Frequently Asked Questions

These are some of the most common questions that we recieve. If after looking through this FAQ you are unable to find the answers you seek, please contact us directly, and we will be happy to assist you.

How do I know that I need PetroClean?

Eventually, everyone needs PetroClean, as all fuel tanks accumulate debris and water over time, and must be removed. If your tank has never been cleaned, and is 10 or more years old, it is time. With the introduction of biodiesel and ultra low sulfur diesel (ULSD) it is recommended that tanks be cleaned as a preventative against problems. Maintenance service is then recommended every 5 to 10 years, depending on use and other factors. One of the "red alert" signs your tanks need to be serviced is when your filters begin to get clogged quickly.

How do my tanks get dirty?

All tanks, without exception, accumulate debris and water that will clog fuel filters, and eventually slow and stop fuel delivery to the motor. At home, this can leave you without heat or your back-up generator when you need it most. On the water, a boat without power can be a more potentially dangerous situation.

Fuel often travels a long way from the refinery to your tank. Stringent rules are kept at the refinery, though small amounts of contaminants and water are allowed to remain. After the fuel leaves the refinery, less stringent rules apply, and pipelines, trucks, barges and holding tanks all are potential avenues for the intrusion of contaminates. This is to say, fueling up always carries the chance of delivering water or debris into your tank. It is merely the way things are.

There are other avenues for water and debris. Once fuel has been refined it immediately begins to breakdown. Petroleum residue, salts and gums (collectively called asphaltine) are usually present at all stages of the fuel's life, from leaving the refinery through leaving the pump nozzle. When fuel sits, micro-fine particles of this inorganic matter can begin to draw together and settle out as a dark, tar-like matter onto your tank's walls and bottom. This tar can clog filters, or cause extreme wear to piston rings, injectors and pumps, due to the fact that all filters are not 100% effective, and sometimes debris gets by.

On boats, condensation draws small amounts of water into your tanks through the vents, or deck fills may leak. In home heating oil tanks, water gets in over time via condensation and plumbing degradation. Bacteria, fungi and yeast microbes (often misnamed as algae) grow, live and die in the fuel/water interface, where they feed on the hydrocarbons in the fuel. Colonies flourish, and die off. Season after season, the carcasses sink to the bottom of the tank, and create more build-up of matter. This creates a perfect environment for tank decay and pitting, in addition to filter problems.

In most instances, these conditions are not created overnight, but over time, unless one has the misfortune of purchasing heavily contaminated fuel. The biggest problems occur when the contamination accumulates to the level of the fuel draw, or when the tank is agitated (such as in high seas) and the contamination is put into suspension. Either way, filters can swiftly fail, and fuel delivery stop. Another lurking danger is decay of the tanks, which can lead to leaks. Not a good situation when on land, and far, far worse on the water.

Why do microbes/algae grow in my tank, and what are they doing to it?

Microbial contamination occurs in filters and tanks as a slimy/grainy sludge. It is important to note that the sludge forms from bacteria, fungi and yeast growth. It is not algae, though it is often misnamed as such. Algae are plants, and require sunlight in order to thrive, and there is little to no sunlight within a diesel fuel tank.

Microbes cannot live in pure fuel. They live in the water/fuel interface, and live off of the hydrocarbons within diesel fuel. Warm ambient temperatures accelerate the bio-life cycle, while bio-contaminate growth is almost unheard of in winter, at least in the Northwest (unless the engine room is kept quite warm). Cold temperatures kill the colonies, and throughout normal life cycles microbes die, and their carcasses drop to the bottom of the tank, building up year after year. The large mat that forms on the bottom of the fuel tank can be very damaging. It can trap hydrogen sulfide (created by the microbes' discharge combined with fuel), sulfuric acid (created when fuel's sulfur and excess water in the tanks combine), and water against the bottom of your tank. This almost always leads to severe pitting and/or corrosion in aluminum and iron tanks, and eventually, leaking due to failure of the tank.

How will PetroClean clean my tanks?

Assuming we have clear access to the side or top of your tank (i.e. It is not underground, or built completely into your boat), we use your manufacturer-installed access plates, or install our own Anchor Access Plates, to gain access to the inside of your tank. After we pull out and set aside your reclaimable fuel, the tank will be cleaned. The contaminating debris is vacuumed out, and the tank is scrubbed and rinsed, making sure that microbes, sludge, asphaltines, et al, are removed. The reserved fuel is then polished back into the clean tank.

If we cannot gain direct access into your tank, a 'flushing' method will be used. If two points (such as your fuel fill and sending unit) can be accessed, these will provide locations for fuel pickup and return. The fuel is suctioned through the pickup, run through the polishing system, and returned to the tank. The cycle is run long enough for all of the fuel to have been 'flushed' through the filters. The problem with this method is that instead of the debris simply being vacuumed out, it goes into filters, which must be changed out until the fuel is clean, costing more (and creating more waste). It can also be difficult to impossible to stir up all of the contamination, some of which can be adhered to the tank surfaces and would require a manual method of removal. We will do our best to clean your tank, but please understand that we cannot always guarantee this work.

What is fuel polishing?

Fuel polishing boils down to another term for filtration, but polishing takes mere filtration to the next level. PetroClean uses a Clarus industrial fuel polishing system to polish/filter your fuel oil or hydraulic fluid. This patented system removes water and solid particulates down to 0.5 micron in size.

The variable speed pump draws contaminated fuel through several thicknesses of one micron bag filters, and then pumps the fuel through a one micron pre-filter. After the pre-filter, the fuel is pumped through a water coalescing and separating two-part filter, removing free water, followed by two filters that remove entrained, or emulsified, water. The fuel then passes through the final filter of 0.5 micron, before returning the fuel to the tank in nearly new condition.

To give you an idea of micron size, a human hair is approximately 100 microns in diameter, 40 microns is at the lower level of visibility to the naked eye, and most bacteria are about 2 microns in size. The average minimum filter installed on motors is also 2 microns.

What is the difference between tank scrubbing/cleaning, flushing, and polishing?

It is the difference between PetroClean and many other tank cleaning services. PetroClean strives, whenever possible, to gain access to the interior of your tank, and actually physically scrub, vacuum and rinse every surface of your tank, and then polish the fuel back into your shining clean tanks.

Flushing is only done by PetroClean when there are no other options. Flushing is done by simultaneously drawing fuel out of your tank through the polishing system and returning it, hopefully loosening and removing some contamination in the process. This is sometimes likened to cleaning your house by vacuuming it through the keyhole. This is often all the further some tank cleaners will go.

Polishing, as mentioned above, is merely a fancy term for filtering. All tank cleaners will polish your fuel, but not all will actually do the work to guarantee your tank is scrubbed clean!

What is an access plate/port and what does it do/provide?

An access plate/port provides removable/resealable access to the inside of your tank. An access plate/port can be large enough to fit a human through (a manway), or small enough to just fit a worker's hand and arm through. Generally, a 7"x9" or 8" diameter plate is a good size to start with, as this provides enough room for tools and an arm to get through, while also giving one a good view to inspect the tank's interior.

Whether installed by the manufacturer, PetroClean or the competent DIYer, the access plate should be completely reusable, which allows a lifetime upgrade to the tank, providing ease for future tank work. Most access plate systems are designed with a stud-bolted back frame and a face plate, with a fuel-resistant gasket between each piece and the tank.

NOTE: Machine screwing a face plate to a tank is not a recommended access port system. Nor should caulking sealant generally be used. If there is no alternative, use it sparingly. Excess caulking can squish out and fall into your freshly cleaned tank. Also, an access plate is sometimes installed by the manufacturer in such a fashion that it is partially or fully inaccessible, and must be unearthed or all new access plates installed, instead.

How many access plates/ports do I need?

Most boats have tanks with baffled chambers, and will usually require an access plate/port into each chamber or compartment. This usually equals 2-4 plates per tank. To 'sound' your tank for baffles, use something hard, like a screwdriver handle, to tap along the walls of your tank. When you hit a place that sounds 'dead', rather than hollow, you have found a baffle. Count them all up, and the spaces between equal your number of chambers, and therefore the number of access plates needed.

There are exceptions to this, as sometimes baffles have cutouts that can be reached through to clean more than one chamber per plate. Of course the most important chamber in the tank is near the fuel draw and is generally the lowest portion of the tank where the bulk of the debris and water will accumulate.

For most single-walled, baffle-less tanks, such as home heating oil tanks, a single access plate/port is almost always sufficient. If the dimensions of the tank are large enough, more than one may be needed.

How far will PetroClean travel for a service call?

Bellingham, Washington is our 'home port' for marine service calls, and Whatcom and Skagit Counties are our home territory for marine, residential and industrial service calls. We may charge a reasonable fee for travel outside of Whatcom County, please ask us. In the past, PetroClean has traveled throughout the Puget Sound, and as far south as Portland, Oregon for service calls. If NASA calls, we'll go!

Does PetroClean service boats in British Columbia? How about the San Juan Islands?

We do not service boats in BC, however, Canadian customers can arrange to bring their vessel to the nearest U.S. port in Blaine, or other nearby Washington ports. for service.

We will travel to the San Juan Islands, but the cost of Washington State Ferry travel will be added to your bill. And overly large amounts of contamination are not allowed on the ferries, a special charter will have to be arranged. We encourage you, if your boat is mobile, to bring it over to Bellingham or Anacortes.

How much time does it take for PetroClean to service a boat?

Most jobs can be completed in a day, ranging from 4-10 hours. Very large jobs, such as gas stations, stand alone generators, or large commercial vessels or yachts may take two or three days, or as long as a week. No job is too big or too small.

How much will PetroClean's services cost?

As shown by the questions covered above, there are many factors that go into figuring the cost of tank cleaning and fuel polishing. There are so many variables, it is nearly impossible for PetroClean give you an estimate without first discussing your specific situation with you or actually seeing the tanks.

Particularly on boats, we ask that you prepare the site for us. If we are required, for instance, to move benches and tables in your saloon to access the engine room or tank covers, or to remove sound proofing, etc in the engine room to access the tank, there will usually be a 'by the hour' charge added for our time. We ask you to prepare the site because it is your personal space, and you know better than we will how things need to come apart, and where they can be stored while we work.

Does PetroClean service gasoline tanks?

Yes, as gasoline tanks have similar issues with contamination and degradation as diesel and hydraulic tanks do, though gasoline also degrades much faster than fuel/lube oils, and in some cases can go bad in as little as three months. Unlike diesel and other heavy oils, however, gasoline poses an especially dangerous situation due to its lighter molecular structure and very high flash point. Gasoline tanks are cleaned in a similar manner to other tanks, the only difference being that the tank must be made inert, or made safe, for cleaning. PetroClean's professional personnel are trained and practiced in the cleaning of gasoline tanks and do not recommend the DIY owner to try cleaning a gasoline tank.

Does PetroClean service hydraulic fluid systems?

In a word, yes. Due to the process required to prepare our polishing system for processing hydraulic fluid, we require a minimum of ~300 gallons of fluid, or that the tank is emptied before we clean it.

Does PetroClean service bilges or waste or water tanks?

At the current time, PetroClean is not equipped to clean bilges, waste or water tanks. Occasionally, in the case of large amounts of fuel being accidentally pumped into any of the above, we are able to remove the fuel itself for you, but we are unable to provide service beyond that step. We will recommend another business to assist you in your region.

Keep us in mind for future bilge work, as we are currently looking into developing a bilge cleaning service system.

I've had my tanks serviced by PetroClean. What can I do to keep them healthy longer?

Purchasing high quality, clean fuel and keeping water out of your tanks are the number one goals. If you remove water from the tanks, microbes cannot gain a foothold. Keeping your tanks full by filling up regularly reduces air-space that allows condensation to gather. Stagnant fuel, sitting in less than full tanks, encourages problems. Using your fuel, particularly on a boat, moves things around and allows the filters to do their job, removing water and debris.

Use your boat/heating oil tank! Don't let it sit. If you will be storing the boat/heating oil short-term (seasonally, 3-12 months), be sure the tanks are completely full, and have a fuel stabilizer in them. If you are going to put the boat in long-term storage (any longer than a year), it is best to completely empty and dry the tanks. Be sure to give them an inspection prior to refilling.

Biocides, while effective in some cases, merely treat the symptoms, rather than the root cause. If a biocide is used, it must be added every time a tank is filled. Biocides kill microbes by bursting the cellular wall. The dead cells gather on the bottom of the tank, and the motor must be run to pull the contamination out, or the same problems can occur as if the colonies were alive and well, with a mat of contamination trapping corrosive water and acids on the tank bottom. Repetitive biocide treatments can cause microbes to form resistance to a particular antibiotic. Again, PetroClean believes it is better to remove the environment that these microbes thrive in. Without water there is no environment for the microbes to flourish to begin with.

What additives does PetroClean use or recommend?

We recommend and sell a product named Stanadyne, which boosts the cetane rating and improves the lubricity of the fuel, aids in starting, reduces smoke and separates water and other matter, allowing it all to be removed by your fuel filters. Stanadyne is also a fuel stabilizer, extending your fuel's life over storage time. Stanadyne is one of the only diesel fuel treatments on the market which is made by a company that manufactures fuel pumps and injectors, rather than by a chemical company.

What size and number of filters does PetroClean recommend I use?

Larger capacity is better, as there is more filter material to trap matter, allowing the filter to be more efficient, and last longer between changes. The more filters fuel passes through, the cleaner it gets. As to refinement of filtration, a 10 micron on the primary filter (for instance, the Racors), and a 2 micron on the secondary (usually the on-motor filter) is fairly standard within the industry. All of these things said, it is extremely important to follow your manufacturer's recommendations. These recommendations are based on your fuel pump's strength, and its capacity to move fuel through all of the filtration barriers.

In addition, a dual primary filter, or 'run and reserve' style of filter setup is highly recommended, especially in single motor applications. This 'reserve' filter is inline on a ball valve that can be switched rapidly when the 'running' filter has been clogged. This way, the motor doesn't have to be shut down, the fouled filter be changed or the fuel system bled of air until you have a safe time and place to do so.

What does PetroClean think about biodiesel?

We love it, and have written a Biodiesel FAQ specifically for biodiesel questions.

What is the deal with ULSD (ultra low sulfur diesel)?

As of September 2007, most on-highway diesel fuel sold at retail locations in the United States is ULSD, and it is on its way to the boating world.

Ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel was proposed by EPA as a new standard for the sulfur content in on-road diesel fuel sold in the United States since October 15, 2006. This new regulation applied to all diesel fuel, diesel fuel additives and distillate fuels blended with diesel for on-road use, however, it does not yet apply to railroad locomotives, marine, or off road uses. Off-highway diesel fuel was required to move to 500 ppm sulfur in 2007 and further to ULSD in 2010. Railroad locomotive and marine diesel fuel also moved to 500 ppm sulfur in 2007, and will change to ULSD in 2012. There are exemptions for small refiners that allow for 500 ppm diesel to remain in the system until 2014. After December 1, 2014 all highway, off-highway, locomotive and marine diesel fuel produced and imported will be ULSD. However, these dates have changed in the past, and may change again, as real-life implementation sometimes takes longer than anticipated.

ULSD will drastically reduce toxic gas and particulate emissions, such as sulfur dioxide and soot. The EPA estimates that sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide will be reduced by 2.6 million tons a year, and soot and other particulates will be reduced by 110,000 tons. ULSD will also bring the United States in line with production in Europe, leading to the release of more effective engines, as well as modern, quiet, ultra-efficient diesel vehicles being manufactured for the U.S. Previously it wasn't cost-effective for manufacturers to build two different types of diesel engines.

There are a few possible side effects of using ULSD. The process used to reduce the sulfur also reduces the fuel's lubricating properties. Lubricity is a measure of the fuel's ability to lubricate and protect the various parts of the engine's fuel injection system from wear. In theory, this shouldn't be a problem, because lubricity enhancement additives should restore the fuel to its high-sulfur lubricity level or greater.

ULSD carries an average of 30 ppm entrained (at the molecular level, i.e. naturally occurring) water. High Sulfur Diesel and Low Sulfur Diesel carried 125 and 50 ppm, respectively. Ironically, there can be an adverse effect to having less entrained water. ULSD is less efficient at suspending introduced water and carrying it out into your filters, which can lead to that water settling on the bottom of your tanks.

There is also the possible increase of fuel system leaks, as O-rings swell as they absorb sulfur. When lower levels of sulfur are present in the fuel, the O-rings can shrink as the sulfur leaches out. ULSD can also have a detergent effect on your fuel system, similar to biodiesel, loosening and flushing built up sediment from your engine and fuel filter. It is advised to keep a close eye on your fuel filter during the initial change to ULSD, as you may see a lot more sediment as your system is cleaned.