Degradation

How can you tell if your fuel has degraded? While fuel testing is the most reliable method, you can look for observable signs that your fuel may be degrading, including:

  • Darkened color and haziness: If you notice a change in the appearance of your fuel, it may be degrading. Degraded fuel often darkens in color and may look hazy. The darkened color is due to the heavier components in the fuel falling out of solution or contaminants floating in the fuel.
  • Buildup in the storage tank: Fuel degradation may also result in a buildup of contaminants in the storage tank. You may notice slimy-looking coatings on the bottom or sides of the tank. You might also notice other contaminants collecting in certain areas or floating in the fuel.
  • Foul odor: A change in the way fuel smells may also indicate degradation. Degraded fuel may smell sour, like varnish or like sulfur. If your fuel doesn’t smell like it should, you may need to get it tested.
  • Performance problems: If you use degraded fuel for your vehicles or equipment, you may notice decreased engine performance. Other signs include clogged fuel filters, corroded fuel injectors and smoky exhaust. If you see any of these signs, stop using the fuel, if possible, until you can get new fuel or fix the issue.

What Does Fuel Testing and Analysis Involve?

When you have your fuel tested, a testing professional will take samples of your fuel. In some cases, you might take samples yourself and send them to a lab. The testing professionals will then run various tests on the samples according to testing requirements, their recommendations and your preferences and analyze the results. At the end of the process, you’ll have information about the quality of your fuel and, if applicable, proof that you’re complying with relevant standards and regulations.

The specifics of how testing is conducted is often determined by the requirements of standards such as those from ASTM International, an internationally recognized standards organization. Because of this, the exact procedures used in testing may vary.

To get accurate testing results, you need a representative sample of the fuel in your tank. Typically, testing professionals will take samples from the top, middle and bottom of a tank. This is because contaminants may be concentrated in different areas depending on the situation. In many cases, they may settle at the bottom of the tank, or they may be floating throughout the tank. Taking samples from different areas also provides a good reference for what the fuel quality is like in areas both with and without concentrations of contaminants. If contaminants are concentrated at the bottom of the tank, the sample from the top portion may represent the results that may be possible with fuel polishing.

The lab will then analyze the chemical composition of the samples to provide information about various characteristics. Numerous fuel tests about a huge range of properties are possible. Some common tests include tests for:

  • Volatility: Volatility, or distillation, tests determine how much of a fuel is volatilized at various temperatures. This shows you whether a fuel will combust properly under the typical conditions in an engine.
  • Fuel stability: These tests measure the stability of fuel in storage by simulating the processes that occur during storage.
  • Microbial contamination level: These tests measure the level of microbial contamination in fuel.
  • Cetane number: A cetane number test measures the ignition characteristics of diesel fuel.
  • Lubricity: A fuel’s lubricity is its ability to minimize the degree of friction between surfaces in relative motion under load conditions. Insufficient lubricity is linked to increased wear of engine components.
  • Pour point: A pour point test determines the temperature at which fuel becomes crystallized and resistant to flow.
  • Aromatics content: These tests measure the number of aromatics in fuel. Aromatics are a group of hydrocarbons, including benzene, that have a ring-like molecular structure and a sweet odor. They increase a fuel’s octane rating, but aromatics content is regulated for health and environmental reasons.
  • Color: Color tests provide a rating of a fuel’s color, which can help in evaluating quality.
  • Heating value: These tests measure how much heat a fuel releases during combustion.
  • Sediment contamination level: This test measures the amount of sediment in a fuel.
  • Corrosiveness: Corrosiveness tests simulate the corrosion process to assess a fuel’s tendency to corrode various metals.
  • Neutralization number: These tests determine a fuel’s neutralization number, which indicates its acidity or alkalinity.
  • Water content: These tests measure the amount of water in a fuel.
  • Density: These tests measure density, which is the ratio of a fuel’s mass to its volume. Higher density fuels offer increased heating value.
  • Carbon residue: Carbon residue tests measure how much residue a fuel will leave behind at high temperatures. Too much residue can lead to engine problems.
  • Ash content: These tests measure the amount of ash residue left behind after burning a fuel. High levels of ash content can lead to engine performance problems.
  • Flash point: These tests measure the lowest temperature at which a fuel ignites when exposed to a flame or ignition source. Flash point is related to volatility and proper combustion.
  • Fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) content: This test measures the amount of fatty acid methyl esters in a fuel. FAMEs are fatty acid esters that are usually obtained from plant oils.
  • Cloud Point: Cloud point tests determine the temperature at which the wax in a fuel begins to come out of suspension, creating a cloudy appearance. These wax crystals can block fuel filters and shut down engines.
  • Viscosity: Viscosity tests measure a fuel’s resistance to flow, which affects how it moves through an engine.
  • Sulfur content: Measuring sulfur content is necessary for ensuring compliance with regulations. Excessive sulfur content can also poison the catalysts in emission control systems.

What Are Some Fuel Testing Specifications?

The way that fuel tests are conducted is governed largely by testing specifications from various standards organizations, including:

  • ASTM International: ASTM International is the organization whose standards are perhaps used most often for fuel testing. ASTM’s committee on petroleum products, liquid fuels and lubricants, referred to as D02, is the largest technical committee at ASTM and one of the oldest. It has almost 2,500 members and was founded in 1904. D02 has produced more than 800 test methods covering a range of topics.
  • International Organization for Standardization (ISO): ISO is the largest developer of voluntary international standards in the world and is made up of standards bodies from 164 countries. It produces numerous standards related to testing fuels.
  • The Energy Institute (EI): EI is a standards organization based in London that produces standards for the global energy industry. It has published many international fuel testing method standards known as IP Test Methods after the Institute of Petroleum (IP), which merged with the Institute of Energy in 2003 to form EI.
  • European Standardization Organizations (ESOs): European Standards (EN) are another commonly seen type of fuel testing standard. One of three European Standardization Organizations (ESOs) has adopted these standards  — the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).
  • The Japanese Standards Association (JSA): JSA’s fuel testing standards published are also well known. These standards are known as Japanese Industrial Standards (JIS).

Various other national standards organizations also publish fuel testing specifications.

For many of the characteristics you may want to test, you’ll find that several organizations publish relevant standards. The one the testing company follows depends on where you are in the world, requirements from government or industry organizations, the type of fuel you’re testing and other specifics of what you need to test. Here are a few examples of fuel tests and the various standards that apply.

  • Cetane number: ASTM D613, ASTM D7170, ASTM D6890, ISO 5165, JIS K2280
  • Cloud point: ASTM D2500, ASTM D5771, ASTM D5772, ASTM D5773, ISO 3015, JIS K2269
  • Distillation: ASTM D86,  ASTM D2887, ISO 3405, JIS K 2258
  • Flash point: ASTM D56, ASTM D93, ASTM D3828, IP 170, IP 523, EN 22719
  • Sediment content: ASTM D5452, ASTM D7321, EN 12662
  • Viscosity: ASTM D445, ASTM D446, ISO 3104, IP 71, JIS K2283
  • Water content: ASTM D6304, ISO 12937, JIS K 2275

Backup Generator Fuel Testing

Many businesses and organizations across a wide range of industries rely on generators for emergency, as well as routine, power. These generators can help businesses avoid costly downtime and ensure that critical facilities can continue to provide their services even in emergencies.

Healthcare facilities, for example, need generators to run life-saving equipment in the event of a power outage. Backup generators can help prevent data loss at data centers. For manufacturing facilities, generators can prevent downtime, which often costs more than $100,000 an hour.

It’s important for facilities that have backup generators to test their fuel regularly. Doing so will ensure that their generators perform as expected when they’re needed. If the fuel is not in good condition, the generator will not perform as well as it should and may not work at all, which can have serious consequences.

Regular testing gives organizations the information they need to know when to replace fuel. It may also provide warning signs that repairs to the fuel storage tank or generator are needed, which further helps to ensure the generator works when it is needed.

If you’re storing fuel long-term, such as for use in a backup generator, we recommend testing it quarterly to ensure your generator will function properly if an incident occurs.

How to Improve Fuel Quality

So, what can you do if you test your fuel and find out its quality is not sufficient? There are several strategies you can use to improve your fuel quality:

  • Use fuel polishing: Fuel polishing is a process that can restore degraded fuel to ASTM-standard quality, improving its appearance and performance. It involves using specialized equipment, carefully chosen fuel additives and correctly sized filters.
  • Replace the fuel: In some cases, you may need to replace the fuel, such as if the fuel is especially old or contamination is especially severe.

These preventative measures can help to prevent fuel degradation from occurring in the first place:

  • Introduce the right additives: The right additives can help to prevent fuel degradation. The ideal additives depend on the type of fuel, how you’re storing it, how long you’re storing it for and other factors. Fuel testing can tell you which additives are right for your fuel.
  • Regularly clean and maintain your tank: Regular tank cleaning and maintenance can help prevent contaminants from infecting your fuel. Schedule regular cleaning and maintenance for the best results. If fuel testing revealed a problem such as a leak in a tank, be sure to repair it as soon as possible.
  • Change how you store your fuel: Ensure you’re storing your fuel in the correct type of container and are following fuel storage best practices to avoid early fuel degradation. For example, you should leave about 10-15% of the space on top when you top off a diesel fuel storage tank, as this reduces condensation and helps the fuel react safely with changes in temperature.

Fuel Testing and Analysis From Foster Fuels’ Mission Critical Division

You depend on your fuel to get the job done when it’s most important, so when it comes to taking care of your fuel, you need a partner you can trust. Foster Fuels was founded in 1921, and our Mission Critical division provides award-winning emergency and risk management services.

Foster Fuels’ Mission Critical division can partner with you to provide fuel testing and analysis services tailored to your needs. As a full-service company, we can also provide fuel delivery, fuel polishing, additives, tank maintenance, training, consulting and more. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you keep your fuel in optimal condition so your equipment is ready when you are.

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