Using Field Experience to Navigate the AST Inspection Data Lake (Part 1)

By John Evans, Vice President of Strategy at Virtual Tank Solutions. February 5, 2024


Aboveground storage tanks (ASTs) play a pivotal role in many industries, from oil and gas to petrochemicals and manufacturing. Ensuring the safety, reliability, and compliance of these tanks is paramount, given the potential risks associated with the often hazardous materials contained therein and the logistical quagmire created when they fail. In the ever-evolving landscape of industrial digitization, the ability to collect, store, and access data can be very powerful. However, this capability has brought new challenges to ensure the quality, accessibility, and visibility of the most meaningful data within vast data lakes to derive relevant, actionable insight.

This article presents a methodology to resolve this challenge by proactively involving subject matter experts (SMEs), who, through years of practical field experience, can leverage the volume of information to that which is sufficiently pertinent to enable accurate interpretation, derive actionable insight, and support eventual decision-making processes in near real-time.

Meaningful Data Collection

Traditionally, AST inspections have been driven by generalized requirements by Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) facility plans, based upon applicable standards, such as API Standard 653, thus arguably unnecessarily broad and time-consuming. Alternatively, an explicit and focused scope of work would maximize the efficacy and efficiency of an inspection, not only reducing “time at the tank” and the amount of data collected and thereby cost but, importantly, reducing the exposure of personnel to potentially hazardous situations.

Subject matter expertise should be leveraged to establish and combine best working practices with practical field experience to determine the most pertinent data to collect during inspections and ensure its accuracy and consistency. Specifically, a representative subset of aboveground storage tank (AST) components should be defined by the SME for inspection rather than arbitrarily “all” components, for example, two out of “all” nozzles or just the lower shell course rather than “all” shell courses. This focused data set gathered can now serve as the foundation upon which actionable insight can be derived as its representation of the whole is less overwhelming, thus consequently more meaningful, and thereby actionable.

Structured Data for Easy Interpretation

Reducing the vast amounts of inspection data to only that which is meaningful and required is just the first step, as it must also be structured and presented in a straightforward, comprehensible manner to enable operators and engineers alike to effectively query, access, and interpret readily.

Conventional dashboard solutions are often hierarchically shallow in that the layer below the summary is the data itself. While SMEs, through years of practical field experience, can quickly assess this data to determine what is of importance, others will be more dependent upon complex data analysis tools. Therefore, to expedite interpretation and oversight, it is this knowledge-based approach that must be replicated in the form of a more layered or tiered dashboard that succinctly, intuitively, and logically steps the user through the asset condition without the immediate need to analyze the underlying data, for example:

  • Layer #1 – regulatory compliance summary (e.g., SPCC, External, Internal, UT inspection dates)
  • Layer #2 – condition summary (e.g., focused NDT, tolerance/allowance, critical due dates, etc.)
  • Layer #3 – safeguard summary (e.g., PSV settings, containment specifics, CP, etc.)

The subsequent ease and speed of interpretation aids the decision-making processes, thus ensuring that potential issues can be promptly identified and addressed, helping all stakeholders involved with the inspection, maintenance, and operation of ASTs to plan and execute their work safely and effectively.

Relevance in Decision-Making

It is insufficient to collate and structure meaningful data to aid its timely translation into actionable insight. Having SMEs with years of practical field experience is hugely beneficial to review and validate the available information to derive the condition of the ASTs based on the collated and structured pertinent inspection data. However, the SMEs can get greater value if they are available as the inspection is being performed since even the best-laid plans change as soon as they are practically executed. The industry is very familiar with the benefits of real-time operating centers (RTOC). The principle of such must be adopted to ensure the SMEs are virtually available at the tank on-demand, thus bringing relevance to decision-making when it can be most useful. This capability, to be virtually at the tank, is made a reality through the effective use of communication technologies on even the most basic mobile devices. Thus, it is the easiest philosophy to implement while often the most overlooked to bring immediate relevance to inspection findings.


In conclusion, a paradigm shift in aboveground storage tank management must accommodate increasing budgetary and time constraints and regulatory demands. While the mechanics of digital transformation are still being defined, the aforementioned approach helps address the immediate challenges by efficiently leveraging the remaining SME knowledge that is being steadily lost to the industry through retirement and attrition. While this approach may be considered by some to be retrospective in this digital age, leveraging field-proven subject matter expertise to support data-driven decision-making based on pertinent and meaningful data distillation in near real-time has obvious benefits. Furthermore, the immediate and virtual accessibility to this invaluable expertise while operations are ongoing at the tank also facilitates the sharing and application of such knowledge with the next generation of subject matter experts, thus bridging the knowledge gap.


  • EPA, 2013, SPCC Guidance for Regional Inspectors, United States Environmental Protection Agency.
  • API Standard 653, 2014, Tank Inspection, Repair, Alteration and Reconstruction, Fifth Edition, American Petroleum Institute.
  • TankFax – Virtual Tank Solutions

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