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Experiences from California suggest that there could be instances of ships suffering engine blackouts when entering emission control areas (ECAs) from the start of 2015.
The new 0.10% sulphur limit means most ships will need to switch from heavy fuel oil (HFO) to distillate fuel when entering an ECA as of January 1, 2015.
"The New Year hangover could be bad," Lloyd's Register - FOBAS Product Manager, Timothy Wilson, told Bunkerworld.
He warned that if the problems reported for ships undertaking fuel switching from HFO to distillates in California are repeated in Europe, the probability would suggest that several ships could stall, or suffer poor manoeuvrability due to reduced power, in the busy English Channel.
In California, there was a surge in the number of ships reporting loss of propulsion (LOP) from July 2009, when the Air Resources Board regulation requiring ships to switch to distillate fuels within 24 nautical miles of the California coastline took effect.
According to US Coast Guard (USCG) statistics, reported LOP incidents in Californian waters jumped from 26 in 2008 to 67 in 2009. Between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2011, the USCG found that 0.33% of all ships arriving at San Francisco suffered LOP related to fuel switching, and 0.39% of ships arriving at Los Angeles/Long Beach.
Around 17,000 ships will undertake fuel switching every year when entering the ECA areas in Northern Europe, and unless operators are prepared for the technical challenges, there could be a surge in LOP incidents in the early stages.
Most chief engineers know what the challenges are, but Wilson said that without carrying out pre-trials in safe waters and gaining actual experience, they might still run into problems the first time their ship undertakes the switch from HFO to distillates.
The switchover poses a number of challenges, with risk primarily related to thermal shock, fuel leakages and filter blocking. Thermal shock can lead to fuel pump seizures if the transition from high viscosity HFO to unheated distillates oils is too quick. High leakage of fuel can occur at the fuel pumps and hardened seals when a low viscosity distillate is introduced to the main engine fuel system where the fuel pumps are worn. This can lead to reduced power and the inability to restart the engines. Fuel incompatibility, or the solvent effect of the distillates on HFO-caked fuel lines, can cause filter blocking that can lead to fuel starvation
All these problems can be easily prevented with pre-planning, awareness training and practice, and investing in replacement of worn fuel system components, according to Wilson.
"Test the manoeuvrability of the engines somewhere safe first, get the experience. Think ahead of the weather," Wilson advised.
He also said operators should get the practice in well ahead of the New Year, as "there will be no grace period" in complying with the new ECA sulphur limit. All indications from the European Commission are that it would demand full compliance from the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.
"When will you start bunkering 0.10% sulphur fuel? Certainly not on New Year’s Eve! You also need to plan to flush through the high sulphur fuel remaining on board in tanks and lines, remembering the margin for high sulphur contamination causing you to exceed the 0,10% limit is very small, if any – so plan and prepare."
New Year is "the worst time of year" to require the changeover, Wilson observed, as "all the shops are shut" for the New Year celebrations until January 2.
Wilson said coast guards near major shipping lanes, such as the English Channel, might be mindful to "have tugs on standby" because if the worst happens and a ship does suffer engine problems related to the fuel switchover, there is little room for manoeuvre in the channel.
Ship owners, managers and operators need to make sure the people who need to know - captains, engineers and crew - have received full information and training on how to handle fuel switching. Trials to check for problems such as fuel leaks should be done ahead of time to give time to undertake maintenance and adjustments. Wilson added operators should consider investing in the supply of critical spare parts to deal with problems should they occur despite all their preparatory efforts.
"We cannot emphasise the importance of training and preparation for this enough. That would solve the problems and ensure a pleasant passage into the New Year for all, knowing the marine industry has taken another giant step to improving the environment manner worthy of its professional and concerning reputation," Wilson concluded. "If you are still not sure how to handle this, talk to us."