Equipment Type

Technology Today: How to Choose an RFID Fuel System

Managing usage will not only save waste but also improve machine diagnostics.

May 01, 2011

Uncertainty in the Middle East, along with economic and currency pressures, are conspiring to drive the price of fuel higher this construction season. This is a great time to consider implementing an RFID (radio frequency identification) fuel-management system.

There are two advantages of a fuel-management system over pen-and-paper reporting. First, you can lock down fuel to eliminate “shrinkage” (a euphemism for theft). Industry figures estimate shrinkage at between 5 and 10 percent of a fleet’s annual consumption. If you burned a million gallons last year, you may have lost between 50,000 to 100,000 gallons to theft. With diesel hovering at $4 per gallon, there is an incredible opportunity for savings.

Second, fuel-management systems can precisely quantify your fuel burn for individual machines or groups of machines, resulting in more accurate equipment costing and job bidding, allowing for condition-based maintenance scheduled by fuel consumption, and facilitating decision-making when choosing new equipment. These benefits may well surpass the potential savings from eliminating shrinkage, although they are much more difficult to quantify.

There are two main types of RFID fuel-management systems on the market, known as “active RFID” and “passive RFID” systems. Active RFID systems have an electronic module mounted on the machine that takes data from an RFID tag near the fuel nozzle and combines it with machine data such as hour meter, odometer, GPS location information, or fault codes (in the case of vehicles). The module then wirelessly transmits the data back to the fuel station or fuel truck, which records the fuel transaction and reports the additional data from the machine or vehicle’s electronic module. 

Passive systems have an RFID tag mounted on the machine or vehicle around or near the fuel filler neck. All of the remaining hardware and electronic components are part of the fuel station or fuel truck. An RFID reader on the fuel nozzle reads the unique identifier from the passive RFID tag and transmits it to a computer on the fuel station, which checks the identifier against a database to make sure it is an authorized unit. It then enables the fuel pump and records the volume of fuel dispensed. Some of these systems include GPS receivers that provide a record of the machine’s location when it was last fueled.

Each system has benefits and limitations. Active RFID systems cost more per unit to purchase and deploy, due to both the additional electronic components and the need to run and connect wires during installation. In large, heterogeneous off-road equipment fleets, every installation may be a custom install taking an hour or more, with the need to identify a connection point for power, ground and hour-meter signal wires.  Additional cost aside, the installation logistics alone may make active RFID systems impractical for a mixed construction fleet.

Yet for fleets comprised mainly of on-road vehicles, installation can be as simple as plugging the module into the OBD (on-board diagnostic) connector under the dashboard and running a cable to the RFID tag. The connectivity with the vehicle’s computer systems through the OBD connector allows you to collect a wealth of data from the vehicle at every fuel transaction, including odometer readings and fault codes.

Passive RFID systems can install in a matter of minutes, often using epoxy. Simply attach the RFID tag to the machine’s fuel filler neck. The per-unit cost is substantially lower than with active RFID systems, and installation is much easier to manage. The downside to passive RFID systems is that the RFID tag can only identify the machine to the fuel dispenser’s computer. It can’t transmit any additional data, such as odometer readings.

Only you can decide which system is ideal for your fleet. Generally, I recommend passive RFID systems for off-road or mixed on- and off-road fleets, and active RFID systems for on-road fleets. Either way, you can no longer afford not to secure and track your fueling operations.

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